The pandemic forced Wall Street dealmaking into the digital age, but many bankers want to get back to the way things were — and that includes traveling again.



As the delta variant of coronavirus spreads, many firms on Wall Street are pushing their workers to get back to dealmaking in person. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: When a company tries to buy another company, negotiations can get heated. Jonathan Knee is a senior adviser at the investment bank Evercore. And he says there are bound to be tough questions about sales targets and compensation.

JONATHAN KNEE: And you can do that on Zoom, but it's very hard to see the sweat (laughter) dripping down their forehead when you do that.

GURA: In mergers and acquisitions, the bankers and lawyers on one side of the table pride themselves on being able to size up the bankers and lawyers on the other side of the table. James Davies has spent more than 20 years doing deals at Deutsche Bank. And he says that in his line of work, there's just no substitute for negotiating in person.

JAMES DAVIES: I think that, especially if you're looking to actually sign a deal with someone, I think the body language, the - you know, the nonverbal cues are incredibly important. And I don't see that changing.

GURA: And, really, Wall Street doesn't want that to change. A few months ago, many financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank, decided it was safe enough to give the go-ahead to bankers to travel again.

DAVIES: So I've done quite a lot, and it's important.

GURA: Davies has learned how to navigate testing and quarantine requirements. One of his first trips was to the U.K.

DAVIES: I, despite having been vaccinated twice, was tested eight times. I had to quarantine in one place for five days when in London again having tested negative and being vaccinated twice.

GURA: But he says the chance to meet with clients and colleagues was worth it. Investment banking is a client-driven business. There is a sign in Goldman Sachs' New York headquarters that reads don't let a day pass without client interaction. It's one of the firm's principles, and there is an addendum - in person beats video, video beats phone and phone beats email. Jonathan Knee at Evercore says at this point, two things are driving business travel, and first and foremost is what customers demand.

KNEE: Even during the pandemic, if your clients were in Texas, if you didn't fly down and see them, they knew you were a wimp, and they didn't want wimps working for them.

GURA: Which brings us to the second reason bankers are back on the road and that is FOMO. This is Wall Street, and no one wants to miss out on a deal, especially one that could bring in millions of dollars' worth of fees. But this push to travel again also has to do with tradition because bankers' business has been just fine during the pandemic. In fact, this has been a record-setting year as COVID-19 forced dealmaking into the digital age. Attorney Bill Curtin, for one, welcomes the change.

BILL CURTIN: Pre-COVID, I lived on United Airlines.

GURA: Curtin is the global head of mergers and acquisitions at a big law firm called Hogan Lovells. And for almost 30 years, he's done what M&A lawyers do - or what they did do until recently. His weeks were filled with quick turnaround trips to Munich and Asia to cut deals in person. But now...

CURTIN: I think that the landscape has changed. It has not eviscerated the need for business travel, but it has dramatically reshaped it.

GURA: Curtin argues virtual negotiations make it easier for his colleagues and him to do more deals. But Jonathan Knee says, on Wall Street, change happens slowly.

KNEE: I think that's going to be a process that's going to take a while for people to come to grips with.

GURA: And in the meantime, financial firms are reverting to the way things were, and bankers are going to continue to travel. David Gura, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.