Cowen & Co., one of Wall Street's last private partnerships, is up for auction, and a deal could be announced next week.

The firm is in talks with KeyCorp, BankBoston Corp., the French bank Societe Generale, and Toronto-Dominion Bank of Canada, according to merger advisers.

If a deal is struck, Cowen would follow such privately held firms as Montgomery Securities, Oppenheimer & Co., and Dillon Read & Co., which in the past year elected to sell out to big banking companies for big prices. The auction was reported in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday.

Cowen's business mix is similar to that of Hambrecht & Quist Group, a firm whose stock has been bid up by investors in recent months on bets that it will be sold.

Both investment banks specialize in underwriting technology and health- care-related companies. Cowen underwrote $1.1 billion worth of common stock offerings last year, ranking it 18th, according to Securities Data Co., and Hambrecht underwrote $1.2 billion, ranking it 17th.

But merger advisers said a deal for the privately held Cowen would be easier to structure than one for the publicly traded Hambrecht.

The chief advantage of buying Cowen instead of Hambrecht, advisers said, is that it is easier to please both management and shareholders of a closely held partnership, since they are often the same people.

Partnerships can be more flexible in allowing an acquirer to defer payments to the seller, for example, whereas shareholders in publicly traded companies generally want their money right away.

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