The beer industry's last megamerger is a little more than two years old, which means it's time to start thinking about the next one.
Analyst Carlos Laboy of Credit Suisse started the speculation last week with a report titled "Next Phase of Global Industry Consolidation." His thesis is that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Brazilian-Belgian-American company created in a 2008 deal that caused much angst in St. Louis, has a lot of reasons to buy its biggest competitor, SABMiller.
The two are a great geographic fit, Laboy writes, and they're both finding the U.S. market to be a challenge. As a takeover target, SABMiller also resembles the old A-B in one important way: It has a diffuse ownership structure, with no controlling shareholder.
The Brazilians who run A-B InBev are, of course, dealmakers of great repute. They put together Brazil's biggest beer brands, Antarctica and Brahma, in 2000, and then merged with Interbrew of Belgium in 2004. Four years later, it was time to conquer the King of Beers.
Each time, they made a lot of money by wringing out cost savings. But each time, they also eventually found themselves running a company with limited growth potential. To keep shareholders happy, they had to do another deal.
The A-B acquisition has already resulted in $2 billion of cost savings, and A-B InBev is ahead of schedule on paying down the debt it incurred to make the $50 billion deal.
"They're deleveraging much faster than even they anticipated," says Harry Schumacher, editor of Beer Business Daily. "The time is coming, sooner rather than later, when they will be ready to do another deal."
Schumacher says Laboy's analysis offers "pretty compelling financial reasons" for a merger, but he does see some obstacles. SABMiller has a more collegial management culture than A-B InBev, and it has a complex web of local partners and shareholders in several countries.
Schumacher also says A-B InBev may have other priorities, such as buying the 50 percent of Mexico's Grupo Modelo that it doesn't already own. But if Modelo's other shareholders are unwilling to sell — or demand too high a price — A-B InBev may quickly move on to other opportunities.
How quickly? "I think their balance sheet will be ready for a deal next year," Schumacher says.
Laboy believes the timetable might be even more aggressive. In a follow-up on Monday, he said he had talked to 'senior industry participants," some of whom "even suggested that a deal might happen in 2011."
The MillerCoors joint venture in the U.S. could affect the timing. When SABMiller and MolsonCoors pooled their American beer business in 2008, they committed to hold their ownership constant for five years.
Laboy says it would be natural — and beneficial — for MolsonCoors to buy out its joint venture partner, probably for about $9 billion. That would let SABMiller shed one of its poorer-performing operations, while providing a neat solution to any U.S. antitrust objections.
Buying the rest of SABMiller, meanwhile, would reduce A-B InBev's exposure to the slow-growing U.S. market. Despite bold growth predictions that InBev executives made when they bought Anheuser-Busch, the company has seen its U.S. sales fall for two years in a row.
It's almost certain that A-B InBev Chief Executive Carlos Brito and his team see that as a problem. It's also highly likely that a merger will be part of their solution. Deals "are in their DNA," says Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. "That's what they do."