Market top? 2015 set to pass 2000 for M&A record

Key Points

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Paul Sakuma | AP

Dell's $67 billion deal for EMC puts 2015 on track to be the biggest year ever for mergers and acquisitions, surpassing the dot-com-fueled deal frenzy in 2000 that marked the end of a bull market.

Year to date, $1.68 trillion in U.S. M&A has been announced, just below the full-year record of $1.73 trillion posted 15 years ago, according to S&P Capital IQ.

What's behind the record run?

"The buoyant levels of M&A are reflective of an abundance of corporate cash, low borrowing costs and high stock prices which can be used as consideration for acquisitions," said S&P Capital IQ's data guru Rich Peterson. "The accelerated pace of deals comes as corporate earnings growth is eroding whereas third-quarter 2015 profits for the is expected to decline by 5 percent from year-ago levels."

The bears will translate that to mean this dealmaking, including the Dell move, is companies that can't grow organically reaching for growth using low-rate financing courtesy of the Federal Reserve.

And that party is about to end and with it the bull market.

The Dell-EMC linkup is "old tech merging with old tech in a desperate attempt for growth," wrote Peter Boockvar of The Lindsey Group in an email.

Combine this year's activity with the rapid move up in private company valuations and this is the classic kind of froth that marks the top of the bull market, the bears say.

New York Times columnist Nick Bilton told CNBC that private company valuations "are just completely out of whack and no one has any idea where these numbers are coming from."

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To be sure, the bulls argue the dealmaking of 2015 is broader based across many industries and therefore not the kind of concentrated bubble hype in one sector that has marked the end of the last two bull markets.

Technology M&A year to date is about $240 billion after Monday's Dell-EMC announcement, way short of the $390 billion in tech dealmaking in 2000, according to S&P Capital IQ's Peterson.

"My take is this will be viewed as the type of M&A that will put a bid beneath the M&A market into year-end as guys look to put cash to work and look to enhance shareholder value," said Roberto Friedlander, head of equity trading at Brean Capital.

Others defended the Dell deal because of the other smart money involved in the proposed transaction like Silver Lake, which is partnering with Michael Dell on the takeover.

"Silver Lake is not a desperate tech company. Rather, it is a smart technology VC and PE firm that must produce returns for its investors," said Stephen Weiss of Short Hills Capital Partners. "Easy money has helped everyone but that alone is not the reason to make the largest acquisition in technology ever made."

Still, another tech deal certainly raised some eyebrows earlier this year. In June, Verizon used $4.4 billion to buy AOL, the company whose marriage to Time Warner became the embodiment of the out-of-control hype during the dot-com bubble.

Since that deal closed June 23, the S&P 500 is down 5 percent and in the red for the year.

If this is the kind of merger activity that will light a fire under the bull market again, it hasn't done so yet.

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