M&A bankers, like cockroaches, survive everything

3 minute read

A man walks along Wall Street in New York September 18, 2008.

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NEW ORLEANS, March 17 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Two years can seem like a long time. When Wall Street’s finest merger bankers and lawyers last convened in New Orleans for the Tulane Corporate Law Institute conference in March 2020, it was less than a week before cities across the United States first shut down to keep Covid-19 at bay. Stocks were plunging, but that didn’t stop advisers from clinking shared shrimp bowls while Centerview Partners founder Blair Effron touted the merits of special-purpose acquisition companies.

Two record years of deal activity later, the conference is hopping again, this time against the backdrop of war in Europe.

There are reasons to be glum. The S&P 500 Index is down 10% so far this year, and chief executives’ confidence, an important driver of deals, is down significantly from its record high in 2021, according to The Conference Board. American merger watchdogs are looking for reasons to block transactions. And at least one deal engine has come to a screeching halt: Just nine blank-check firms bought companies in February, compared to more than 40 in the same month last year.

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That’s not to mention the conflict in Ukraine which, aside from shocking the complacency out of many market players, has sent commodity markets into a tailspin. The resulting sanctions have brought Russia to the brink of default on its international debt.

Yet bankers and lawyers are glass-half-full types. In the past week, Amazon.com closed in on its deal to buy movie studio MGM, and Discovery (DISCA.O) tied up its merger with AT&T’s (T.N) WarnerMedia assets. And some acquirers’ cash coffers are spilling over just as valuations are coming down. Private equity has more than $3.4 trillion in dry powder, according to Bain & Company, while SPACs looking for targets have $190 billion in trust accounts, SPAC Research reckons.

The regulatory environment is top of mind, evidenced by the Tulane keynote address coming from John Coates, formerly the Securities and Exchange Commission’s acting director for corporate finance. Yet even if corporate buyers are pushed to the sidelines, investment firms like Blackstone (BX.N) and Apollo Global Management (APO.N) will seize the moment, just as Elliott Management is doing with its interest, alongside partners, in Nielsen (NLSN.N), a video-ratings business now sporting an enterprise value of nearly $14 billion.

It’s possible that the breakneck pace of deals over the past two years will slow. Whether it’s pestilence or war, however, bankers have a way of keeping the party going.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)


- The Tulane Corporate Law Institute will hold its annual conference in New Orleans on March 17 and 18.

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Editing by Richard Beales and Oliver Taslic

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