After the two busiest years for energy deals, the party has fizzled out and next year is not looking much better. Mergers and acquisitions in the North American energy industry have fallen this year as buyers' preferences for smaller assets and joint ventures limited corporate takeovers. The largest deal this year was Devon Energy's US$6 billion purchase of Eagle Ford shale assets, while last year there were three acquisitions of entire companies exceeding that amount, led by the US$15 billion takeover of Nexen. Energy stocks are still more expensive than their historical averages, widening the gap between asking and selling prices. That will hold buyers back from big deals again next year, said Topeka Capital Markets, which sees targets limited to cheaper companies that are concentrated in a single shale basin, such as Energen and Oasis Petroleum. Acquirers will continue to pick off assets without having to pay the premium required for an entire company, Oppenheimer analyst Fadel Gheit said. "Buyers are playing a card game: You don't want the whole deck, but you want the one card that will give you the ultimate hand," he said. "Expensive companies and assets are out of the question." Deal volume in the industry so far this year - US$117 billion - is the lowest since 2008, and if the tally does not grow by the end of the year it will be down 37 per cent from last year's US$186 billion. It is being dragged down by the slower pace of energy corporate takeovers, which total just US$51 billion, compared with the US$59 billion of asset sales, joint ventures and minority purchases announced this year. The record year for energy deals was in 2011, when there was US$213 billion of transactions. Corporate takeovers accounted for the largest transactions last year and exceeded asset sales, joint ventures and minority purchases. At the top of the list was the sale of Calgary-based Nexen to CNOOC. At the same time, oil and gas stocks - particularly ones with shale exposure - have been getting more expensive, with companies in the MSCI North America Energy Index valued last week at an average of 7.3 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation, versus an average of 6.6 in the past five years. "Companies are always looking for bargains, and to tell you the truth, there are no bargains left," Gheit said.