NEW YORK • The life of a Wall Street trader was once one of business trips and work dinners, but now it is anything but.
The culprit, as with so many of the economic and financial disruptions the United States has faced over the past months, is the coronavirus pandemic, which has rendered life for the brokers, bankers and business people fuelling the world’s largest economy much more lonely.
People working on high-priced transactions like initial public offerings, bond deals or mergers and acquisitions “used to travel a lot to meet clients”, who would typically sign agreements only in person, recalled Mr Karl Haeling of LBBW bank.
“Now they would very happily give the mandate without seeing you,” he added.
Wall Street sits in the heart of New York City, an early epicentre as the Covid-19 outbreak in the US turned into the world’s worst, with more than 224,000 deaths and eight million cases nationwide.
The pandemic’s intensification in March temporarily cleared the market makers from the New York Stock Exchange’s boisterous floor and forced traders across Wall Street to retreat indoors, relying on their phones, e-mail and instant messaging systems to talk with clients.
“People are doing brainstorming on these various video platforms and they are coming up with product ideas remotely,” said Mr Daniel Alpert, founding managing partner at investment bank Westwood Capital.
But that has not held indices back. The Nasdaq and S&P 500 have both recovered from their massive plunges in March, while the Dow has also regained most of its strength, though millions remain jobless and unemployment is at a high 7.9 per cent.
Aided by a secure Internet connection, Mr Haeling holds 30-minute meetings twice per day to keep up with colleagues about the markets, politics and the omnipresent coronavirus threat, a work-from-home routine he said suits him fine.
“I went back (to the office) for three days in the summer because of a storm which cut the power at home, and I realised how inefficient it is because I spent three hours on the train,” he said.
But even with the virus still a threat across the US, traders are slowly trickling back to Wall Street.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates there are 460,000 people employed by the financial sector in the city, and their work is considered an essential service under state law.
The New York Stock Exchange reopened in May with traders donning masks and separated by plexiglass, while Mr Alpert started working from his office again at the end of June.
But rather than the 15 or so people who usually show up in his office, it is just him and occasionally another partner.
Earlier this month, he attended his first in-person business lunch since the coronavirus’ arrival, “outside, of course”, and closed a recent deal with around eight people in the same room.
“There are just some times when you really do need the high-speed interaction,” he said.
BNP Paribas, which had a few cases of employees testing positive for the virus or suspecting they had it, has let about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of its staff return.
Visitors are banned in the office, but in a tour given to an Agence France-Presse journalist over live video, traders could be seen scattered over a long line of desks and separated by plexiglass, with floor markings encouraging people to socially distance.
“Anything is on the table to give our employees flexibility,” said Mr Kevin Abraszek, the bank’s head of human resources change and transformation.
Staff at other banks have returned as well. JPMorgan Chase asked all its heads of brokerage and sales divisions, who were still teleworking, to return to the office by the middle of last month, with exceptions for medical conditions or childcare needs.
But only about 20 per cent of its staff show up, and who reports to the office often differs by the day.
At investment bank Goldman Sachs, about 30 per cent of staff are in the office.
Outside Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, there is no doubt the neighbourhoods are not back to their former selves.
Traders in their uniforms of sleeveless fleece vests no longer flock to Wall Street each morning, and industry officials acknowledge it may take a while longer before normalcy returns.
“We are trying to instil a longer-term new… working culture in which working from home will remain part of what we do,” Mr Abraszek said. “It is just a question of how much that will be.”
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