By many measures, this should be a moment of great economic uncertainty for the corporate world.
The United States election looms. Interest rates are set to rise soon. Britain plans to leave the European Union. China’s economic growth is slowing. Cyberattacks are on the rise. And Russia is flexing its military muscle in the Middle East.
Any one of these factors would usually be enough to give chief executives pause. The men and women who run the world’s largest corporations are nothing if not cautious.
Yet across industries, there are surprising signs of confidence, with corporate chieftains and directors signaling their belief that the upswing will continue for months or even years to come. Investors are betting on sustained growth. Companies are hiring. And huge mergers and acquisitions are back in fashion.
On Saturday night, AT&T said it planned to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion — the biggest deal of the year. On Friday, British American Tobacco offered $47 billion for the portion of Reynolds American that it does not already own. And this week, the chip maker Qualcomm is expected to make a $37 billion offer for the rival company NXP Semiconductors.
Such megadeals are often postponed during times of political or economic uncertainty. Yet at what feels to many like a tumultuous moment for the global economy, many corporate titans apparently see smooth sailing ahead.
The most imminent economic concern may be the outcome of the race for the White House. Though Donald J. Trump has positioned himself as a successful businessman, economists have warned of market upheavals if he is elected.
But with Hillary Clinton’s lead over Mr. Trump wide and still growing with less than three weeks until Election Day, chief executives appear to be betting that the race is all but over.
“Everyone is expecting a Clinton victory,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “She represents the status quo. They think nothing is going to change, and they’re comfortable with that.’”
Another major concern among chief executives has been that the Federal Reserve will soon raise interest rates, making it more expensive for companies to borrow. But after the Fed raised short-term interest rates last December for the first time since the financial crisis, the markets took it in stride. Even now, as the Fed’s chairwoman, Janet L. Yellen, signals that rate increases are coming soon, investors and executives appear unfazed.
“The Federal Reserve is sending very strong signals that, yes, it is going to normalize interest rates, but very, very slowly,” Mr. Zandi said. “That makes deals easier to get done. It’s a very sanguine, propitious environment for deals.”
Not everyone is benefiting from that confidence in the C-suite. Millions of Americans are feeling left behind, a sentiment that is driving the rising populism that has shaped this election cycle. And in an era of sweeping consolidation, many smaller companies find themselves struggling to compete against multinational behemoths.
But while corporate executives are monitoring a laundry list of political and economic risks, no single factor appears to be a major cause for concern.
Instead, there is a growing sense that the combination of slow but steady economic growth, rapid technological innovation and an uncertain geopolitical landscape is here to stay for some time, or what business leaders call “the new normal.”
“You have a group of business leaders who have come of age only knowing uncertainty and complexity,” said Blair W. Effron, co-founder of Centerview Partners, an investment bank that advises companies on big takeovers. “They are therefore really good at managing in this environment.”
When it comes to mergers and acquisitions, that means companies are thinking about how to position themselves for unpredictable swings in consumer preferences and unanticipated changes in global markets, often through deal making.
For AT&T, the bet is about expanding beyond its roots as a distribution company. AT&T already offers phone, internet, cable and satellite services, but it has watched as Comcast, the country’s largest cable operator, has expanded into content with its acquisition of NBCUniversal.
By buying Time Warner — one of the most prestigious producers of television and film today, with brands including HBO, CNN and Warner Bros. — AT&T will suddenly become Comcast’s closest true rival.
“AT&T is trying to keep up with the Joneses,” said Robert Salomon, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business.
For British American Tobacco, taking full control of Reynolds American means further expanding into the developing world as Americans and Europeans smoke less because of health concerns.
For the German company Bayer, which agreed last month to acquire the agricultural giant Monsanto for $56 billion, it is about gaining market share and getting leverage over customers.
And because interest rates remain so low, such deals are relatively easy to do these days.
“Corporations are still sitting on record levels of cash, and there’s not a lot of organic growth out there,” Mr. Salomon said. “If you can’t grow organically, it’s growth through acquisitions.”
In other industries, too, the pace of consolidation has quickened. Two big deals had appeared poised to reshape the American health care industry. Anthem has offered $48 billion for Cigna, and Aetna has offered $37 billion for Humana.
The Justice Department, however, has sued to block both deals, leaving their fates in jeopardy.
That’s not the case in other industries, like technology, where there are few barriers to the big getting bigger. This summer, Microsoft agreed to buy LinkedIn for $26 billion.
All in all, the aggressive deal making — coupled with a steady stock market and an economy that is growing, if modestly — suggests that in a moment that could easily be fraught with uncertainty, many corporate leaders are surprisingly confident.
It has now been more than seven years since the United States economy dipped into recession, making this one of the longest periods of so-called expansion in American history. The longest, at 10 years, occurred during the 1990s, but economists believe that absent any major setbacks, that record could soon be broken.
“There is a growing sense that this expansion has a ways to run,” Mr. Zandi of Moody’s said. “People are getting comfortable with the idea that this is going for a while.”