Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There was only $164 billion of announced global mergers and acquisitions in January, the slowest start to a year since 2013, per Refinitiv.

Why it matters: This comes off a 2019 in which volume was down slightly from 2018, but still the fourth-largest dollar volume in history and sixth-straight year above $3 trillion.

  • At first blush, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. CEO confidence is through the roof, companies are flush with stock thanks to buybacks, and private equity is sitting on Everest-like piles of dry powder.

Three theories for the early 2020 lethargy:

1. Regulatory pressures. All sorts of deals are being blocked, or at least put under very tough scrutiny, by a variety of governments in a variety of industries. It's not just about U.S. regulators and big tech (which, truth be told, has largely skated so far).

  • The FTC this morning announced it will sue to block Edgewell, the maker of Schick razors, from buying Harry's for $1.3 billion in cash and stock.
  • Harry's says it is "disappointed" and is "evaluating the best path forward."

2. Coronavirus. This won't permanently stop mergers that make strategic and financial sense, but it could slow announcements until both parties can get a better handle on what the spreading illnesses mean for their businesses (including for their supply chains).

3. Political uncertainty: It's mostly a CEO excuse for not pulling the trigger, but it's still being discussed. Particularly in a presidential election year in which two of the leading Democratic candidates are pledging to fundamentally restructure a healthcare industry that played host to many of last year's largest deals (including BMS buying Celgene for $74 billion).

The bottom line: January may prove to have been an anomaly, and 2020 M&A volume could end up more closely resembling 2019 than 2013. But so far it's been all systems stop.

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