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A conglomerate is a multi-industry company – i.e., a combination of multiple business entities operating in entirely different industries under one corporate group, usually involving a parent company and many subsidiaries. Conglomerates are often large and multinational.
Often labelled a trading company (i.e. a company of merchants who buy and sell goods produced by other people) or sometimes a shipping company, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was in fact a proto-conglomerate at the dawn of modern capitalism, diversifying into multiple commercial and industrial activities such as international trade (especially intra-Asian trade), shipbuilding, and both production and trade of East Indian spices, Indonesian coffee, Formosan sugarcane, and South African wine.
The conglomerate fad of the 1960s
Due to a combination of low interest rates and a repeating bear-bull market, conglomerates were able to buy smaller companies in leveraged buyouts (sometimes at temporarily deflated values). Famous examples from the 1960s include Ling-Temco-Vought, ITT Corporation, Litton Industries, Textron, and Teledyne. The trick was to look for acquisition targets with solid earnings and much lower price–earnings ratios than the acquirer. The conglomerate would make a tender offer to the target's shareholders at a princely premium to the target's current stock price. Upon obtaining shareholder approval, the conglomerate usually settled the transaction in something other than cash, like debentures, bonds, warrants or convertible debentures (issuing the latter two would effectively dilute its own shareholders down the road, but many shareholders at the time were not thinking that far ahead). The conglomerate would then add the target's earnings to its own earnings, thereby increasing the conglomerate's overall earnings per share. In finance jargon, the transaction was "accretive to earnings." The relatively lax accounting standards of the time meant that accountants were often able to get away with creative mathematics in calculating the conglomerate's post-acquisition consolidated earnings numbers. In turn, the price of the conglomerate's own stock would go up, thereby re-establishing its previous price-earnings ratio, and then it could repeat the whole process again with a new target. In plain English, conglomerates were using rapid acquisitions to create the illusion of rapid growth.
In 1968, the peak year of the conglomerate fad, U.S. corporations completed a record number of mergers: approximately 4,500. In that year, at least 26 of the country's 500 largest corporations were acquired, of which 12 had assets in excess of $250 million.
All this clever financial engineering had very real consequences for people who worked for companies that were either acquired by conglomerates or were seen as likely to be acquired by them. Acquisitions were a disorienting and demoralizing experience for executives at acquired companies—those who were not immediately laid off found themselves at the mercy of the conglomerate's executives in some other distant city. Most conglomerates' headquarters were located on the West Coast or East Coast, while many of their acquisitions were located in the country's interior. Many interior cities were devastated by repeatedly losing headquarters of corporations to mergers, in which independent ventures were reduced to subsidiaries of conglomerates based in New York or Los Angeles. Pittsburgh, for example, lost about a dozen. The terror instilled by the mere prospect of such harsh consequences for executives and their home cities meant that fending off takeovers, real or imagined, was a constant distraction for executives at all corporations seen as choice acquisition targets during this era.
The chain reaction of rapid-growth-through-acquisitions could not last forever. When interest rates rose to offset rising inflation, conglomerate profits began to fall. The beginning of the end came in January 1968, when Litton shocked Wall Street by announcing a quarterly profit of only 21 cents per share, versus 63 cents for the previous year's quarter. It would take two more years before it was clear that the conglomerate fad was on its way out. The stock market eventually figured out that the conglomerates' bloated and inefficient businesses were as cyclical as any others—indeed, it was that cyclical nature that had caused such businesses to be such undervalued acquisition targets in the first place—and their descent "put the lie to the claim that diversification allowed them to ride out a downturn." A major selloff of conglomerate shares ensued. To keep going, many conglomerates were forced to shed the new businesses they had recently purchased, and by the mid-1970s most conglomerates had been reduced to shells. The conglomerate fad was subsequently replaced by newer ideas like focusing on a company's core competency.
In other cases, conglomerates are formed for genuine interests of diversification rather than manipulation of paper return on investment. Companies with this orientation would only make acquisitions or start new branches in other sectors when they believed this would increase profitability or stability by sharing risks. Flush with cash during the 1980s, General Electric also moved into financing and financial services, which in 2005 accounted for about 45% of the company's net earnings. GE formerly owned a minority interest in NBCUniversal, which owns the NBC television network and several other cable networks. In some ways GE is the opposite of the "typical" 1960s conglomerate in that the company was not highly leveraged, and when interest rates rose GE was able to turn this to its advantage. It was often less expensive to lease from GE than buy new equipment using loans. United Technologies was also a successful conglomerate until they were dismantled in the late 2010s.
With the spread of mutual funds (especially index funds since 1976), investors could more easily obtain diversification by owning a small slice of many companies in a fund rather than owning shares in a conglomerate. Another example of a successful conglomerate is Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company which used surplus capital from its insurance subsidiaries to invest in businesses across a variety of industries.
The end of the First World War caused a brief economic crisis in Weimar Germany, permitting entrepreneurs to buy businesses at rock-bottom prices. The most successful, Hugo Stinnes, established the most powerful private economic conglomerate in 1920s Europe – Stinnes Enterprises – which embraced sectors as diverse as manufacturing, mining, shipbuilding, hotels, newspapers, and other enterprises.
The best known British conglomerate was Hanson plc. It followed a rather different timescale than the U.S. examples mentioned above, as it was founded in 1964 and ceased to be a conglomerate when it split itself into four separate listed companies between 1995 and 1997.
In Hong Kong, some of the well-known conglomerates include Jardine Matheson (AD1824), Swire Group (AD1816), (British companies, one Scottish one English; companies that have a history of over 150 years and have business interests that span across four continents with a focus in Asia.) C K Hutchison Whampoa (now CK Hutchison Holdings), Sino Group, (both Asian-owned companies specialize business such as real estate and hospitality with a focus in Asia.)
- Swire Group (AD1816) (or Swire Pacific) Started by Liverpool natives the Swire family, which controls a wide range of businesses, including property (Swire Properties), aviation (i.e. Cathay Pacific), beverages (bottler of Coca-Cola), shipping and trading.
- Jardine Matheson (AD1824) operates businesses in the fields of property (Hongkong Land), finance (Jardine Lloyd Thompson), trading, retail (Dairy Farm) and hotels (i.e. Mandarin Oriental).
- CK Hutchison Holdings Limited: Telecoms, Infrastructure, Ports, Health and Beauty Retail. Energy, Finance
- Sino Group: Kerry Logistics, Universal Studios Singapore, Shangri-La
In Japan, a different model of conglomerate, the keiretsu, evolved. Whereas the Western model of conglomerate consists of a single corporation with multiple subsidiaries controlled by that corporation, the companies in a keiretsu are linked by interlocking shareholdings and a central role of a bank. Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo are some of Japan's best known keiretsu, reaching from automobile manufacturing to the production of electronics such as televisions. While not a keiretsu, Sony is an example of a modern Japanese conglomerate with operations in consumer electronics, video games, the music industry, television and film production and distribution, financial services, and telecommunications.
In China, many of the country's conglomerates are state-owned enterprises, but there is a substantial number of private conglomerates. Notable conglomerates include BYD, CIMC, China Merchants Bank, Huawei, JXD, Meizu, Ping An Insurance, TCL, Tencent, TP-Link, ZTE, Legend Holdings, Dalian Wanda Group, China Poly Group, Beijing Enterprises, and Fosun International. Fosun is currently China's largest civilian-run conglomerate by revenue.
In South Korea, the chaebol are a type of conglomerate owned and operated by a family. A chaebol is also inheritable, as most of current presidents of chaebols succeeded their fathers or grandfathers. Some of the largest and most well-known Korean chaebols are Samsung, LG, Hyundai Kia and SK.
The era of Licence Raj (1947–1990) in India created some of Asia's largest conglomerates, such as the Tata Group, Kirloskar Group, Larsen & Toubro, Mahindra Group, Sahara India, ITC Limited, Essar Group, Reliance ADA Group, Reliance Industries, Aditya Birla Group and the Bharti Enterprises.
In New Zealand, Fletcher Challenge was formed in 1981 from the merger of Fletcher Holdings, Challenge Corporation, and Tasman Pulp & Paper, in an attempt to create a New Zealand-based multi-national company. At the time, the newly merged company dealt in construction, building supplies, pulp and paper mills, forestry, and oil & gas. Following a series of bungled investments, the company demerged in the early 2000s to concentrate on building and construction.
In the Philippines, the largest conglomerate of the country is the Ayala Corporation which focuses on malls, bank, real estate development, and telecommunications. The other big conglomerates in the Philippines included JG Summit Holdings, Lopez Group of Companies, SM Investments Corporation, Metro Pacific Investments Corporation and San Miguel Corporation.
In Canada, one of the examples is Hudson's Bay Company.
Advantages and disadvantages of conglomerates
This section contains a pro and con list, which is sometimes inappropriate. (March 2017)
- Diversification results in a reduction of investment risk. A downturn suffered by one subsidiary, for instance, can be counterbalanced by stability, or even expansion, in another division. For example, if Berkshire Hathaway's construction materials business has a good year, the profit might be offset by a bad year in its insurance business. This advantage is enhanced by the fact that the business cycle affects industries in different ways. Financial Conglomerates have very different compliance requirements from insurance or reinsurance solo entities or groups. There are very important opportunities that can be exploited, to increase shareholder value.
- A conglomerate creates an internal capital market if the external one is not developed enough. Through the internal market, different parts of conglomerate allocate capital more effectively.
- A conglomerate can show earnings growth, by acquiring companies whose shares are more discounted than its own. In fact, Teledyne, GE, and Berkshire Hathaway have delivered high earnings growth for a time.
- The extra layers of management increase costs.
- Accounting disclosure is less useful information, many numbers are disclosed grouped, rather than separately for each business. The complexity of a conglomerate's accounts make them harder for managers, investors and regulators to analyze, and makes it easier for management to hide issues.
- Conglomerates can trade at a discount to the overall individual value of their businesses because investors can achieve diversification on their own simply by purchasing multiple stocks. The whole is often worth less than the sum of its parts.
- Culture clashes can destroy value.
- Inertia prevents development of innovation.
- Lack of focus, and inability to manage unrelated businesses equally well.
- Brand dilution where the brand loses its brand associations with a market segment, product area, or quality, price or cachet.
- Conglomerates more easily run the risk of being too big to fail.
Some cite the decreased cost of conglomerate stock (a phenomenon known as conglomerate discount) as evidential of these disadvantages, while other traders believe this tendency to be a market inefficiency, which undervalues the true strength of these stocks.
- Time Warner included several tenuously linked businesses during the 1990s and 2000s, including Internet access, content, film, cable systems and television. Their diverse portfolio of assets allowed for cross-promotion and economies of scale. However, the company has sold or spun off many of these businesses – including Warner Music Group, Warner Books, AOL, Time Warner Cable, and Time Inc. – since 2004.
- Clear Channel Communications, a public company, at one point owned a variety of TV and radio stations and billboard operations, together with many concert venues across the U.S. and a diverse portfolio of assets in the UK and other countries around the world. The concentration of bargaining power in this one entity allowed it to gain better deals for all of its business units. For example, the promise of playlisting (allegedly, sometimes, coupled with the threat of blacklisting) on its radio stations was used to secure better deals from artists performing in events organized by the entertainment division. These policies have been attacked as unfair and even monopolistic, but are a clear advantage of the conglomerate strategy. On December 21, 2005, Clear Channel completed the divestiture of Live Nation, and in 2007 the company divested their television stations to other firms, some which Clear Channel holds a small interest in. Live Nation owns the events and concert venues previously owned by Clear Channel Communications.
- Impact of conglomerates on the media: The four major media conglomerates in the United States are The Walt Disney Company, Comcast, WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS The Walt Disney Company is linked with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), creating the largest media corporation, with revenue equal to roughly thirty six billion dollars. Since Walt Disney owns ABC, it controls its news and programming. Walt Disney also acquired most of Fox, for over $70 billion. When General Electric owned NBC, it did not allow negative reporting against General Electric on air (NBCUniversal is now owned by Comcast). Viacom's chief executive, Sumner Redstone, considers himself a “liberal democrat” and most of Viacom's programming has a liberal perspective. Viacom merged with CBS in 2019 as ViacomCBS after originally merged in 1999 with Viacom as the surviving company while also Viacom divested CBS in 2005 due to FCC regulations as the time. 
- Media conglomerate impact on journalism: It leads to opinionated journalism versus traditional journalism. Opinionated journalism is a journalist adding his or her ideologies on a matter on top of reporting it to the public. The coverage that conglomerates have of issues, especially political, is not necessarily objective, and fails to report both sides of an issue, if not taking a neutral stance. This is known as media bias. Media bias is ”the intentional or unintentional slanting of news reporting toward one side due political views or cultural beliefs of journalists, producers or owners of a media outlet.”
A relatively new development, Internet conglomerates, such as Alphabet, Google's parent company belong to the modern media conglomerate group and play a major role within various industries, such as brand management. In most cases Internet conglomerates consist of corporations who own several medium-sized online or hybrid online-offline projects. In many cases, newly joined corporations get higher returns on investment, access to business contacts, and better rates on loans from various banks.
Similar to other industries there are many companies that can be termed as conglomerates.
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