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Watch out for more pharma M&A in 2015—but not in UK

Mergers and acquisitions experts forecast there will be more major pharmaceutical deals in 2015, but it won't be a repeat of last year's frenzy: The U.K. won't be a focus and deals won't be done for tax reasons.

"Running into 2015, I am expecting to see a lot more pharma M&A," said Hamilton Matthews, CEO of Mergermarket, at panel discussion at Cass Business School in London on Monday.

Healthcare was the most targeted industry last year, with major deals including Actavis's $65.7 billion bid for Allergan, and Medtronic's $46.8 billion offer for Covidien.


A clinical technician holds a syringe and a vial of Allergan Botox, produced by Allergan.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A clinical technician holds a syringe and a vial of Allergan Botox, produced by Allergan.

However, some deals, such as Pfizer's bid for U.K. rival AstraZeneca and AbbVie's for Shire, fell through because of pressure and protests over national interest or that they were aimed at shifting international headquarters for tax reasons —"tax inversion" deals.

"We're going to see much less tax inversion than last year… But plenty of companies—like Shire—have the ability to make more acquisitions, or a pressing need to do so," said Maddy McTernan, head of U.K. M&A at Credit Suisse, at the Cass discussion on Monday.

Shire is headquartered in Ireland, but has a large operational base in the U.S. In January, Shire announced it would buy the U.S.'s NPS Pharmaceuticals for $5.2 billion, in its first big move since AbbVie's tax inversion bid fell through last year.

One-month rule

McTernan said that in 2015 tough U.K. rules aimed at scuppering lengthy hostile takeover battles would deter pharma bids for British companies. The rules, introduced in 2011, mean that would-be acquirers have only 28 days to make a binding offer, or else they must walk away for six months. The first big test of this rule was Pfizer's £55 ($84)-a-share share bid for AstraZeneca last year, which resulted in a rare failure for the U.S. giant.

"The shorter 4-week deadlines makes people think twice," said McTernan.

"Frankly it's a risk that not a lot of bidders are willing to take."

Asset shedding

Several pharma deals of the last 12 months were motivated by a desire to shed off non-core assets and focus on areas of strength. These include AstraZeneca's purchase of Actavis's branded respiratory business in North America, which is due to complete by the end of March this year.

Steve Allan, director of M&A EMEA at professional services firm Towers Watson, forecast this trend would continue during 2015.

"You are going to see selling off of assets and focusing on the core—much like financials a few years ago," he said at the Cass panel.

Last month, the co-CEO of Goldman Sachs International told CNBC that healthcare looked to be strong again for M&A this year, along with telecoms and energy.

"We would expect M&A broadly to continue. We think healthcare will be a big player; telecoms, again, will see a lot of activity," said Richard Gnodde, who helped build Goldman's European M&A business.

"But then potentially even some of the sectors that were quieter last year (such as) energy—there has been so much change in the energy space, that will likely lead to some activity too," he added.

Read MoreGoldman Sachs: Watch out for energy M&A in 2015

The jury is out on whether the volatility that has knocked around 60 percent of the value of crude oil could act as either a spur or a deterrent to energy M&A.

"I actually think oil and gas will be really quiet, until there is more stability in the oil price. It will be more of a 2016 story," McTernan said on Monday.