REFILE-DEALTALK-As M&A business cools, banks warm to activist investors

Fri Jan 24, 2014 4:15pm EST
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By Jessica Toonkel, Olivia Oran and Soyoung Kim

NEW YORK Jan 24 (Reuters) - Corporate raiders, long scorned by Wall Street, are gaining new credibility as activist investors, to the point that some investment banks are eager to bestow on them a new title: valued customer.

Big Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are still content to defend corporate America against investors like Carl Icahn and Dan Loeb, who take large stakes in companies with the hopes of effecting such changes as spinning off a division, cutting costs or ousting management.

Protecting the corporate castle is profitable work, part of nearly $70 billion in corporate fees generated by investment banks annually, and big banks fear upsetting their best clients.

Smaller investment banks, though, see a new source of revenue: Working with investors on one corporate campaign could help them win future assignments from another company, which may seek defensive services from banks familiar with the inner workings of activists.

Getting involved in a merger-and-acquisition transaction is also opportune if the target company ultimately pursues a sale of itself under investor pressure.

That's a potentially attractive proposition for an industry still grappling with slow dealmaking activity in the wake of the financial crisis. U.S. M&A fees last year were still down 27 percent from 2007, at $15.9 billion, according to data from Thomson Reuters and Freedman & Co.

"I keep getting calls from people who want to be in this space. Bankers are trying to figure out 'how can I charge for working with activists?'" said Steve Wolosky at Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP, a top lawyer for activist investors such as Starboard Value LP.   Continued...