M&A was robust with in 2018, with deal activity in the U.S. middle market exceeding $400 billion in 2018, the first year to achieve the milestone, according to a report by PitchBook. Dealmakers closed 2,971 transactions in the middle market (defined by deals worth $1 billion and less) with a total deal value of $427.9 billion. The activity represents an increase of about 15 percent in both volume and value from the previous year. "A sustained market appetite for high-yield bonds and leveraged loans led to an easy financing environment in which dealmakers were able to attain attractive pricing for deal financing," writes private equity analyst analyst Wylie Fernyhough. On a cautionary note looking forward, he points out that, "attitudes began to change in the fourth quarter, as the leveraged loan market—which has swollen in size since the financial crisis—saw downward swings in pricing."

Overall M&A thrived as well, with the aggregate value of announced global mergers and acquisitions reaching the highest level since 2015, according to information collected by Bureau van Dijk, a Moody’s Analyticscompany. Deal value increased 10 percent over the previous year, although volume declined 7 percent, according to the company’s report.

The year yielded a bumper crop for private equity buyout deals, found Preqin. The research house reported that 5,106 PE deals were announced in 2018, making it the most active year the industry has ever recorded, as measured by deal volume. The activity built from the previous record of 4,829 deals announced in 2017. The total value of these deals rose to $456 billion – close to the $460 billion seen in 2015 – based on preliminary data.

Sectors that saw a lot of activity included: software and data, retail and consumer, and healthcare. Among the significant strategic buyer transactions to close in 2018 were: Autodesk Inc.'s (Nasdaq: ADSK) purchase of construction software provider PlanGrid; Hershey Co.'s (NYSE: HSY) $1.6 billion acquisition of snacks maker Amplify; and Stryker's $662 million deal for medical device manufacturer Entellus. On the PE side, notable deals included the Jordan Co.'s purchase of Carlisle FoodService Products for $750 million. CFS manufactures supplies, table coverings, cookware, displayware, storage containers, catering and transport equipment, and meal delivery systems for the foodservice, hospitality, healthcare, and janitorial segments. Another PE deal of interest was HGGC's purchase of patent specialist RPX for about $555 million.

Most companies in the U.S. middle market say they are optimistic about M&A in 2019, according to a recent survey. Sixty-eight percent of the 350 U.S. middle market companies surveyed by TD Bank say they plan to engage in M&A activity within the next six to 24 months, and 85 percent said there are no barriers to M&A activity. The survey included companies generating between $50 million and $500 million in annual revenues.

Weighing in on macro-economic issues, 71 percent of respondents said tax reform will have a positive impact on their business, while 46 percent said interest rate hikes will have a negative impact. The challenges to business operations most frequently cited include: domestic competition, interest rate increases, global competition and trade policies.

“Middle market executives are also keenly watching the tight labor market,” says TD Bank’s Chris Giamo.“Although companies now have capital for expansion and want to grow staff, they are having trouble filling both skilled and unskilled positions, due to a persistently low unemployment rate.”

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Looking back at the year that was, here's a list of key middle-market transactions that closed in 2018. To measure activity in the middle market, Mergers & Acquisitions looks at transactions that fulfill several requirements: Deals must have a value of roughly $1 billion or less; they must be completed (not just announced) within the timeframe designated; the coverage is global. Excluded from our charts are: recapitalizations; self-tenders; exchange offers; repurchases; stake purchases; and transactions with undisclosed buyers or sellers. Our data provider is Thomson Reuters, which updates its databases continuously. We use the data available at press time. The data for this chart was collected on January 16, 2019.

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