In 2019 Goldman advised on 48 campaigns to capture the top spot while Morgan Stanley advised on 37 campaigns, the data shows.
Goldman worked on some of the year's biggest campaigns, helping defend Sony against hedge fund Third Point, AT&T against Elliott Management, and eBay against Elliott and Starboard Value.
In 2018, the two New York-based investment banks advised on roughly the same number of campaigns each with Morgan Stanley having been involved in 33, compared with Goldman Sachs' 32, Refinitiv data shows.
Spotlight Advisors, founded by Greg Taxin, a lawyer who worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Securities, captured the No. 3 spot last year with 31 campaigns.
Spotlight works for both companies and activists, while most banks work only for corporations.
Lazard and Evercore followed on the list with 10 and 9 campaigns, respectively. Both banks worked on more deals in 2018, with Lazard having handled 16 engagements and Evercore having handled 18, Refinitiv data shows.
League tables are compiled by various providers and are often used as data points in trying to woo new clients. But they seldom tell the entire story, bankers have said, noting that discrepancies can arise because many companies fend off activists privately and ask their advisers to stay silent about their involvement.
Activists mounted 400 campaigns last year pushing companies to spin off divisions, put themselves up for sale or give them board seats. The number represents a 21% decline from campaigns mounted in 2018, but activists also went after big companies like AT&T, which were long thought to be out of activists' reach.
Consumer cyclical companies were the most heavily targeted last year, Refinitiv said, with 68 campaigns in the sector.
Elliott Management ranked as the busiest activist, having launched 13 campaigns in 2019.
Okapi Partners and Innisfree were the top proxy solicitors, firms hired to gather shareholders' votes, while Olshan Frome Wolosky beat out two competitors to rank as the busiest law firm with 86 mandates working for activists.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)
By Svea Herbst-Bayliss