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Europe's mergers, acquisitions market heats up

PARIS--Europe's mergers and acquisitions market is rebounding after years in the doldrums, as improving market sentiment is prompting companies to spend piles of cash built up during the financial crisis.

A flurry of new deals have been announced in the past month alone, including Numericable's purchase of Vivendi's SFR mobile phone unit in France, the merger of Swiss cement group Holcim and French rival Lafarge and the tie-up of Sopra and Steria to create a new French technology services giant.

British companies have also been on the move, with mobile phone giant Vodafone launching a 7.2-billion-euro purchase of Spanish cable operator Ono and private equity firm CVC capital taking a controlling stake in Spanish olive oil producer Deoleo.

And German private equity group Triton bought French engineering giant Alstom's boiler and heat transfer equipment unit for 730 million euros.

“Activity has been gathering pace since the start of the year, globally, in Europe and now in France. The first quarter was very strong in terms of announcements,” said Fabien Laurenceau, a strategist equity analysis at Aurel BGC.

Worldwide, the value of deals announced in the first three months of the year jumped 26 percent to US$637 billion compared to 2013, the best start to the year since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Two of the world's biggest investment banks — Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — this week reported better-than-expected first-quarter results, buoyed by a rebound of profits in their M&A advisory arms.

The rise in deals has been driven, in part, by the huge war chest of ready money built up by companies during the global financial crisis which erupted in 2008.

Consultancy Deloitte in January estimated that the world's top 1,000 firms had accumulated about US$2.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets as they waited out the storm in financial markets.

A KPMG survey of over 1,000 dealmakers earlier this year found that almost two-thirds were expecting to launch bids during 2014, mainly because of the size of their reserves.

Of that, 29 percent of respondents believe that western Europe will have the most active mergers and acquisitions market worldwide this year — the same amount as in China.

“The European debt crisis is creating many opportunities,” said KPMG managing director Phil Isom in the report.

Rising equity market valuations have also given bosses of stable companies more opportunities to take on debt and pounce on weaker rivals, according to Laurenceau.

'More fertile ground'

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