Cash rich companies and greater confidence in the overall economy are two big reasons for the turnaround. But international, cross-border deals have offered another catalyst for the spectacular growth.
Total M&A deal volume was up 62% to $377 billion as of February 14, according to Thomson Reuters data. That's the highest level since 2007, and it's still on the rise.
Indeed, global M&A activity in 2011 is expected to total more than $3 trillion this year, compared to $2.8 trillion in 2010.
"These are all multinational corporations that are looking around the globe to determine where their future growth is coming from," said Martha McGarry, a senior M&A partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. "The pipeline looks very healthy, and the growth in deal volume looks appreciably different than 2010."
Fueling the FireEnsco PLC's (NYSE: ESV) takeover of Pride International Inc. (NYSE: PDE) and PetroChina Co. Ltd.'s (NYSE ADR: PTR) bid for Canada's EnCana Corp. (NYSE: ECA) were just two of the cross-border tie-ups that arose from higher energy prices.
The U.K-based Ensco last week announced it would combine with Houston's Pride to form the world's second-largest offshore drilling company. The deal carried a $7.3 billion price tag and it will make Ensco one of the most geographically diverse drillers with operations and drilling contracts spanning more than 25 different countries around the world.
That deal was shortly followed by another major cross-border deal. PetroChina has offered to pay $5.4 billion for a 50% stake in the Calgary-based EnCana Corp.
China's interest in natural gas projects has increased over the past year.
China's state-owned energy company China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) (NYSE ADR: CEO) announced in October that it would invest $2.16 billion in Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK) to gain expertise in the extraction of shale gas. That deal was the largest oil and gas deal ever struck between China and the United States.
The deal with EnCana - Canada's largest natural gas producer - is the largest foreign gas deal by a Chinese company. And more large deals could certainly follow, as Chinese companies are searching the globe for reserves in a quest to triple gas use in the growing economy in the next decade.
Encana Chief Executive Randy Eresman told analysts that PetroChina and other Chinese energy companies have expressed interest in liquefied natural gas.
"In the longer term, they have expressed a desire to be involved in the North American LNG market, but we have not discussed any details of that at this point," said Eresman. "We... think it makes a tremendous amount of sense for that market to be linked to the Asian market."
Big Boards - Bigger DealsThe energy market isn't the only sector in the throes of mass consolidation.
Two other major deals announced this month included stock exchange operators: London Stock Exchange merged with Canada's TMX Group and Deutsche Boerse AG on Tuesday made public the particulars of its offer for the NYSE Euronext Group (NYSE: NYX).
Deutsche Boerse unveiled the details of a $9.53 billion all-stock deal with NYSE just days after the LSE and TMX announced they'd merge into the world's second-largest exchange operator.
The deals are the latest in a consolidation cycle among exchange operators that has accelerated over the past decade. In 2010, Singapore Exchange Ltd. (PINK: SPXCY) agreed to an $8.3 billion takeover of Australia's ASX Ltd (PINK: ASXF) to create Asia's fourth-largest stock exchange and IntercontinentalExchange Inc. (NYSE: ICE) purchased the Britain-based Climate Exchange PLC (PINK: CXCHY) for $597 million.
Other bourses are likely to follow. In fact, CME Group Inc. (Nasdaq: CME) hasn't ruled out a possible counter offer for NYMEX.
Nasdaq OMX Group is reassessing its strategy following this week's action and it won't "sit on the sidelines" as the latest round of consolidation in the industry heats up, a source told CNBC.
Some analysts speculate that the Nasdaq could be the first U.S. stock exchange to tie-up with an Asian partner. However, any takeover of an Asian exchange would be fraught with complications. Tough regulatory regimes and complex ownership structures are just two hurdles a potential suitor would face.
"Beyond the fact that Asian exchanges are considered ‘national pride,' many are very behind the U.S. and the European exchanges in terms of governance and ownership structures to facilitate any significant cross-shareholding structures or full scale mergers," Lee Seo Young, a partner at Oliver Wyman's Asia Pacific financial services practice, told Reuters.
CBOE Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq: CBOE) may also generate interest. Its stock has jumped nearly 13% in the past week.
The Rumor MillEnergy companies and bourses have made the biggest headlines lately, but there are plenty of places to look for takeover candidates. Some other big deals this year included Duke Energy Corp.'s (NYSE: DUK) $13.7 billion offer for Progress Energy Inc. (NYSE: PGN) and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.'s (NYSE: DD) $6.3 billion deal with Danisco A/S (PINK: DNSOF) of Denmark.
Most recently, Sanofi-Aventis SA (NYSE ADR: SNY) on Wednesday finally agreed to buy Genzyme Corp. (Nasdaq: GENZ) for $20.1 billion.
There's no shortage of companies rumored to be looking for a partner, either.
Patrick McKeever, retail analyst at MKM Partners, told Dow Jones Newswires that discount retailers like Big Lots Inc. (NYSE: BIG), 99 Cents Only Stores (NYSE: NDN) and Fred's Inc. (Nasdaq: FRED) are attracting the interest of many private equity firms. Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital have been named among prospective suitors.
TPG Capital LP and Leonard Green & Partners have already started in on their $3 billion purchase of J. Crew Group Inc. (NYSE: JCG), and Jo-Ann Stores Inc. (NYSE: JAS) agreed to be taken private by Leonard Green for about $1.6 billion less than two months ago.
Leonard Green is also said to be considering a bid for BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. (NYSE: BJ).
Another hot sector is technology - specifically social networking. Twitter Inc. recently took part in low-level talks with Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG), which is also said to be considering a bid for video producer Next New Networks.
Finally, Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) is reportedly helping The St. Joe Co. (NYSE: JOE) explore its strategic options. St. Joe owns residential and commercial real estate in Florida and is looking to turn its business around following 2008's disastrous collapse.
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