By Byron Callan
This year has shaped up as a record one in terms of the volume of major defense transactions so far announced. Considering deals of $100 million or more in announced value where defense is the primary factor, the 2019 total exceeds $61 billion. Of course, the largest single example is the Raytheon-United Technologies Corp. (UTC) merger.
There are reasons to expect heightened activity in 2019 and 2020. Some reasons are known and others can be assessed, but one that does not appear to be affecting market expectations is the Raytheon-UTC deal. Since it was announced on June 9, the companies' share prices have declined from the June 7, close: Raytheon's by 4% and UTC's by 5.7%. The S&P 500 has been flat. However, share prices of peers have risen—General Dynamics is up 5.4%, L3Harris Technologies has increased 6.2%, Lockheed Martin and Leidos have climbed 7% and Northrop Grumman is up 14.4%.
These price moves may be attributable to safe-haven seeking by investors who were spooked by global economic concerns and trade wars, but the budget deal reached by Congress also was a factor, as were July earnings reports. The price reactions, however, do not suggest that investors are particularly concerned about the impact of the competitive strength of the Raytheon-UTC union and its ability to take market share away from peers. Nor do they suggest that the deal will trigger a rush by defense-focused companies to merge with commercial ones. Were the latter to be the case, the price reactions may have been similar to Raytheon and United Technologies'.
There have been other known developments that raise the question of what is next. Kaman Corp. sold its industrial distribution business for $700 million and will seek to redeploy that capital into engineering products businesses, some of which could involve defense. L3Harris signaled in June that it is undertaking a portfolio cleanup after the completion of the merger, and so there should be divestitures from that company. Textron announced in August that it was reviewing “strategic alternatives” for Kautex, which makes blow-molded fuel systems and other parts primarily for the automotive industry. Presuming that it leads to a sale of that business, Textron will have cash, some of which might be spent on defense.
There are general factors as well that could spawn sector merger and acquisition activity in 2019-20. One of the biggest is the potential uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the 2020 U.S. elections. Buyers and sellers have to weigh a number of variables.
If the current administration is reelected and control of Congress remains split at least through 2022, then it may be safe to assume that the status quo will continue. One variable within the status quo is how contractor portfolios could be affected by the ongoing efforts of the Pentagon to better align its programs with the National Defense Strategy. Like the Army's “night court” process, this may yet spawn a reassessment of specific programs and their future growth outlook.
But if the status quo does not prevail, defense contractors could face a wall of uncertainties in 2020 and may choose to act before rather than after these uncertainties are clarified.
First, they will have to assess which Democratic candidate could win the primary cycle and then the nomination. If it is a centrist candidate, the Defense Department spending outlook might not change all that much, although exports to some countries might be curtailed and there could be changes in some Pentagon budget priorities, particularly for nuclear forces modernization. A more progressive-leaning candidate might raise the risk of a more subdued defense budget outlook, particularly if fiscal resources are instead directed toward health care, infrastructure, student debt and other nondefense priorities.
Second, there will have to be an assessment of whether a Democratic win of the White House could also flip control of the Senate to the Democrats. If there is a Democrat in the White House but a Republican majority in the Senate, the Senate could still check budgets or policies that may be detrimental to defense. It might also block efforts to roll back changes to tax laws made in 2017.
A third variable to be assessed is the attitude of a new administration toward defense mergers and acquisitions, contractor financing and risk. A more progressive administration could look very differently at the structure and financial status of contractors.
All these variables will lead to different analyses of current and future value in defense. Is it a good time to hunker down and wait to see what happens or to act in the time that remains in 2019-20 before investors and creditors draw their own conclusions? These uncertainties alone suggest that some will act in anticipation of a change rather than just wait and see.