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Traders lead the way in Wall Street's reopening

SNL ImageWhile COVID-19 rages on in southern and western U.S. states, some major financial institutions have started bringing employees back to corporate offices.
Source: AP Photo

Wall Street is beginning to slowly open back up in the face of another surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

As Florida, Texas and Arizona struggle against a wave of coronavirus cases not unlike the one that hit New York earlier this year, financial heavyweights have started bringing small groups of traders and other staff back into their U.S. offices after months of working from makeshift set-ups in living rooms, basements and spare bedrooms.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. has moved to allow up to half of its sales and trading division to work out of the office if they choose to, according to Brian Marchiony, a spokesperson for the bank. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. opened its New York City, Jersey City, Dallas and Salt Lake City offices in late June to a small number of volunteer employees across the company, not just traders. And about 700 Barclays PLC employees, less than 1% of its total headcount, were allowed to return to the British bank's offices in the U.K., U.S. and India in July. Traders and other employees in the trading division accounted for a large portion of those voluntary returns.

"My guess is one day we'll all be back to work and some of the things that we do, call it 10%, might be done at home," JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon said July 14 during a conference call with reporters. "I think there are huge benefits to people being together for their creativity."

Corporate executives in the U.S. have been grappling with whether, when and how to reopen offices with the coronavirus outbreak dissipating in some parts of the country but erupting in others.

New York City, the capital of the U.S. financial system, has seen a steady drop in new cases of COVID-19. The city reported a preliminary tally of 49 new cases July 18, according to New York City's health department. As a result, office occupancy around the New York metropolitan area has started to tick up, rising 0.8 percentage point to 10.1% between the weeks of July 1 and July 8, according to Kastle Systems International LLC's Back to Work Barometer, which measures key card access data from the security company's U.S. clients.

There is still some hesitancy, though. On July 10, BTIG LLC became one of the first major U.S. financial institutions to say its offices would remain closed to all staff, including traders, for the rest of 2020.

"The quick and committed pivot to remote work by all of our employees has been remarkable," COO Jennifer Mermel said in a statement. "There is no need for any immediate return to the office in any of our U.S. locations. Our staff is secure in their positions, business is operating without disruption, and client feedback has been strong. When the indicators change, BTIG will respond accordingly."

SNL ImageTraders have started to return to work on Wall Street as case totals in New York have declined.
Source: AP Photo

For the employees of financial firms that are reopening their offices, the COVID-19-era workplace stands to be vastly different than the one workers left months ago. Strict mandates to socially distance from their peers, wear face masks and limit trips to the bathroom have all become common components of new office rules.

Traders at T. Rowe Price Group Inc. have been split into three groups, which rotate taking one week in the office that is then followed by two weeks of working remotely, according to Marc Wyatt, head of global trading for the Baltimore-based asset manager. Enacted July 6, the policy does not mandate traders go into the office on the week that they are allowed to, he said in an interview. Masks are required in all common areas of the company's building, there are markings in the elevators to avoid overcrowding and temperatures are checked when employees enter the building, Wyatt said.

Questions over the spread of COVID-19, as well as other factors such as whether schools and daycare centers reopen, is leading T. Rowe Price to take a flexible approach with its return to the office, Wyatt said. Maryland saw a drastic decline in COVID-19 cases after hitting a peak in late May, but has seen its case count begin to rise back up in recent days.

Much of Wall Street has been pushing to get trading desks back into the office in particular because of observable differences in how their jobs are executed at home.

"There's a human nature element of it," said Greenwich Associates LLC Managing Director Kevin McPartland, who leads the CRISIL Ltd.-owned company's market structure and technology research practice, in an interview. "[Companies] have to start somewhere, so why not start with the [teams] where natural human interaction is most valuable?"

In the office, traders can bounce ideas off one another and often find themselves benefiting from "spontaneous collisions" with their colleagues, said Deloitte Consulting LLP Principal Darin Buelow, who leads global location strategy for the company. Then there is the top-of-the-line technology and connectivity that most traders are accustomed to using to watch markets from their office desks.

At home, traders have found themselves in a situation familiar to other formerly office-bound workers. Kids, pets and daily household tasks get mixed into the bustle of their day-to-day jobs. Their interactions with colleagues, meanwhile, are being limited to instant messages, video conferences and, in some cases, intercom speaker set-ups called squawk boxes that allow them to talk to one another more freely. Internet connections on home Wi-Fi is shared with kids doing online learning and significant others also working remotely. And compliance has started to emerge as a pressing issue, with firms unable to keep as close an eye on traders as they would on the trading floor.

"The energy of the trading environment is difficult to replicate in Zoom," Buelow said in an interview.

Yet, trading from home has gone better than expected for many Wall Street veterans who had little experience doing so before the pandemic, according to interviews with traders and executives conducted over the past two months.

Portfolio managers and clients of T. Rowe Price, for instance, have seen "no degradation" as a result of the asset manager's traders moving out of the office, Wyatt said. That is prompting conversations across the country about if and how traders could begin working from home more often post pandemic.

"This is making everyone reconsider what work from home policies can be," Wyatt said. "Do I think there will be opportunities for pockets of traders to work remotely? Yes."

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.