ernst & young

A fundamental M&A market reset?

July 8, 2013: 9:28 AM ET

79230495-resizedSeeing the M&A forest for the trees.

FORTUNE -- For two years now we've been going through the same M&A bait and switch: High expectations borne of easy debt and giant corporate cash accounts, and meager deal volume caused by risk-averse CEOs and boards.

So perhaps it's time to stop caring so much about the external factors and consider that the symptom is actually the underlying condition. Or, put another way, what if the M&A market isn't really showing "soft" volume quarter after quarter? What if it has, instead, experienced a fundamental reset?

That's the argument being put forth by Ernst & Young, in a new paper published this morning. And it's not unprecedented.

"If you go back over the past 100 years, which really is the modern age of M&A, there have been a number of major, sustained dips," explains Richard Jeanneret, E&Y's vice chair for transaction advisory services. He continues:

"In the early 1900s there was a wave of horizontal merger activity and then a big dip for 15 or 20 years until the early 1920s when vertical mergers became the talk of the day. Then the Great Depression obviously killed M&A and we went 30 to 35 years before we got strong merger activity again in the 1960s when conglomerates became in fashion, and we were at a huge level for nearly 15 years until we got a big dip in the late 1970s due to financial and oil crises. Then it began to heat up again in the mid-1980s with the advent of hostile takeovers and corporate raiders, dipped again in the early 1990s, before we got a fifth wave of M&A sparked by cross-border activity. The recession killed that off until we got that six years of robust activity driven by private equity and shareholder activism before the financial crisis. Now we're on our fifth year of a substantive hiatus, and the longer this goes on it's harder to ignore – primarily because we've had such a huge and unprecedented divergence of M&A activity and stock market prices."

Jeanneret is basically asking who you're going to believe: M&A prognosticators or your lying eyes?

RELATED: M&A volume hits 3-year low

It's important to note that Jeanneret is not ignoring the power of outside influence. In fact, he thinks the reset has been caused, in large part, by C-suite worries the tepid economic recover (at least in the U.S.) has been driven more by Fed intervention than by underlying fundamentals.

But he also sees a broader move away from M&A as a growth strategy, in part evidenced by a recent wave of divestitures.

That's where the fundamental reset really applies, and it means that we may need new benchmarks -- literally and figuratively -- for judging M&A activity over the next several years.

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