Explaining Cisco’s Slowing Pace of Acquisitions

In terms of making acquisitions of venture-backed companies, Cisco led all other industry behemoths during the lachrymose decade known as the “oughts.”

According to a post at the Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch, quoting figures compiled by Dow Jones’ VentureSource, Cisco acquired 48 venture-backed companies from 2000 through 2009. Also reaching the medal podium for acquisitions were IBM, which closed 35 such transactions, and Microsoft, which consummated 30 deals.

In recent years, particularly the last two, Cisco’s acquisitive pace has slackened considerably. The networking giant made only two purchases of VC-backed startups in both 2008 and 2009. This past year, in fact, Cisco wasn’t among the foremost acquirers of VC-backed companies. Instead, Oracle finished at the head of the 2009 table, with five deals; EMC bought four companies to rank second.

You might wonder, as did I: Why is Cisco slowing down? I think several factors are at play.

For one thing, there aren’t as many compelling VC-based startup companies entering Cisco’s ecosystem as there were a few years ago. In general, VC backing for early-stage IT startups has fallen off the charts, and the same holds for startup companies in networking and many of the “market adjacencies” of most interest to Cisco. The lake has been fished, and nobody is restocking it with healthy specimens.

Related to that first point is the fact that the IT industry, including the networking segment, has matured. It’s moved into a slower-growth stage, replete with consolidation and fewer leading players. In its core markets, Cisco runs the numbers and often concludes that the right business decision involves building rather than buying. That wasn’t always the case, as amateur historians of networking’s heyday will tell you.

The slow growth, maturation, and consolidation in Cisco’s legacy markets of enterprise and carrier switching and routing have driven it toward a major diversification effort, with some of the forays into new spaces seeming more adjacent than others. Some of these new markets will bring Cisco back into acquisitive fervor, but it hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because Cisco hasn’t fully committed to some of them. (An area where I think you’ll see Cisco eventually make some interesting purchases is smart-grid technologies.)

Cisco’s acquisition juggernaut has slowed for another reason, too. If you examine the composition and distribution of Cisco’s vast cash reserves, you’ll discover — as I have discussed previously — that most of the money is located overseas. If that foreign cash were repatriated, Cisco would have to pay taxes on it. With the US government refusing to relent on that point, Cisco has chosen to leave the money overseas. As a result, that cash cannot be used for domestic acquisitions. If Cisco wishes to use those funds, rather than stock, to consummate deals, it must identify, pursue, and execute transactions in foreign markets.

Effectively, because of its cash allocation and the increasing reluctance of prospective takeover candidates to accept stock in lieu of hard cash, Cisco is geographically constrained in making deals over a certain size. Given Cisco’s tax strategies and the growing internationalization of its business, the ratio of foreign-to-domestic cash reserves isn’t likely to change markedly. Cisco will spin more cash through quarter-to-quarter operations, but most of it will land in the foreign pool.

At least in the near term, for the reasons adduced above, I don’t foresee Cisco returning to its acquisitive frenzies of the late 90s or the early to mid oughts, when it took advantage of the dot-com implosion to consolidate power through strategic acquisitions. Cisco remains a big, old dog, but it is being forced to learn some new tricks.

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