Richard Davies


Merger waves

Explaining the M&A cycle

The Economist

Mergers, competition, micro, cycles, firms

IN 1900 America had around 500 carmakers; by 1908 it had 200. In 1960 Britain had 16 banks; ten years later it had just six. In both cases, this rapid consolidation came about because of a flurry of mergers. From soft drinks to steelworks, plenty of other industries have seen similar patterns. Mergers happen in waves, so the number of firms collapses suddenly rather than dwindling over time. And the next one may soon crest.

The first merger wave in America peaked in 1899. During that wave, which lasted for five years, 700 mining and milling companies disappeared, along with 500 food retailers. The next four waves in America occurred in the 1920s and 1960s and again in the late 1980s and 1990s (see left-hand chart). Other countries have experienced the same phenomenon.

Research suggests that shocks start merger waves. Some firms are quicker than others to respond to the disruption, or suffer less damage. This divergence allows the strong to mop up the weak. As far back as 1937 Ronald Coase, an economist, proposed that technological shifts like the telephone and the telegraph would lead to fewer, larger firms. In the late 1990s, waves of mergers in computer manufacturing and business services, markets which were disrupted by the internet, are cases in point.

To read more about merger waves, visit The Economist.