Arbitrage investors love merger Mondays. And many of them were particularly excited today, arriving at the office early to plug their AT&T ( T) models with BellSouth ( BLS) acquisition specifics. Their hope: the long-awaited deal, which is valued at $67 billion and will create the largest telecommunications company in the U.S., would present a chance for easy money. But after a closer look, the deal in the headlines is not the first on the arbitrage list. With many investors calculating 6% returns by the time the deal closes in about a year, other opportunities Monday are more attractive. "If some other arbitrage investor wants to waste his time on a single-digit return, that's fine. I'm focusing on other things," one opinionated investor said. So-called merger arbitrage traders can be likened to scavengers. Their drill, complicated but similar, includes buying up stock of an acquisition target after a deal announcement, and funding it by selling the stock of the acquirer. They make millions on the last "10 cents that a stock moves after a deal report," explains one. David Ikenberry, professor of finance at the University of Illinois, says that once a deal is announced, there is usually some risk that it won't close. Because of that, the price of the target's stock will rise, but not to the full value of the offered premium. The difference between the premium price and the public share price gives arbitrage investors a spread to bid on. The more risk a deal has of not closing, the more money an arbitrager stands to make. But the AT&T transaction didn't give traders what they were looking for. In the deal, AT&T will exchange 1.325 shares of its common stock for each common share of BellSouth. Based on AT&T's Friday closing price of $27.99, that would equal a cash value of $37.09 for each BellSouth share, an 18% premium to BellSouth's $31.46 Friday closing price. Shares of BellSouth were up $3.66, or 11.6%, to $35.12 Monday, about $2 less than the premium price. Investors expected the run to continue, narrowing the market-to-premium spread even more. Shares in BellSouth have shot up over 34% in the past year, and shares have failed to reach above $30 since the middle of 2002. To view Lauren Silva's video take on today's deal,
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Based on recent quotes, the share ratio implies a gain of 4.7% over about a year -- about the same return as a Treasury bond. "The arbitrage opportunity is small," said one investor. "Certainly, the time to be in on this deal was before the announcement." Ikenberry said in big deals like this, everyone in the market is aware of what is going on. "The more certain a deal to close, the higher the stock gets bid on an initial deal announcement," he said. "In other words, the market thinks this deal is going to occur." Investors do expect AT&T to undergo significant regulatory scrutiny, but many say the company will eventually seal the deal. Other bidders, if there are any, are unlikely to change the ultimate outcome. These two factors could only delay the closing of the deal, which just ties up the arbitrage investors' profits and makes investing in that deal even less attractive. Still, arbs didn't seem particularly disappointed. With the flurry of merger activity Monday, there are plenty of other deals to choose from. Blackstone is buying CarrAmerica ( CRE); Providence Equity and Goldman Sachs ( GS) bid for Education Management ( EDMC); and NBC is buying iVillage ( IVIL). Some arbitrage investors are even resurrecting deals from earlier in the year, including BASF's ( BF) hostile takeover battle for Engelhard ( EC) and Wendy's ( WEN) spinoff of Tim Horton's. "I have other things to chose from today," said another arbitrage investor. "What am I missing out on? Not much."