Wall Streeters Hunker Down for Many More Months Working at Home

All across Wall Street, the reality is sinking in: Vaccines or no vaccines, offices and trading floors will stay mostly empty for months to come.

Even as the U.S. embarks on its ambitious vaccination campaign, New York’s finance industry, like the rest of the city, is bracing for a long, difficult winter. Hopeful summer plans to bring bankers and traders back to their Manhattan offices have been upended by a relentless rise in new coronavirus cases and dire warnings of more to come.

“I’m in the office now,” Stephen Squeri, chief executive officer of American Express Co., said last week from the firm’s headquarters in lower Manhattan. “But we’ve got the majority of our organization going to be working from home probably until at least June of next year. And we’ll see what happens then.”

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley have already seen employee presence in their headquarters start to thin out over the course of the last month. At JPMorgan Chase & Co., staffing levels have hovered around 20% in New York for much of the fall, but executives expect more people to work from home as the December holidays approach. Bank of America Corp., for its part, stopped increasing the number of invitations for staff to return to its area offices in recent weeks.

The banks’ plans were outlined by people familiar with each lender’s thinking on the matter, and representatives for the companies declined to comment.

The pandemic has left the metropolis and many of its swaggering signature industries confronting an uneasy future. Covid-19 has killed more people in the New York area than in any other U.S. city, and Mayor Bill de Blasio warned on Monday that a full-scale shutdown may lie ahead.

“The governor said we should prepare for the possibility for a full shutdown -- I agree with that,” de Blasio said. “We need to recognize that that may be coming, and we need to get ready for that now.”

Financial institutions have kept a close eye on every dribble of news about the coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., with some even advising groups on how to distribute the shots globally. Lenders’ lobbyists in Washington have also begun advocating for bank tellers and other front-line workers to have early access.

Still, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that the first shots go to health-care workers and those in long-term care facilities, many lenders have started to accept the idea that most workers might not be vaccinated until mid-2021 at the earliest.

“There are a lot of our colleagues that would come back to the office tomorrow if it’s safe,” Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said last week. “So once the vaccine is in, we’ll adjust to see how that all works.”

Landlord Pressure

Over the summer, top real estate owners began pressuring many of New York’s biggest employers -- including Goldman Sachs and BlackRock Inc. -- to speed up the return of workers. Their argument at the time: It was safe to do so, and the city’s shops and restaurants couldn’t last much longer.

Some responded to landlords’ urging. Blackstone Group Inc. has brought back the majority of its investment professionals. The firm is testing people frequently.

But, a few months in, firms that took a more measured approach to repopulating their towers now look prescient.

At Citigroup Inc., for example, an internal survey in September showed 30% of New York-area employees wanted to return to the office in some fashion. The firm never saw that many return on any given day throughout the fall.

As last month’s Thanksgiving holiday approached, the firm jumped ahead of rivals in locking down New York offices, largely limiting entry to necessary personnel.

‘Tapering Back’

“We absolutely like to have our people in when we can have them in, but we’re not going to put them at risk,” CEO Michael Corbat said at a Bloomberg event this month. “We’ve been in the phase of tapering back.”

In some cases, it’s workers themselves who have used the rapidly approaching holidays as an excuse to cut back on commuting. One JPMorgan managing director who’s been taking the train to the bank’s Manhattan tower from Westchester said he’s planning to work remotely for the week before Christmas to reduce the risk of infecting family members over the holiday.

Such plans are creating a vicious cycle for other employees, who would rather stay home because there isn’t enough of a critical mass at the office to make coming in worthwhile. One support worker lamented that his meetings are all happening on Zoom anyway, so he doesn’t see any benefit in risking going to the office.

“Most people are working from home,” Lee Olesky, CEO of trading platform Tradeweb Markets Inc., told investors last week. “We have sell-side trading desks that are back at the desk in the office, but largely our buy side is still remote.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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