Investment bankers' business of putting together mergers and acquisitions (M&A) has never been stronger. Neither has their fear of missing out on meeting clients.
Bankers are rushing to see CEOs and other top executives in person as restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19 ease.
Dealmaking through Zoom meetings flourished during the pandemic, with M&A volumes in the first quarter of 2021 setting records. The total value of pending and completed deals rose 93 percent to $1.3 trillion, the second-biggest quarter on record, according to Refinitiv data.
More than a dozen investment bankers interviewed by Reuters said they were worried they would lose clients if competitors cultivated them in person. Some fretted they could not expand their clientele without schmoozing in the flesh. Some also said that they or their staff were fatigued from working long hours remotely.
"People became Zoomed out. I was out visiting clients and they were very appreciative to have us back in front of them," said Drew Goldman, global head of investment banking coverage at Deutsche Bank.
"The meetings, frankly, were more productive than they would have been on a phone call or on video conference call," he said, adding that most clients are also tired of Zoom and happy to meet in person.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places.
This announcement made corporate executives more willing to engage in social activities, such as a round of golf and fine dining, that bankers organize to build rapport.
Rendezvous points have ranged from offices and restaurants to country clubs and backyards.
During negotiations for the merger between AT&T's WarnerMedia and Discovery, bankers gathered in Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav's New York City brownstone to hash out details of a deal that would create a company with an enterprise value of over $120 billion.
Toll on young bankers
The pandemic's toll was the heaviest on young bankers, who learn their trade and develop contacts by working alongside and traveling with senior colleagues, dealmakers said.
Social distancing restrictions made it challenging for them to evolve, said one junior banker.
"For younger bankers who are trying to make their way in the world, they're gonna have to be out there, pressing the flesh and meeting people," said Marc Cooper, chief executive of investment bank PJ Solomon.
There is no certainty that travel by bankers will reach pre-pandemic levels. While bankers are eager to travel for business development, many are less keen to spend time with clients on more procedural talks that can be carried out remotely, and they expect that a hybrid model will persist.
"Citi bankers are visiting clients when and where appropriate and safe," said Tyler Dickson, global co-head of banking, capital markets and advisory at Citigroup Inc. "We do so on an as needed basis with our firm's approval and clients' permission, while practicing safety measures such as social distancing and other relevant practices."