Big investors and corporations are seeking returns in a slow-growth world. Now a go-go year for takeovers has hit home.

Share story

Three big deals this way come. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is buying Portland-based Precision Castparts for $32 billion. Sumitomo Life Insurance is acquiring Symetra Financial of Bellevue for about $3.8 billion (Buffett wins here, too, as an investor in Symetra). And Finland’s Konecranes is merging with Terex, the parent of Genie Industries, which employs some 2,000 at operations in Moses Lake and Redmond.

You may not have had a raise for years, but global merger and acquisition activity is on a trajectory to hit a record this year. That is, if the current pace isn’t interrupted by a Federal Reserve rate increase. Companies and financiers have been hoarding cheap Fed-pumped cash and are now deploying it to make strategic acquisitions before the Fed takes away the punch bowl.

Oh, and let’s not forget the potential acquisition of Boise’s Micron Technology by China’s Tsinghua Unigroup.

We have something in common with Warren and the other moguls: getting by in a slow-growth world. Many of the takeovers are driven by a desire to put money to work with a higher payoff. Thus, Sumitomo can expand its reach in the United States with Symetra, a onetime life-insurance unit of Safeco (now owned by Liberty Mutual).

Note how bigness defines so much of the economy. Genie isn’t an actual stand-alone outfit, but a unit of another, larger company that is being absorbed itself. Symetra was never really what we once would have considered an independent company, but a “play” by Berkshire Hathaway and White Mountain Insurance Group, both of whom will now enjoy a handsome payoff as Symetra is handed off to another giant.

Such industry consolidation carries downsides: less competition, fewer jobs, lower business investment and outsized ability to influence the political system, including regulators and antitrust enforcement. The gargantuan combinations arguably contribute to slower growth, as anti-competitive mergers and the layoffs to make them viable dampen the dynamism of the market.

Meanwhile, Americans are starting new businesses at low rates, a phenomenon that goes back to the 1980s.

Precision Castparts was old-school. A real company, actually headquartered in the Northwest, that employed people productively making things that benefited the economy. Contrast it with a hyped Internet hustle or tech distraction. The company, which has half-a-dozen operations in the Puget Sound region and traces its roots back to 1953, will no doubt benefit from Uncle Warren’s cash.

Give Buffett credit for acquiring “real” companies such as BNSF Railway and Lubrizol. But this crown jewel of Portland and leader on so many editions of the Seattle Times’ Best of the Northwest will no longer be an independent company. It will be one of the chips on Buffett’s poker table. Again, credit is due for him being a patient and constructive investor. That’s old-school, too. He even wears suits like an adult, rather than the T-shirts of today’s hip CEOs. Whether this investing ethos continues after Buffett, who is 84, passes away, is another matter.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Google gets the press

It’s Alphabet excitement

But does it spell jobs?