Hurry, friends, it's still not too late to buy control of public owned company. IBM may be a bit rich, but there's still Kodak, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, Gulf & Western Industries - you name it. Bargains still abound, despite the market's recent surge and the tremendous outbreak of merger fever - more than 2,7000 announcements in the past 15 months. And this seemingly frantic pursuit of undervalued assets has touched off one of the stock market's biggest speculative binges since the dart-throwing days of the late 1960s.
Every day brings another rash of merger rumors, causing stocks to run up dramatically. Because a fair number of the rumors turn out to be fact, hordes of speculators are chasing virtually any stock with a takeover story to it. It's also no secret that more money is being made on inside information than at any time in the past 10 years.
Significantly, acquisition on experts insist that the chief causes of the merger outburst are still very much in force. In brief: depressed stock prices (with many stocks selling below book value), continued high levels of inflation (making it cheaper to buy than to build), a weak dollar (an incentive for foreigners to buy U.S. companies), unfavorable tax legislation (a disincentive to invest in U.S. equities), and substantial excess cash flows at the corporate level.
"The merger trend is probably going to accelerate," Felix Rohatyn, Lazard Freres's acquisition whiz told me the other week after out $23 breakfast (for two) at New York's Regency Hotel. He sees particulary strong impetus from the growing number of firms running to friendly companies for protection against would-be raiders.
Rohatyn characterizes such deals as "semi-takeovers, partial pregnancy . . . where the management of a company under siege, or expected siege, encourages another company - a white knight - to take a stock position in its firm. And perhaps a few years down the road the two merge."
As another spur, Rohatyn sees the possibility that statutes in certain states that bar takeover or make them difficult will be overturned on constitutional grounds.
According to Rohatyn, the merger game "may just be warming up."
One firm that thinks the same way is mutual fund giant Dreyfus Corp. (assets under management: $3.4 billion) - so much so that it recently started the Dreyfus Mergers and Acquisition Fund Inc.
"People kid me and tell me it's now the top (of the trend), but I don't believe it," says Peter Vlachos, one of the Dreyfus money managers who will be calling the investment shots for the new fund. "My gut feeling is the trend will continue strong unless the market goes very wild on the upside. And if we're in selecting good, undervalved companies these stocks should also go up in a rising market."
Vlachos, who runs the $250 million Dreyfus Leverage Fund, sees future acquisitions focusing on hard assets - manufacturing - because of the continuing need for capital expansion. "It's also where the best bargains are," Vlachos says. He also expects energy acquisitions to remain high.
Vlachos wouldn't say which stocks the new mergers fund would buy, but he listed a number of companies in the Leverage Fund he considers ripe for acquisition. The chief ones: orion Capital (formerly Equity Funding), Beech Aircraft, McGraw-Edison, Foster Wheeler, Inland Container, Data 100 Corp., Tokheim Corp., Daniel Industries, Handy and Herman, Financial Federation, Energy Ventures, General American Oil, and Kaiser Cement. One might suspect that at least some of these companies would be prime candidates for the new Dreyfus fund.
Two of his choices - Financial Federation and General American Oil - are among the stocks most frequently mentioned on Wall Street as acquisition candidates. The others: Asarco, Globe Union, Cooper Laboratories, Cutler-Hammer, Ferro Corp., Foxboro Co., Howard Johnson, Bausch & Lomb, Marshall Field, Hanes Corp., Vornado Inc., Houdaille Industries, and Scott Paper.
With stocks of acquired companies commanding roughly 40 percent premiums above existing market prices, with brokers pushing acquisition candidates like crazy, and with the market itself brimming with value, merger mania is bound to continue for a while.
But there are also dangerous aspects to the trend - described by one source as "merger madness." Many so-called merger stocks are rising solely on rumor. There are no merger talks. And so, when this game runs its course - as it surely will - a lot of investors, as in the aftermath of the swinging Sixties, could be butchered.
Federal Trade Commission boss Mike Pertschuk is also disturbed about the trend. "Obviously, I don't like it," he tells me. "You're seeing the elimination of independent units (smaller companies) and the concentration of economic and political power in fewer and fewer hands."
Not only is Pertschuk opposed to mergers among the biggies, but he doesn't like the idea of a large company swallowing up a string of small companies. "We're going to test our antitrust statutes to the limits of our ability to stop . . . this merger trend," he says. Considering that new and smaller companies have provided the impetus for this country's economic growth, one can understand Pertschuk's fears. It may well be, then, that Washington - not Wall Street - will have the final word on the longevity of merger mania.
ROOKIE TRADER - For the fella seeking the girl of his dreams, look no more. I've got a real gem. She's Marjorie Heidsieck, a fetching and brainy 32-year-old commodities trader who's warm, friendly, and easy to talk to. She recently scored a major breakthrough by becoming the first female member of the New York Coffee and Sugar Exchange (which trades in these commodities). And the guy who eventually corrals her won't have to concern himself about another mouth to feed, because Marjorie personally made about $1 million last year as a commodities broker and trader at Shearson Hayden Stone.
What makes her $1 million performance so astonishing is that she's just a rookie. She didn't know a blessed thing about commodities trading - clearly the most dangerous investment game around because of its very high leverage (you need put up only 10 percent of the price of the commodities contract) - until September 1975. And she didn't even begin to trade commodities (such as coffee, sugar, British pounds, gold and silver) until October 1976.
Majorie, who graduated from NYU in 1973 with a degree in philosophy, originally had thought of being a clinical psychologist. It was not for Marjorie, who craves pressure and excitement. After several routine jobs, she joined Shearson as an assistant in the foreign exchange department in January 1976. Her starting salary was $13,000 a year - but she was to earn over 10 times that before the next 12 months had passed.
Shearson liked what it saw and invited Marjorie to become a commodities broker - which she did in October 1976. Just a few months earlier - it should only happen to all of us - a kindly trader took a liking to her work and personally set up a $10,000 trading account for Marjorie, which they co-managed. By yearend 1976, that $10,000 shot up to $150,000.
In 1977, she repaid the $10,000, took her profits, and began managing the account herself. At present, she has 15 prime clients who provide her with a substantial commission business. But the bulk of the $1 million Marjorie made last year was realized through trading profits in her own account. Thus far in 1978, she is personally ahead about $100,000.
Most commodities players lose money. Why is Marjorie so successful? One reason she gives is her ability to take advantage of the temporary price differences that exist for the same commodity in different parts of the world.
As an example, let's say that in New York. May sugur (a sugar contract expiring in May) is selling cheaper than May sugar in London. Thus, you sell London sugar and buy New York sugar - this is called arbitrage - and you hope to profit when the market recognizes the discrepancies and the differences in price narrow.
Another reason for her success, Marjorie told me, is her emphasis on the "conservative business." Instead of either buying or selling a given commodity, Marjorie will seek to hedge the risk by focusing on spreads - the simultaneous buying and selling of the same commodity at different expiration dates.
Her favorite commodity right now: silver. She also sees further sharp gains in gold.
Marjorie, a divorcee, figures she'll eventually get married again because, as she explained it, "I do want children." But how will a guy feel, I asked her, if he earns, say, $300,000 a year, a mere third of his wife's income? It could be frustrating. Smiling, Marjorie replied: "That's easy. If we get married, I'll just open a joint trading account and then he'll earn a lot more."
WASPS OUT: "If some sheikh wants to buy American Motors, that's okay with me," Sen. William Proxmire told me the other week. The Wisconsin Democrat believes sizable Arab investments in American industry should be strongly encouraged - subject, of course, to the same regulations foreigners impose on U.S. investments. "We've got to get their money (the big petrodollars) back somehow," he says.
Proxmire, who heads the influential Senate Banking Committee, also sees nothing wrong with the Arabs buying big chunks of U.S. banks, even though such investments would provide considerable political and economic clout.
In fact, Proxmire rather likes the idea, noting that U.S. banks are "controlled by the most Waspish elements . . . with no Jews, no Catholics, and no blacks (running the show). It's completely one-sided, too much Anglo-Saxon."