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'Superfirms' Take Over In Global Age

Latest mergers show how industries are consolidating down to a few mammoth firms to compete in world economy.

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Call it the Godzilla economy of the 1990s: A trend towards bigness is increasingly redefining many of the United States' most important industries.

In the past, merger waves were often marked by agglomeration - chemical companies buying printing plants, auto firms snapping up computer service providers, and other mixed-industry marriages.

But the 1990s now appear to be an age of frenzied conglomeration, with like firms scrambling to consolidate into market-bestriding supercompanies.

From banking to vehicles to telecommunications, managers now appear to see size as the key to survival, say analysts. In today's global, lightly regulated economy, many industries may be dominated more and more by huge low-cost producers.

"Everything is viewed in terms of economy of scale ... in autos, or any number of industries. Unless you are an integrated global company you could be left behind," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

To understand the importance of what's happening to the US and world economy, consider just the merger deals announced in the last few weeks.

The $67-billion Travelers Group-Citicorp nuptials announced April 6 is the biggest proposed merger corporate history. The melding of NationsBank and Bank America, announced April 13, would result in the country's biggest bank.

Within just the last few days, the Daimler-Benz-Chrysler deal would produce the world's fifth-largest auto maker. SBC Communications' proposed acquisition of Ameritech would be the biggest merger in communications history. In snapping up a fellow Baby Bell phone company, SBC would also go a long way toward reconstituting the old nationwide AT&T local phone system.

To some extent all these proposed deals are a leap into the unknown, points out Philip S. Garon, a partner at investment firm Faegre & Benson LLP in Minneapolis.

That's because the economy simply has no experience with such megadeals. The five biggest mergers ever have all been announced since last fall and are all still pending.

Right now "we have the most concentrated period of consolidation in history," says Mr. Garon.

The roaring stock market is one reason for the merger trend. Strong share prices provide many firms the cash to shop for someone to acquire, or join with.

If a firm wants to get bigger, points out Garon, is is now much cheaper to buy somebody else's infrastructure and brand name than to start from scratch.

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