BREAKINGVIEWS-M&A league table folly put on full display

Fri Mar 25, 2011 9:12am GMT

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-- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions -- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --

By Jeffrey Goldfarb

NEW YORK, March 25 (Reuters Breakingviews) - One of Wall Street's favorite spectator sports will produce howls from the grandstand this quarter. Listen for the collective gasp at the slump by all-star Goldman Sachs (GS.N) from the top spot in the U.S. merger rankings this time last year to an all-time low of tenth place. And rounds of applause will resonate at the dramatic rise of the underdog boutiques, led by Evercore (EVR.N). But take note: appearances are deceptive in this financial arena.

The M&A business got off to its best start since 2007 with $717 billion of announced deals, according to preliminary data released by Thomson Reuters. The figures always include peculiarities because of some of the quirky methodology the industry insists upon, but they look unusually flattered in this latest period.

For example, the biggest deal is a $59 billion recapitalization at the bailed-out insurance giant AIG (AIG.N). Five banks got credit for a transaction that speaks little to any of their abilities to dispense strategic merger advice. What's more, the fees will have been lower for this sort of activity, especially given the client was essentially Uncle Sam.

The second-largest deal is this week's $39 billion AT&T (T.N) whopper. It's a straightforward enough takeover, but one with an outsized risk of never making it to the finish line. That means those that missed out -- like Goldman -- might have missed nothing. Even if AT&T can persuade regulators to sign off, the six financial firms handling the transaction may need to wait at least a year before cashing any significant client checks.

Strip out these two deals and what happens? JPMorgan (JPM.N) remains on top but dinkier Lazard (LAZ.N) ascends from ninth to second. And Goldman pops up to a respectable number three.

Then there's the apparent resurgence of boutique advisers. The likes of Perella Weinberg and Moelis turned up in some unexpected places. But Evercore, Greenhill and Rothschild also helped boost the estimated share of U.S. fees earned by independent advisers with the same funky and uncertain deals as their bulge-bracket rivals. And on a global basis, their share actually shrank a little.

League table watching is always entertaining but it pays to keep a detailed scorecard.

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CONTEXT NEWS

-- Worldwide announced M&A volume in the first quarter increased 58 from a year ago to $717 billion, according to preliminary data released on March 25 by Thomson Reuters. Morgan Stanley took the top position on the list of advisers, with credit for working on $203 billion of deals.

-- In the U.S. rankings, Goldman Sachs fell from first to tenth while JPMorgan surged from eleventh to first. Evercore ranked seventh globally and fourth in the United States, the highest spot for any of the boutique or independent advisory firms.

-- Reuters story: Goldman slides to 10th spot in U.S. M&A ranks [ID:nL3E7EP0FV]

-- M&A trends graphic: r.reuters.com/kyb46q

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-- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can -- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on [GOLDFARB/]

(Editing by Rob Cox and David Evans)

((jeffrey.goldfarb@thomsonreuters.com)) Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS M&A/