For the fourth year in a row, the biopharma M&A market opened with a bang. The $30bn takeout of Actelion (OTCPK:ALIOF) (OTCPK:ALIOY) is likely to rank as one of the biggest deals of 2017, although investors and bankers alike will hope that the sector has more left in the tank.
Few other transactions in the first quarter stand out. However, a small uptick in underlying values and volumes can possibly be detected; while the data do not paint a clear picture of recovery, at least activity has not dimmed any further (see graph and tables below).
This analysis looks only at companies involved in human therapeutics - it excludes medtech or diagnostic companies, for example.
Beyond the Actelion takeover, the $10bn spent on 53 deals in the opening three months of the year represents a small uplift over the previous quarter and is largely in line with the first quarter of 2016.
A look at the last full five years shows that if these levels continue, 2017 will end up marginally more productive for those in the business of deal making - although not by much.
In 2014 and 2015, the first quarter's big deals ended up being bested, although last year opened with what turned out to be its largest - Shire's (NASDAQ:SHPG) (OTCPK:SHPGF) buyout of Baxalta. For those hoping that 2017's M&A record will surpass last year's dismal output, a couple of other $10bn-plus deal will be needed.
April has already yielded the prospect of several sizable transactions, which is a promising sign. This week, it was announced that Stada Arzneimittel (OTCPK:STDAF) had accepted a $5.6bn bid from private equity, and it looks like Akorn (NASDAQ:AKRX) could receive a similar-sized approach from Fresenius (OTCQX:FSNUF) (OTCQX:FSNUY). Still, activity in the German generics and sterile injectables markets is unlikely to get the pulses racing for those hoping to see buyers emerge for high-risk, high-value biotech assets.
Takeda (OTCPK:TKPHF) (OTCPK:TKPYY) and Lilly (NYSE:LLY) have provided some action here, moving on Ariad IARIA) and CoLucid (NASDAQ:CLCD) in January; deals ranked in the top five takeouts of the first quarter. They bring their new owners an increased presence in oncology and a promising late-stage migraine asset respectively.
Sanpower's purchase of what is left of Dendreon (OTCPK:DNDNQ) ranks as the fifth-biggest deal last quarter, just inching ahead of Celgene's (NASDAQ:CELG) acquisition of Delinia. The autoimmune-focused start-up had been established for little more than 12 months and raised only $35m when Celgene came calling; the transaction no doubt warmed the hearts of venture backers desperate to know that buyers remain interested in early-stage assets.
Valuations recovered somewhat across the biopharma sector in the first few months of the year, and in many cases, remain close to historical highs. This continues to prevent many big buyers from bidding for assets that have long been considered targets.
On top of this, healthcare reform remains a live issue in the US, and action on pricing is still an unknown quantity; acquirers must be struggling to get comfortable with long-term forecasts.
None of this will help M&A recover to levels seen in the midst of the biotech boom, even considering that the pressure is on several big players - Gilead (NASDAQ:GILD) and Sanofi (NYSE:SNY) for example - to buy, and that funds are easily accessible for any company with a cash flow.
In any case, the deal frenzy of 2014 and 2015 must surely be considered an anomaly rather than the new normal. However, the valuations of companies tipped as targets suggest that many investors are not ready to accept this.
Presumably, if the deals fail to materialize this year, this valuation gap will be confirmed, and should narrow. Which raises a crucial question - who will blink first?
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