By Anirban Sen and David French
(Reuters) - Investment bankers who rushed to court clients in person after COVID-19 vaccines became available last year have been forced to cancel such gatherings at the start of 2022 as the Omicron variant rages.
Bankers say the impact on dealmaking will not be as severe as 2020, when the pandemic started and global mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity fell to a three-year low. They expect the new surge to be short-lived and they have become accustomed to putting together deals virtually through online platforms such as Zoom.
Some fret, however, about losing the chance to cultivate relationships with executives socially. The timing is also poor for bankers hoping to win new assignments, as many large corporations review strategic changes at the beginning of the year.
"My motto has always been, if I'm not in front of my clients, someone else is. But I think this is just a different time. If people want to travel, and they are comfortable doing it, and they take precautions, I'm allowing people," said Drew Goldman, global head of investment banking coverage & advisory at Deutsche Bank AG.
Most of corporate America and Wall Street have asked employees not to come to the office this month, as COVID-19 cases in the United States repeatedly break new daily records. The vaccines have helped prevent hospitalizations and deaths, but infections have surged with the Omicron variant.
Other industries from healthcare to airlines to retail have been hit hard by Omicron. The World Bank on Tuesday cut its forecasts for economic growth in the United States, the Euro area and China and warned that new coronavirus variants and other factors threatened the recovery in developing economies.
JPMorgan Chase & Co, Goldman Sachs Group Inc, Morgan Stanley and other big banks have encouraged staff to work from home to limit the spread of the virus. Some, such as Citigroup Inc, have gone further, implementing a "no jab, no job" policy to push employees to get fully vaccinated -- barring employees who receive an accommodation or exemption.
Many in-person meetings with bankers have been canceled by the companies themselves, according to interviews with six investment bankers who discussed the matter on condition that they and their clients are not identified. Some bankers have also canceled meetings on their own initiative.
It is a u-turn from last year, when bank CEOs, including JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon, Goldman Sachs' David Solomon and Morgan Stanley's James Gorman, urged bankers to use private corporate jets, if needed, to travel and meet clients.
Banks put on lavish dinners and wine-soaked meet-and-greets for clients. Some even rewarded staff with bonuses based on the number of clients they met.
It paid off. The value of M&A globally topped $5 trillion for the first time ever in 2021, according to Dealogic.
As with when the pandemic emerged in 2020, the toll is heaviest on young bankers, who learn their trade and develop contacts by working alongside and traveling with senior colleagues. The social distancing restrictions make it challenging for them to evolve from footsoldiers to rainmakers.
Given the Omicron wave's rapid pace, bankers are hoping to be back in the office and on the road come February.
"We have the chance to kind of go back to more normalcy, hopefully, in the next couple of weeks," said Deutsche's Goldman.
(Reporting by Anirban Sen in Bengaluru and David French in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)