Lingering trade spats and fears of a global economic slowdown stunted corporate deal-making worldwide during the first quarter.
Large, international deals that drove the acquisitions market for years nearly disappeared, pushing deal values down by 15% from a year ago. Deal-making in Europe plunged to its lowest level in nearly seven years. Deal values in Asia plunged as China faced a damaging trade war with the U.S. and an economic slowdown.
Companies eased off from deal-making amid concerns that the global economy was on shaky ground. Stocks nosedived during the fourth quarter, amid fears of a potential recession. The U.S. remained mired in a trade war with China that only worsened an economic slump in that nation. Economies in Europe also skidded and the eventual impact of Britain's exit from the European Union remains uncertain.
"What we saw was a pullback as the conditions changed," said Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones.
The cloudy picture left companies hesitant to move ahead with new mergers and acquisitions, a hesitancy that carried over to the first quarter in most countries.
The U.S. managed to buck the trend, as central banks took steps to allay fears about a sharp global slowdown. Companies rode a recovery in the U.S. stock market while sitting on lots of extra money from corporate tax cuts. Health care remained the hottest sector for deals. Bristol-Myers Squibb opened the first quarter with a bang, offering $77 billion for Celgene.
Interest rates in the U.S. remained relatively low and the nation's economy experienced stronger growth than the rest of the world.
"You weren't seeing much optimism about combinations in the rest of the world as you were in the U.S.," Warne said.
Companies might now have a better sense of the global economy's direction after pausing during the first quarter, she said. Many of those companies, still sitting on lots of cash, are looking for other ways to boost earnings over time.
The overall slowdown in deals during the first quarter could be a prelude to a spike in deals for the rest of 2019, some experts say. Several large deals have already been announced in the second quarter. Chevron is buying Anadarko Petroleum for $33 billion. Publicis Groupe is buying Epsilon for $4.4 billion.
"Pockets of consolidation in some particularly hot sectors, vigorous private equity activity and a healthy domestic deal flow in the U.S. should give hope to dealmakers for the rest of 2019," said Beranger Guille, global editorial analytics director at MergerMarket.
A survey earlier this year by Deloitte found that an increasing number of executives and leaders expect the number of closed deals to rise in 2019, with strong sentiment that the values of those deals will be greater than in 2018. Last year's tax benefit is still a big factor in driving deals, along with a push by many companies to expand their footprint geographically.