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M&A: Slack times as urge to merge fades

Highly-paid M&A bankers have precious few deals to keep them occupied in the present cautious climate. Advice is taking up much more of their time, as is research to find the likeliest candidates for that elusive business breakthrough. They are also reorganizing to focus on sectors that are not entirely dormant.

Author: Jennifer Morris "There's no crisis out of which an M&A professional cannot make money," says the head of M&A at one investment bank. Except perhaps the crisis of no activity at all. Even before September 11, volumes for 2001 were set to be far down on the previous year but the events of that day froze the market.

Only one or two deals have been announced since. The US directors of one large company have flown to London to begin negotiating a major UK acquisition, says one banker. There's plenty of theorizing that the world airline industry must now consolidate. And private-equity buyers - those that is not totally preoccupied with collapsing values of companies in their portfolios - are sniffing around bargains in distressed sectors from insurance to transport. But there are precious few deals to shout about. UK advertising group WPP has made the headlines by trying to pull out of its £434 million ($608 million), £5.55 per-share offer for media-buying group Tempus, on the grounds that the terrorist attacks have wrought a material adverse change in its business.

The crucial questions among M&A bankers now are when the thaw will come and what they should do to keep their hands warm until then.

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