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Tech M&A: The Challenge of Cheap Deals

Deeply discounted recession-era acquisitions could be more trouble than they are worth.

Updated from 10:29 a.m. EDT

A tough economy may offer great buying opportunities for predatory tech firms, as evidenced by



$7.4 billion



Sun Microsystems


, but the jury is out on whether this is the best way to deliver long-term value to shareholders.

Buying up market share through acquisition is nothing new, although the recession has pushed firms' valuations downward, making M&A much more attractive than it was a few years ago. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's firm has already swallowed up big-name tech players such as




, and


. Clearly, a cut-price Sun was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The troubled tech giant had been shopping itself around Silicon Valley for months before Oracle swooped and was most recently a high-profile





. With the deal valued at $5.6 billion net of Sun's cash and debt, Ellison no doubt feels that he has gotten a bargain.

Last year, in a much better economy, Oracle paid $8.5 billion, or $7.2 billion net of cash, to acquire BEA. Back in 2004, PeopleSoft was valued at a whopping $10.3 billion and the Siebel deal came in at $5.85 billion the following year.

The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based firm is not the only Silicon Valley player with its eye on cheap acquisitions, but one tech sector veteran argues that this is not always the best path for long-term growth.

"The economic playing field that we're in is a trap because it tends to facilitate M&A thinking," said author Al Angrisani, who has extensive experience with running tech companies. "There's too much emphasis on M&A vs. organic growth. This is putting too much debt on the balance sheet of these tech companies."

Investors were certainly less than impressed with Oracle's latest acquisition, and the database giant's shares tumbled 30 cents, or 1.6%, to $18.76 in recent trading Monday.

Angrisani, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor in President Ronald Reagan's administration, was CEO of comparison shopping Web site

Greenfield Online

when it was sold to



for $486 million last year and is also a former COO and president of Internet market research firm

Harris Interactive



The recession may have created a great climate for M&A, but Angrisani has been largely un-moved by what he has seen.

"A classic mistake would have been IBM buying Sun; that would have been horrible," he said, explaining that the acquisition would have sucked up IBM's valuable time and energy. "Whatever they would have paid for it, it would have been worth 50 percent less in two years."

Angrisani also pointed to AT&T's buying spree about a decade ago, which saddled the telecom company with massive debt and resulted in a major restructuring effort. Contrast this strategy with that of



, he added, which has largely chosen R&D over M&A.

"I have to agree that organic growth and R&D are a better approach to success than acquisitions, and Apple versus Microsoft would be a prime example of how the former is better than the latter," wrote Apple


Scott Grannis, in an email to


Grannis, who writes

Calafia Beach Pundit

blog, doubts that this type of strategy has been completely dictated by changes in the market.

"Perhaps it is the case that doing the right thing is more important these days, given that the whole global economy is so stressed," he said. "Companies that fiddle around the edges with acquisitions are just not convincing anybody."

George Calhoun, professor of business and technology at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., says that growth through acquisition has not worked out for most companies, but argues that the recessionary climate reduces one of the biggest risk elements in M&A.

"One of the reasons shareholders and the market have tended to be skeptical of acquisitions is that companies that are making the acquisitions have tended to overpay," he said. "But if it's a good deal, too good to pass up, then maybe it's worth struggling with if you can get it for a deep discount."