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Analysis-JPMorgan's 2021 deal spree aims to fill the few holes left in its global operations

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·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past JPMorgan Chase & Co's international headquarters on Park Avenue in New York
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By Elizabeth Dilts Marshall

NEW YORK (Reuters) - JPMorgan Chase & Co has been on a boutique-business buying spree this year, acquiring or investing in around 30 companies since the start of 2021.

In September alone, the bank took a close-to 75% stake in Volkswagen's payments, bought the media company that owns Zagat and on Tuesday bought a college financial planning used by more than 5 million students in the United States.

Those three transactions illustrate the contours of JPMorgan's dealmaking strategy, analysts and bank executives said: the largest U.S. bank is filling the few holes left in its offerings, without facing regulatory hurdles that would almost surely accompany larger transactions.

"These are acquisitions that are bite-sized and span a full range from payments to big data, have applications for AI and (provide) premium customer experiences," said Wells Fargo bank analyst Mike Mayo.

"It's another reason Goliath is winning," he added. "They can go ahead and pick off forward-looking, niche fintech firms and scale them across their global franchise."

While most deals and their terms are not public information, Reuters estimates JPMorgan has bought and invested in around 30 companies in 2021, according to data from Refinitiv, Dealogic and media reports.

The average size of the deals the bank has done this year are smaller than at almost any point in the past decade, Dealogic found, counting only deals where the value was disclosed. Average deal size last year was smaller.

Only in 2012 did JPMorgan do more deals, according to Dealogic. The bank made 34 investments and acquisitions that year, again counting only those deals with disclosed values.

"The benefit of our franchise is our scale," said Leslie Wims Morris, who heads corporate development for Chase. "It's less about deal size than it is about strategic impact: what capabilities do we need, and what experiences do we want to deliver?"

DEALS APLENTY

JPMorgan is not alone in its pursuits lately. Rivals have also been buying companies or stakes in companies that thrive on algorithms, apps, data and a specific appeal to desirable customers in markets where they do not have a foothold.

For instance, Goldman Sachs Group Inc last week purchased home-improvement lender for $2.2 billion, and on Tuesday Wells Fargo & Co and Mastercard Inc participated in a $60 million funding round for Bilt Rewards, a credit-card loyalty startup that targets renters.

Although some of the deals are sizable enough to warrant announcing the purchase price, they are generally smaller and less meaningful than the mega-bank mergers that happened in the 1990s and 2000s.

U.S. regulators have been loath to approve transactions that help the biggest financial firms get bigger. That is especially true under the Biden administration, which has a stated policy of cracking down on anticompetitive practices and whose Justice Department effectively quashed a merger between two large insurance brokers in July.

There is also an issue of profitability relative to size. The larger U.S. banks become, the more capital they must hold against certain assets. Because JPMorgan is so large, it makes sense to target companies that provide services for fees or can offer data about customer preferences, said Odeon Capital Group analyst Richard Bove.

"JPMorgan does not want to grow its balance sheet, but it does want to grow its profits," he said.

That dynamic, combined with JPMorgan's saturation across the United States, explains its 75% stake in Volkswagen Payments SA; its acquisition of UK digital wealth manager Nutmeg ; and a 40% stake in C6 Bank, a popular digital lender in Brazil, he said.

Investing internationally also gives JPMorgan an edge over domestic competitors like Citigroup Inc, which has exited large chunks of its global consumer operations, analysts said.

JPMorgan is considering large deals too, but some of the transactions this year simply came together faster, said Ben Hesse, head of the bank's strategy & business development for asset & wealth management unit.

His division oversaw recent purchases of ESG-focused fintech startup OpenInvest, forest manager and timberlands investor Campbell Global LLC and a minority stake in Kraft Analytics Group, the sports-focused data analytics firm.

"Just because we haven't announced anything large doesn't mean we haven't looked at it," Hesse told Reuters. "It's just that the bar for these things is very, very high."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts Marshall in New York; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Matthew Lewis)

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