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We Know M&A's Back—But Where's It Going?

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M&A activity could be up some 50 percent this year, and analysts point to energy, tech, consumer goods and chemicals as sectors to watch.

A week full of mega-deals — America Airlines and US Airways, Comcast and NBC Universal, Berkshire Hathaway and Heinz, Michael Dell and his namesake company — got everyone's attention. And already, M&A activity has hit the $182 billion mark, compared with $58 billion at this time last year.

"I do think the dam is finally breaking," said Bob Profusek, lead M&A adviser at Jones Day, citing "just fabulous" financing terms, low equity prices, not-terribly-strict transaction regulation, and "more capital available than at any time in my lifetime."

At the same time, Profusek noted that this week's big deals each had unique characteristics that may mitigate their relevance to the broader market: The airline deal was in the works for years; Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway slays an "elephant" like Heinz every 12 to 18 months; and Dell is a founder wresting control of the company he founded. The Comcast-NBCUniversal deal, he said, is a movie we've seen before — one that hasn't ended well (Viacom-CBS and AOL-Time Warner come to mind), so perhaps an unlikely model for others.

Peltz: Proud Played Small Part in Heinz' Success
Peltz: Proud Played Small Part in Heinz' Success

Still, in slow-growth times, companies will look to synergies gained through acquisitions to boost earnings — now that they're feeling less haunted by the fiscal crisis.

"Confidence has come back," Profusek said. "Confidence that things aren't going to get horrible."

(Read more: I Love Buffett's Heinz Deal: Tilson)

Telly Zachariades, partner at The Valence Group, a boutique M&A advisory investment bank, agrees. "Activity we're seeing with smaller companies in the chemicals sector is a clear sign that M&A activity is back and CEO confidence to make deals is on the rise. Manufacturing activity has signaled an economic recovery since the summer, and the buyers in these deals are clearly signaling they believe that's going to continue."

Billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, who is on Heinz's board, told "Squawk Box" Thursday that business executives are coming to terms with the reality of four more years under an Obama administration. "Like it or not ... the die is cast. We've got an administration that we put in office and we know it, and we're going to go forward with it. And I think that's what CEOs have decided."

He also said his Trian Fund Management bought into investment bank Lazard last year "because we thought the M&A market was coming back, and it has. ... I think there are many more deals coming."

But where? Profusek says the hottest sector to watch is energy, which is seeing its biggest boom in a century. "There's a tremendous amount of pipeline being deployed," he said.

Also tech, which is so fast-moving that in improving economic times there are always hungry whales with minnows to feed on.

And the Heinz deal, he said, may signal more action in consumer goods.

Bob Miles, author of The Warren Buffett CEO, told "Squawk on the Street" Thursday that food and global brands are favorites for Berkshire Hathaway, while Buffett himself said: "I'm ready for another elephant. If you see any walking by, just call me."

The Big Picture

Profusek put the M&A surge in historical perspective:

"In 2006, you had $4 trillion in M&A activity globally. And that was too much and exemplified the excess of that era."

In 2011 and 2012, the EU panic, double-dip worries, financial crisis PTSD, and fears of the "fiscal cliff" kept M&A volume closer to $2 trillion.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we see $3 trillion in 2013," he said.

The reason for the potential 50 percent jump? "In summer of 2011, equity markets were in the tank," Profusek said. "Now the Dow is breaking all-time records. That shows you the change in confidence."

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