Acquisition transactions in the engineering sector last year had a double-digit falloff to the lowest level since 2013 and the sharpest decline rate since the recession, according to a new analysis by one sector consultant and deal broker. But others report a less drastic decline.

Morrissey-Goodale reports a 15% drop in design-firm M&A deals in 2016, to 202 from 238, with global transactions also falling to levels not seen since 2012. The firm also claims that, for the first time since then, more U.S. firms were acquiring abroad than overseas buyers entering the domestic market. “This puts decision-makers in uncharted territory since M&A typically rises or falls in sync with the economy,” says firm principal Mick Morrissey. “This is the first time in over 20 years that industry has seen declining consolidation in a growing economy.”

Morrissey says the slowdown in sector deals “mirrors the larger economy,” with overall business acquisitions down almost 10% last year. He says uncertainty in a presidential election year had not been a key factor in deal rates in the prior two election cycles and points to growing buyer selectivity. “It would appear that the industry is now in a buyer’s market, and sellers may start to see downward pressure on valuations,” says Morrissey. “It’s counter to everything we have seen … so we’re in a brave new world.”

Steven Gido, a principal at Rusk O’Brien Gido + Partners, says his firm’s analysis shows a 4% AE deal drop in 2016, with “fewer ENR 500” deals “but plenty of activity [among] targets with less than $10 million in revenue.” Gido says he is “optimistic that 2017 will be a year of mid-single-digit percent gains” in industry M&As. Andrej Avelini, managing director of deal broker EFCG, agrees that deal-making among mid-size and small firms “remains as strong as ever,” but he notes that some overseas clients “put some North American deal assignments on hold.”