Brexit & US
The UK and EU may be breaking up, but that could benefit European tech sector with M&A run Getty Images

European technology mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are surprisingly strong despite the loom of Brexit, with deal sizes approaching US levels for the first time ever.

In fact, the uncertainty associated with Brexit might perversely benefit Europe's technology sector as larger private technology companies consider M&A, while they gear up to raise their next required round of funding – if only to reduce risk and uncertainty.

On the M&A front, Softbank has committed $30bn (£22bn, €27bn) to acquire ARM plc, and more $1bn+ M&A deals are mooted for European segment leaders, according to Silicon Valley technology investment firm Magister Advisors.

"Brexit can only create greater uncertainty as time passes. Uncertainty is most likely to dampen the late-stage financing environment even more as we roll into 2017. Perversely, Brexit seems to have had little impact on tech M&A," said Magister, which has just completed its half year report, The State Of European Tech Up To Brexit.

European tech M&A deals averaged $72m in value 1H-2016, not far off the $104m average US level. "It's one of the smallest gaps we have ever recorded; normally US deals on average are close to twice the value of European ones, reflecting the much deeper pool of US tech companies available, and the maturity of the US industry overall," said Magister CEO Victor Basta.

Overall European M&A totalled $39bn in 1H-2016, up nearly 100% from the same period last year, while M&A deals numbered 203, essentially flat in the same period. $100m+ M&A deals now represent two-thirds of all $100m+ exits (the rest are leveraged buyouts, and IPOs [initial public offerings).

Baste believes the strength of European tech M&A is due to several factors. European companies across many tech segments have "come of age" and are now both attractive to international buyers, and have reached a scale where they are worth "real money" (i.e. $50-100m+ deal values).

Several of tech's hottest segments, in particular AI and fintech, are equally well developed in Europe and the US, and deals for European targets are done at international not European prices.

Record-setting prices

International buyers across all sectors of tech are facing a slow-growth, zero interest rate environment, while sitting on an unprecedented $1tn+ aggregate cash pile. They can afford to pay record-setting prices to buy fast-growing earnings and high quality products/technology, irrespective of where the targets are based.

Finally, the cost of developing technology in the US's core Silicon Valley hotbed has become prohibitive, with real estate, salary, and benefit inflation running way ahead of the US average. It makes more sense than ever for tech majors to ramp up their development capabilities in lower-cost areas, including many sites across Europe, which is a driver of interest.

Basta also predicts many larger private tech companies will begin to run a "dual track" processes in the next year or two. This means that while they gear up to raise their next required round of funding, in the face of growing uncertainty, many will also want to consider M&A at the same time, if only to reduce risk and uncertainty.

'Stars selling out'

Inevitably some people will be concerned that more European "stars" will end up "selling out". The reality is that nothing will fuel the European tech ecosystem more than a spate of high value exits in the next one to two years.

"Perversely Brexit (or rather, the uncertainty created by Brexit) could end up benefiting the European tech industry over the next decade," said Basta.

The Magister report also noted that European tech financings have cooled since early 2015, while European tech exits remain strong.

The cooling of European late-stage financings reverses a five-year trend of ever-larger financings that have fuelled the next generation global challengers who are choosing to compete from Europe. Companies as diverse as Delivery Hero, Transferwise, Blablacar, Spotify, and Supercell have emerged as potential European "unicorns" attracting unprecedented interest, and money, from international investors.

This has now fundamentally changed. Series C and later financings have dropped by more than half in value since 1H 2015. Even adjusting for the large Spotify financing in 1H 2015, later stage rounds have still fallen by almost 50% in value these past 18 months, said the report. This is in sharp contrast to Series A and B rounds, which remain strong as local EU investors continue to support start-ups.

Dependent on EU growth

Magister believes big-ticket rounds have dropped for several reasons. US investors have generally cooled on large, later-stage deals everywhere, and this has in turn slowed the flow of capital from US investors to these rounds in Europe.

There are still just not that many European tech companies worth $200m+ (which is generally required to attract $75m+); it takes five-10 years to create a potential future leadership company, slowing quality supply.

Many European tech companies are dependent on EU economic growth since much of their business is, for example, tied to consumer spending in the EU. The EU is now growing at half the rate of the US and shows no sign of accelerating.

But perhaps the single biggest reason is the lack of VC-backed $1B+ exits in Europe. Of the 16 exits since 2013 valued over $1B, only two were VC backed. Nearly all were former PE backed buyouts which were then sold or IPO'd (e.g. Worldpay, Nets etc). The lack of a clear path from Series C/D to $1B+ exits will continue to restrict invested capital, stated Magister.