Buffett's purchase of Heinz puts spotlight on big deals

, The Associated Press

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Warren Buffett and a fellow billionaire are teaming up to snap up the Heinz ketchup company, marking the food industry's biggest ever deal and yet another sign that the lifeless merger market is finally picking up.

H.J. Heinz announced Thursday a $23.3 billion deal to be purchased by Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, which was co-founded by Jorge Lemann, one of Brazil's richest men. The news came the same day that American Airlines and U.S. Airways announced their $11 billion merger. Just a little over a week ago, Michael Dell said he struck a deal to buy the computer company that he founded and bears his name.

Even before Thursday's blockbuster deals were announced, the year had been shaping up to be a promising one for mergers. U.S. mergers total $219 billion year-to-date, which is the fastest start to a year since 2000, according to Dealogic. At the same time last year, mergers had totaled just $85 billion.

Globally, merger activity has been tepid since 2007 when there were $4.6 trillion in deals. Last year's total was $2.7 trillion.

One of the reasons activity is picking up is that financing deals is cheap, with interest rates near record lows. Companies are also sitting on piles of cash, with those in the Standard and Poor's 500 index holding nearly $1 trillion on their books.

Another reason to buy? After years of slashing expenses and squeezing more work out of remaining staff, companies are struggling to grow earnings. In the January-March quarter, earnings are expected to climb less than 1 percent compared with the year earlier, according to FactSet, a financial data provider.

As for Heinz, the company says its sale to Berkshire and 3G is intended to help accelerate its transformation into a global powerhouse. The company, based in Pittsburgh, also makes Classico pasta sauces and Ore-Ida potatoes, as well as a growing stable of sauces suited to local tastes around the world.

For his money, the Oracle of Omaha gets one of the nation's oldest and most familiar brands, one that's in refrigerators and kitchen cupboards all over the U.S.

The deal, expected to close in the third quarter, sent shares of Heinz soaring. The company's stock price was up nearly 20 percent at $72.45 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Berkshire picked up steam, too. Its Class A shares gained $1,490, or about 1 percent, to close Thursday at $149,240.

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