Mandates, COVID spike bringing Wall Street back to square one


The Wall Street holiday party circuit is a usually great place to have some laughs and pick up a few scoops. Not this year. The scoops are fewer than usual, as are the laughs, because COVID was supposed to be over and as we know, it’s not. 

No, the big story circulating among bankers and traders as they sip their party drink of choice is that we all should party like it’s 1999 because word from their bosses is that seriously protracted lockdowns could soon be coming.

The banks are actually moving back toward COVID square one: People working from home, many more Zoom meetings with clients and in general hiding from a virus that experience tells us can’t be escaped.

The Street isn’t ready to officially announce any of this, my sources say. And who knows, maybe the bank chiefs will soon grow a pair and learn to live with something that isn’t going away no matter how many times ­Anthony Fauci or ­Rochelle Walensky tell us to mask up on the treadmill. 

But you know something is up (aside from the ominous party chatter) when Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan and James Gorman of Morgan Stanley start doing 180s on their back-to-office mandates. Recall that along with Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, they were the COVID tough guys: “Get to work or else” were their marching orders just a few weeks ago. 

Not so much anymore. “Between now and Jan. 3, 2022,” Morgan Stanley is telling brokers in NYC “to work remotely . . . limit business get-togethers” because of an uptick in COVID in the city and at the firm, an internal memo says.

David M. Solomon, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs
Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon previously demanded his employees to return to their offices as soon as possible.
REUTERS/Mike Blake/File

Gorman, who once likened office-hesitant employees to pantywaists, now tells CNBC “everyone is finding their way” and concedes he was too harsh in his strict office policy where he implored people to get back at their desks by Labor Day. That, of course, was two COVID variants ago. These days, Gorman isn’t challenging the toughness of people who prefer to do their jobs via Zoom.

Ditto for Dimon. The man who runs the nation’s biggest bank said COVID was in the “rearview mirror” a few months ago. He said he hated the work-from-home routine that the Street adopted during the initial phase of the pandemic so much that employees who didn’t return to the office without a medical reason faced disciplinary action.

These days, a kindler, gentler Jamie is roaming the halls of JPM. Word out of the bank is that the back-to-office mandate won’t be so hard and fast going forward. And if cases keep piling up, it could be ditched completely depending on the job as the bank scrambles to adjust to what it believes could be a 2020-like COVID situation.

James Gorman, chairman and chief executive officer of Morgan Stanley.
Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman admits COVID-19 variants are “continuing to be an issue,” in an interview with CNBC.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg

At JPM expect more Zoom meetings and conferences (another Dimon pet peeve). Example: Dimon’s biotech bankers couldn’t wait to mingle with drug-company clients at the firm’s annual health-care conference in early January after last year’s virtual event. 

But Moderna — the same biotech powerhouse that once boasted a 90 percent efficacy COVID vaccine — said its people wouldn’t attend in-person because of the new possible vaccine-resistant variant.

That means it’s back to the dreaded Zoom for conference attendees.

JP Morgan and Chase CEO Jamie Dimon
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie ­Dimon had dismissed the remote work lifestyle.
REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File

“The facts will determine where we go from here,” said one JPM exec. “If the variant get worse, if hospitals fill up, we will be taking more steps backward.”

At least we have Christmas parties, right? Well it seems the ones I attended were good while they lasted. A slew of big banks, including Citigroup and Jefferies, have been joined by Goldman Sachs CEO Solomon (yes the same one who wants everyone in the office), boutique bank LionTree as well as UBS in canceling such festivities even with one week to go before the holiday.

You can’t totally blame the executives for their inconsistent approach to dealing with COVID; they take their orders from the clown show that aptly described how our government, both at the federal and state level, has dealt with the pandemic.

The nanny-staters in Albany basically shut down New York City last year to businesses and turned Manhattan in a playground for the homeless and criminals. And they’re starting to put out similar feelers now: NY Gov. Hochul’s absurd mask mandate for businesses that in practicality extends to the vaccinated defies the reality of the pandemic: It’s mostly one of the unvaccinated getting seriously sick. Hospitals aren’t filling with vaccinated people, and it’s pretty hard to convince someone to get a jab if they still need to wear a mask.

On the federal level, Fauci and Walensky mean well, but they’re also fighting yesterday’s battles with mask rules and even hints that we could go back to hiding in our basements as Omicron spreads.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul is threatening businesses once again with another mask mandate when the majority of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated.
Hans Pennink

COVID spread despite harsh lockdowns. Vaccines, while not perfect, clearly take the edge off the pandemic. Treatments like monoclonal antibodies work, and others that are more easily administered are on the way. And the evidence so far is that the Omicron variant is milder than the others.

The public knows much of this, which is why there is close to zero appetite for lockdowns other than from our medical bureaucracy, blue-state pols like Hochul and their media cheerleaders.

Here’s a thought: Why don’t Fauci, Walensky and Hochul, with some assistance from Dimon and Gorman, urge President Biden to redirect the trillions already authorized for a real stimulus: Making sure these new treatments are readily available to all Americans so we can just go back to work and really party like it’s 1999.


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