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Infotech M&A themes shift in 2021, but advisers keep busy in January

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Infotech M&A themes shift in 2021, but advisers keep busy in January

A run of public-market transactions will keep the information technology deal table greased in the first month of 2021, with advisers from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. set to cash another check for their consultation in the industry.

Activity did not even stutter into the new year. January saw a whopping 250 transaction announcements in the information technology sector, up 17.9% year over year and more than any month of 2020. More broadly, January tech and telecom deal values matched the average monthly deal value across the fourth quarter of 2020, according to 451 Research, an offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

However, January's top deals did deviate from trends that came to dominate 2020, both in strategy and in the financials. Deal advisers in the opening month of 2021 put their pens to a couple of high-dollar combinations in the electronic equipment space, a sector absent from the list of 2020's top information technology transactions. Further, where many of 2020's megadeals leaned heavily on a boom in equity markets to finance historically expensive acquisitions, the top January deals targeted publicly traded companies that have underperformed their infotech peers and the broad markets.

For instance, Teledyne Technologies Inc. spent $8.33 billion for maker of sensor-based imaging systems FLIR Systems Inc. in the largest transaction of the month. Teledyne's bid came after FLIR saw its share value deteriorate in 2020 and make a marginal recovery in the first weeks of 2021. For the year ended Feb. 4, FLIR shares were up only 0.2%, including a spike on the deal announcement. The buyer's position was only slightly better, with its shares up just 1.7% on the same one-year chart.

This contrasts sharply with one of the larger deals of 2020: salesforce.com inc.'s $29.35 acquisition of Slack Technologies Inc. Salesforce shares were up 28.5% for the year ended Feb. 4 and Slack's were up 85.1%, with a generous boost from the transaction valuation.

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While not the largest transaction of 2020, Salesforce's bid for the enterprise-communications platform was regarded among tech M&A professionals as the most significant transaction of the year, according to a survey conducted by 451 Research. The deal reflects two of the major trends of 2020, analyst Brenon Daly said in a research note.

One, Salesforce leaned heavily on its stock to pay for Slack. Investors piled into information technology names as the pandemic wore on and it became clear that the sector was one of the few benefiting. That influx of equity capital provided Salesforce, and other tech consolidators, ammunition for acquisition, even at historically high valuations. In Slack's case, the target was valued 4x higher on its sales than the buyer, according to 451 Research.

Two, a pandemic-era shift to remote working created unprecedented demand, and unprecedented price tags, for virtual collaboration tools like Slack. Other sectors across the technology, media and telecom industry also saw a demand-driven tailwind, as pandemic-era disruptions in consumer and workplace culture created unforeseen pockets of sector growth. Many executives and analysts believe some of those shifts could be permanent, as they only accelerated existing trends, and deal flow should continue into 2021. For example, 451 Research's survey reported just one in 20 senior investment bankers believe COVID-19 will significantly disrupt 2021 deal-making.

These bullish sentiments were backed up by the information technology deal volumes seen in January, and advisory units at some of the country's largest financial firms continued to benefit. Most notably, Goldman Sachs sent a team to FLIR to advise on its sale to Teledyne, despite Goldman Sachs keeping busy on the Salesforce-Slack combination. Meanwhile, advisers from Evercore Inc. will consult the buyer, Teledyne, on the transaction.

Adviser fees were not disclosed for either FLIR or Teledyne. However, there has been some recent deal activity in the electronic equipment and instruments sector for comparison. In a recent public-market deal, Evercore advisers are charging MTS Systems Corp. $14.3 million for advisory services and $4.0 million for a fairness opinion on its $1.77 billion sale to Amphenol Corp. That transaction similarly focuses on optics and imaging solutions.

Deal advisers were discussing imaging and optics elsewhere to hash out the third-largest deal of the month, fiber optics vendor Lumentum Holdings Inc.'s $6.17 billion acquisition of specialized laser manufacturer Coherent Inc. While Lumentum gained market capital in 2020, Coherent ended the year in the red, and both companies underperformed their industry compared to the S&P U.S. BMI Information Technology Index.

A Bank of America Corp. advisory unit is consulting Coherent in that transaction, alongside an investment banking arm of Shearman & Sterling LLP. Lumentum tapped Deutsche Bank AG for its advisory services.