Wall Street adjusts to working at home: Lost screen real estate, Citi’s new ‘world headquarters’

Finance

A man cleans up on the trading floor, following traders testing positive for Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., March 19, 2020.

Lucas Jackson | Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic has roiled capital markets, but it has also led to something that was once unthinkable on Wall Street: working from home for a prolonged period of time. 

Both the CME Group and the New York Stock Exchange closed their trading floors last month. Major banks and asset managers have also forced most of their workforce to set up shop at home until the coronavirus threat recedes. 

These measures come during unprecedented market volatility. The S&P 500 fell into a bear market in March, less than a month after reaching an all-time high. 

They have also forced finance — an industry that for a long time required people to show up to the office or trading floor — to suddenly shift gears. CNBC spoke with several Wall Street players to see how they are adjusting to their new circumstances. 

Less ‘screen real estate’

Christian Fromhertz, CEO of Tribeca Trade Group, an options trading shop based in New York, has two “really big” monitors in his office to go with three “small” ones. However, his trading set-up has changed drastically since late March.

Fromhertz and his girlfriend set up shop at her parents’ house in Ohio, which is currently empty while they spend winter and part of the spring in Florida. There, instead of a trading desk with five monitors, he has one “really big” monitor and two laptops, limiting his “screen real estate.”

“That’s the biggest adjustment for a trader,” said Fromhertz, noting he ordered an “adapter to turn a TV into another monitor.”

Fromhertz said he and his girlfriend decided to leave their apartment in Hoboken, NJ just before the state ordered non-essential businesses to close down. 

“It was about a nine-hour drive to get out here but I think it was the right thing to do,” said Fromhertz. “The concern was that our place is kind of small and we would just keep bumping heads. But her parents have a big house and no one’s using it.”

“If we were working from home in Hoboken, we’d be talking over each other while we were on our calls, which would not be good,” he said.

Still, Fromhertz said he has been able to execute his trading strategy without “missing a beat.” For others, however, it has not been a rockier transition to working from home.

‘It gets a little tricky’

Al Marquez is a trading floor broker for Chicago Capital Markets at the CME Group specializing in euro/dollar and Treasurys options and futures.

Since the CME Group closed its trading floor in mid March, it has been an uphill challenge for Marquez.

“On any given day, the pit would far outperform electronic markets. The main reason for that is, at least in our contracts, they’re so complicated,” said Marquez, who has been working from home since the trading floor closed. “You’ve got 50 or 60 different contracts that are tradable and then spreadable against each other.”

“We’re very limited as to what we can do now with these particular products, so it will be interesting to see what happens,” he said. “It gets a little tricky and certainly more so for the market makers to determine what their values are going to be in setting up their models.”

Wall Street has also had to adapt to new ways of communication, particularly video conferencing. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom Video and Cisco Systems’ Webex have seen a massive spike in users as the pandemic pushes people to work from home. 

‘You do what you can do to stay connected’

Last week, Zoom said its daily active users jumped to more than 200 million in March, blowing past its previous record of 10 million. Sri Srinivasan, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s collaboration group, told CNBC last month that Webex’s active users were at all-time highs.

But while the video conferencing facilitates communication between co-workers, it has its drawbacks.

“There’s a reason creativity happens in groups,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities. “Whether it’s coming up with creative ideas to attack a research project or coming up with interesting ways to remain present in front of your investors; I think that’s what gets diminished over video conferencing.”

“You do what you can do to stay connected, but that’s where I struggle. There’s a reason we cluster together, to get these synergies of creative thought,” said Hogan, who is working from his home outside of Boston. 

Gregory Faranello, head of U.S. rates trading at AmeriVet Securities, echoed Hogan’s thoughts.

“I like the camaraderie of working on a trading floor,” said Faranello, who is working from home in Long Island. “I don’t think there’s any replacement for that; being around your colleagues and sharing information because I certainly don’t have all the ideas. I love to share my ideas but also get input.”

Citi’s new ‘world headquarters’

There is another challenge Wall Street has had to face lately: taking care of the kids during work hours.

Schools around the country have shifted to online curriculums as states issue stay-at-home orders. However, daycare centers for younger children have closed and personal sitters are unable to do their job. 

“The biggest adjustment has been tag-teaming with my lovely wife and trying to figure out when we can take calls and eat meals and spend time with the kids,” said Brian Nick, chief investment strategist at Nuveen, who has three kids under the age of seven. “I’ve found it more pleasurable and manageable than I would have expected. That’s not to say it’s not stressful.”

“It’s a change for sure, but everybody is in the same boat,” Nick said.

Even Michael Corbat, CEO of Citigroup, has had to adjust. On Wednesday, he told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” he is sheltering in place with his wife, son and daughter in law.

“‘World headquarters’ is set up in something that’s a little bit bigger than a closet,” he said. “The day starts, clearly, with the family, but it’s thinking about our people, or 200,000 people and how to keep them out of harm’s way.”

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