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Despite Buffett’s warning, dealmakers party on

Mar 20, 2015

Even Warren Buffett can't stop the mergers and acquisition party.

On Thursday, close to midnight, a few hundred dealmakers crowded in a private room at the House of Blues in New Orleans. There's no one on the dance floor, but the back of the room near the bar is packed. Platters of pulled pork sandwiches circulate around the suited and mostly male crowd. Gumbo and corn bread on the buffet table go nearly untouched by the well-fed attendees. The night before, a party that was hosted by a Delaware law firm at the Harrah's casino had a deep fried turkey carving station and a single-malt-scotch-filled open bar.

The lawyers, bankers, and other corporate consultants are in town for the Tulane Corporate Law Institute, the annual mergers and acquisitions confab for dealmakers.

Late last month, Buffett had some harsh words for bankers and other corporate consultants who advise on deals in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Buffett said that bankers are short-sighted and often push for deals that are not in the best long-term interests of their clients. Bankers, Buffett said, are paid for action. He said they suspend logic and good judgement to get a client to do a big deal, often at a rich price. And then a few years later, "with a straight face," bankers will advise their clients to unwind the bum deal, collecting a fee again. "Money shufflers don't come cheap," Buffett derisively wrote in the letter.

Buffett's unkind words didn't put a damper on the mood at the conference, which drew 520 attendees, up slightly from last year, and its largest crowd ever. Greg Weinberger, who co-heads mergers and acquisitions banking at Credit Suisse, kicked off the conference by predicting that deals and good times for those in attendance would continue in 2015. A survey by PR firm Brunswick that came out right before the conference suggested that corporate combinations could slow in 2015 from its quick 2014 pace.

There was very little open talk about Buffett's critique at the conference. Whether bankers and lawyers' focus on deals is good for corporations was not on the agenda.

And bankers at the conference seemed to brush off Buffett's beef with them. One top banker said he thought Wall Street dealmakers do offer valuable advice to their clients. He said he didn't think Buffett really hated bankers. But he wasn't quite sure what the legendary investor's rant was about. He said Buffett likely had a motive, but he hadn't spent enough time to think about what it was.

Another banker said he thought Buffett's rant wasn't new. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO has criticized bankers before. Nevertheless, he agreed that the role of investment bankers is often overstated. He said most of what bankers do is help companies negotiate transactions and get the best price. He said it's rare for a banker to come up with an idea for a great deal on their own. "We're like real estate agents," said the banker.

A lawyer who defends bankers said there had been some renewed interest in ethics following some recent mergers in which the banker's behavior was questioned. But he said he didn't seen any signs that corporations would turn away from investment bankers altogether. The conference planners saved the topic of ethics for the last panel on the schedule.

Another banker at the conference said he was surprised by Buffett's comments. He said he has done work for Berkshire Hathaway, but he agreed Buffett isn't willing to pay much for investment bankers and often isn't looking for advice.

As conferences go these days, the Tulane get-together is rather low key. The New Orleans conference has been dubbed the Davos for Wall Street. But Davos actually draws many more bankers than the Tulane conference. Most of the attendees this year were lawyers. And the program is more workman-like than other high-profile conferences these days. There were two panels on developments in Delaware law. Attendees earn continuing law credit for attending the conference—even, oddly enough, for a panel on how to deal with the press.

The only boldface name to speak at the conference was Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White. She spoke about activist shareholders, a hot topic at the conference this year. Among attendees, the biggest celebrity was Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine, who was met with handshakes wherever he went.

And there was no big name entertainers like there is at some conferences these days. The tattooed lead singer of the local band at the House of Blues announced between songs that she was happy to be playing for the attendees for the third year in a row. "You guys must know some dirt," she said. "It's different than my dirt, but dirt." The crowd didn't seem to acknowledge she was talking.

Early on Friday morning, just past midnight, a few groups of suited lawyers and bankers could be seen walking among the crowds in the French Quarter. It looked like they were trying to find their way back to their hotel.

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