Pharmaceutical and tech companies with huge cash stockpiles have gone on a buying spree this year, providing a long-awaited sign of life in an otherwise moribund market for mergers and acquisitions.

However, blockbuster deals like Roche's $46.8 billion takeover of Genentech or the $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems (JAVA) by Oracle (ORCL) represent a tiny fraction of M&A transactions, and smaller deals are still frozen thanks to the slumping economy and scarce credit for corporate borrowers. A revival may still be a long way off.

In the first three months of this year, there were five big-ticket deals worth a total of $52.1 billion, according to data compiled by Robert W. Baird & Co., an investment bank that specializes in smaller transactions. That's more than double the value of similar transactions during last year's first quarter.

Meanwhile, this year's first quarter saw at least 149 deals valued at less than $1 billion, with the total value coming to $10.1 billion, a decline of nearly 58 percent, according to Baird. (Those figures may be higher because of about 350 takeovers for which no price tag was announced; typically those are pretty small deals.)

It's a sharp reversal from much of last year, when plenty of low-cost mergers were taking place. They were easier to pull off because they required less financing.

Now, successful companies with lots of cash are swooping in, often targeting rivals weakened by the recession. That's helping the big get bigger while smaller companies may face difficulty financing acquisitions of their own.

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