Morning Coffee: The actual horrors of working from home in finance. Some bankers are recovering from COVID-19
If you liked being stuck at the office all day in endless meetings, you’re going to love being stuck at home all day in endless virtual meetings. That seems to be the shared experience in Wall Street and London as the first week of pandemic precautions starts to really hit home. Goldman Sachs appears to have solved the “nobody wants to be on Team B” problem by referring to its two rotating groups of employees as “Team Blue” and “Team White”. Other banks seem to be increasingly moving in the direction of emptying out the office buildings and moving as many people as possible to home working. We’re already seeing plaintive calls in morning emails for the government to permit the urgent delivery of trampolines, climbing frames and other means of getting bored kids out of the house, a service which might be more essential to the economy than you’d necessarily think.
And it appears that investment bankers are taking a while to get used to the culture shock – which is considerable, in a profession that’s famously gregarious and which has always placed a premium on physical presence and direct contact. In the initial stages of getting used to their own company, it seems that many in finance have tried to reach out for the next best thing – scheduling as many group chats and videocalls as possible, enough to fill up the day for many of those interviewed even though the markets are moving fast enough to occupy all of a normal working day and more.
But it doesn’t seem to be enough. As RBS chairman Philip Hampton says, “So much of crisis management is looking people in the eyes”, and that’s quite difficult when nobody can really manage to look straight into their webcam, the toddlers are running into the room every couple of hours and half the team are distracted by sending Bloomberg messages about how hideous they think the MD’s wallpaper is. There’s a strong sense that once things have got back to normal, the parties to the Great Home-Working Debate will have switched sides – cost-conscious managers will be keen to cut back on expensive office space, while employees who remember the pandemic experience will be horrified at the idea of repeating it.
For the comparatively few souls left making the journey over to the trading floor, things almost seem to be more comfortable. Only “staff needed for essential financial services provision” are allowed out of their houses in the UK lockdown, which in practice seems to mean a small core of trading teams who need access to particular IT systems that can’t (or shouldn’t) be connected to the internet. These key staff are being looked after with Uber rides to stop them having to take public transport and much wider desk space to ensure separation. There’s apparently “a kind of camaraderie” developing between those who share the eerie experience of the cavernous trading floors and empty corridors. At least they seem to have been spared the absolute sum of all hardships – early indications appear to be that the first quarter of 2020 has been a record one for revenues.
And, in separate news, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. At HSBC, the analyst whose coronavirus case triggered the clearing of the building is now recovered and able to work again. In Hong Kong, a Goldman Sachs banker who had tested positive at a private clinic has now been found to be clear of the virus on a re-test. Given the progress of the virus and the illness, this kind of story is going to become more and more common over the next few weeks; worldwide, more than 100,000 people have already been certified as having recovered from the virus, more than a third of the total number of infections. Presumably as more bankers move into this category – as long as they’re able to get tested, and as long as they’re immune – more people will be able to move back into the offices with a reasonable degree of confidence that they’re neither vulnerable themselves nor a danger to others. There are awful times ahead, but there’s also hope.
The problem with basing your investment strategy on big data is that every now and then, something comes along which is nothing like anything in the dataset. Quant funds in general have been racing to reduce positions over the last week, and even the Big Three – Renaissance, TwoSigma and DE Shaw – are all feeling (and quite possibly causing) the pain from the last few weeks’ movements. (FT / WSJ)
Masayoshi Son is digging in, buying more Softbank shares on margin like he did in the dot com bust. This might create awkward moments for the crew of former Deutsche bankers surrounding him, many of whom are generally also expected to show their confidence in the company and its funds. (Bloomberg)
The combination of mandatory work-at-home policies and mass layoffs is creating incredibly unpleasant situations for bosses and workers at American companies, who are having to handle the worst meetings anyone will ever experience via videocall or chat. (Vice)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but my lower back feels fine. The makers of Aeron chairs have been seeing a rush in retail sales as bankers try to mitigate the physical discomfort of their hastily arranged homeworking spaces. (Bloomberg)
After “Rona Rigs”, the latest homeworker social media trend is to show off your “business up top, party down below” outfit, combining something that looks suitably professional in a Zoom call with something that makes the whole ensemble a bit more Instagrammable (WSJ)
The benefit of working from Hawaii – your #ronarig pictures have a great background. The snag – you’re six hours away from your colleagues. Goldman Sachs co-head of investment banking Gregg Lemkau is sharing the aloha as M&A bankers work through the dwindling pipeline of deals where due diligence and site visits had already been done. (Bloomberg)
One bright spark for IBD guys; US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been given a budget of $100m to pay investment banking fees for help with administering and financing the USA’s various asset purchase and bailout programs. (Bloomberg)
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