Wall Street traders are still going into offices — for now. Here’s how WFH could set off a tech scramble at the worst possible time.

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  • Traders, whose working lives revolve around tightly packed, closely-monitored trading floors and critical tech infrastructure, are among the last groups on Wall Street still heading into offices and backup locations en masse.
  • At one large Wall Street firm, universal WFH capabilities aren’t yet in place. Tech and compliance employees are working to get traders the equipment they will need, according to a person briefed on the preparations.
  • At Citigroup, aside from a handful of exceptions, most of the firm’s traders were still in the officeas of Tuesday,split between their main office and backup location in New Jersey, one insider said. 
  • At Goldman’s 200 West Street headquarters, the trading floor was still active but noticeably quieter than normal, according to a person who was there on Monday.
  • One challenge Wall Street traders have faced is a shortage of the fingerprint sensors that Bloomberg LP requires for logging into the terminals remotely, called B-UNITs.
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Traders, whose working lives revolve around tightly packed, closely-monitored trading floors and critical tech infrastructure, are among the last groups on Wall Street still heading into offices and backup locations en masse.

But with government and firm policies evolving quickly, that too could change. And that comes as global markets are being rocked by dramatic swings thanks to supply-chain disruption and coronavirus containment measures. 

Some insiders who are already trading remotely talked to us about their setups, and while they described relatively seamless transitions so far, a larger-scale switch to WFH could present a challenge for firms. 

Followers of financial meme accounts are already sharing photos of remote trading setups, dubbed “‘Rona Rigs.”

Some of the submissions included a half-dozen screens and beautiful mountain views, while others – the “Sad ‘Rona Rigs” – centered on a lonely laptop on a bed or bare desk. A few highlighted young financiers’ drink of choice to pair with a Bloomberg screen: a Corona beer.

At one large Wall Street firm, universal work-from-home capabilities aren’t yet in place. So tech and compliance employees are working to get traders the equipment they will need for an extended period of time, according to a person briefed on the preparations. That would likely include larger screens and recorded lines.

To be sure, some critical staff already have those setups, including devices that resemble the turret phone systems that are ubiquitous on Wall Street, the person said.

And regulators are adopting a more flexible stance to accommodate remote work — for instance, the CFTC is offering relief on things like record-keeping and time-stamping for market players including futures commission merchants, introducing brokers, swap dealers, retail foreign exchange dealers, and floor brokers. 

‘A big test for technology’

A Wall Street equities exec, who has been working from home since last week, said he has two screens at home versus four at work, opting to access the Bloomberg terminal via his iPad.

“The systems we have now, you could log in remotely and still access everything you could have in the office,” he said. But he also noted that “not every single trader needs every single thing.” 

“If you’re managing the hedge book, you’re not making markets, so you don’t need every broker on a turret,” he said. 

Another senior Wall Street sales and trading exec said it’s not easy to spot-deliver the necessary trading tech to people’s homes, and a wide-scale shift to remote work for traders could present challenges. 

“If a whole company has to work from home, it’s going to be a big test for technology,” he said. “If people don’t set up servers correctly and everybody logs in at once, can broadband and servers handle it?”

But for now, working from home on Monday wasn’t all that different — he spent the whole day, from 8 a.m. until about 6:30 p.m., in meetings, albeit via phone. 

B-UNITs in short supply

One challenge Wall Street traders have faced is a shortage of the fingerprint sensors that Bloomberg LP requires for logging into the terminals remotely, called B-UNITs.

The company has had trouble keeping up with getting the devices out to traders who until now never needed them, or are just now discovering they need a replacement, according to a person with knowledge of delays. 

“We are doing everything we can to support our clients in working remotely during this extraordinary time,” a Bloomberg spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement. “We typically offer several options for secure access to the Bloomberg Terminal, and we are expanding those options for clients who are awaiting a new BUNIT.”

The company has been directing customers to a website, where it details work-arounds. 

Tom di Galoma, a managing director at fixed-income trading firm Seaport Global, said a lot of his clients in government bond and Treasuries markets already appear to be working from home, though it can be tough to tell unless it comes up in conversation, since so much communication is done electronically. 

He said that it appeared the dispersion of trading staff across Wall Street is contributing to the choppy markets. He’s working from Greenwich, where Seaport has a sizable presence. Attendance at the firm’s Manhattan headquarters has dwindled, he said. 

“Liquidity is definitely being affected by the fact that the sales and trading staff is not all in one place,” he said. 

As more of Wall Street does move to work from home, they may run into concerns recently expressed by clients of theirs.

David Tawil, who lives on the Jersey shore and commutes to Manhattan most days, said he doesn’t mind spending the next few weeks from his home office. Tawil founded Maglan Capital, an event-driven hedge fund, after a career as a leveraged finance banker at Credit Suisse. 

His home office is located in a loft space above his garage and features a high-speed computer with three screens to display his Bloomberg Terminal. Three is less than the four Tawil has in his Manhattan office, but he’s already gone and saved display setups for the two locations so that when he logs into his Bloomberg terminal, he can select the appropriate dashboard for his location.

“I can’t imagine what this experience is like in the city, having your kids bouncing off the walls,” Tawil said. “It’s an insane undertaking.”

Tawil said that he’d been in touch with contacts at the banks electronically, and that most people had been very responsive. 

Tawil also said that, yes, his wife and kids are home, but that there’s been no noticeable slow-down in connectivity or bandwidth even though his high schooler and middle schooler are logged into school through video-conferencing service Zoom, his four-year old was watching a show, and he’s running his terminal and other applications. 

That may offer some comfort to Joe Mauro, an ex-Goldman Sachs partner who now works at a macro hedge fund. Mauro, who maintains an active Twitter presence, tweeted last week his tongue-in-cheek concerns about having to battle his family for precious bandwidth. 

“Don’t worry. Everyone can trade from home. While all the kids watch Netflix. And study on-line. How do I stockpile bandwidth? @verizon” he wrote on March 14.  

“Hello, Joseph. We’re here to help. Tell us, are you having issues with your data? Is this your home or cellular data?” the wireless provider responded. Mauro went on to ask the company if he could “stock and store” bandwidth for the next few weeks. 

Fast-evolving WFH policies 

JPMorgan said on Sunday night that any of its global employees can work from home if they’d like, except for sales and trading staff, according to a person with knowledge of the bank’s policies. The bank split those employees between its 383 Madison headquarters and backup sites in Brooklyn and New Jersey. 

Goldman Sachs starting Monday split employees into teams, and also divvied up the sales and trading staff among three locations: its New York headquarters; Jersey City, New Jersey and another backup site in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Then, the bank’s top brass then told employees the firm was switching to a more comprehensive work-from-home policy for most starting on Wednesday, according to a memo posted on the Wall Street bank’s website. Still, the memo noted some workers would still need to come in. 

“In all regions, for colleagues who need to be in the office due to the nature of their roles, we will adhere to a comprehensive set of precautionary and social distancing measures to help protect your health and wellbeing,” the latest Goldman memo said. 

At Goldman’s 200 West Street headquarters, the trading floor was still active but noticeably quieter than normal, according to a person who was there on Monday. The cafeteria, where CEO David Solomon has been known to breeze through for a cup of coffee, remains open, with renewed efforts to clean tables and encourage employees to sit farther apart. 

At Citigroup, aside from a handful of exceptions, most of the firm’s traders are still in the office as of Tuesday, split between their main office and backup location in New Jersey, one insider said. 

For those with a more pressing need to work remotely, this person said: “we can ship an entire workstation to their house. What they have at the office they can have in their living room.”

Bank of America hadn’t rolled out a broad WFH policy for its New York office until Friday, when it sent out memos informing staff — not including traders, financial center employees, and others considered essential for operations — they would rotate working remotely in two-week shifts.

And on Monday evening, the firm told employees in New York to work from home effective immediately unless specifically instructed otherwise, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

But traders and their support staff, the vast majority of which are still working in the Manhattan headquarters at One Bryant Park — a smaller number are in a backup office in Stamford — are still required to report to work, as are New York City branch employees.

The about-face, the person said, came in light of drastic measures taken by the New York City government over the weekend to curb the spread of the virus, including ordering the closure of public schools, bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues. 

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