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Tech Makes Life on the Coasts Tough for Banks

Conor Sen

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Why is the nation's financial industry concentrated in just a few very costly cities?

The latest actions by the Charles Schwab Corp. suggest there's less reason than there once was amid the squeeze the industry has been feeling since the Great Recession ended. In Schwab's case -- amid slow economic growth, low interest rates and continued pressure on trading commissions -- the discount brokerage firm slashed its fees, said it would buy a main rival and move its headquarters from high-cost San Francisco to more-affordable Dallas. It may not be the last to make such a move.

No matter what part of the financial services or banking ecosystems you look at, revenues are harder to come by today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Trading commissions have fallen, with online brokerages ushering in zero commissions. Bid-ask spreads for market makers have narrowed. Management fees for mutual funds and hedge funds continue to shrink. Mutual funds are losing market share to low-cost exchange-traded funds. Net interest margins for banks have been compressed by both low interest rates and a flatter yield curve. The Volcker rule restricted some of the more lucrative activities banks can do. Higher capital requirements have reduced the profitability of the banks. Loan growth has been anemic since the financial crisis. And increasingly, private companies are looking to do direct listings on stock markets rather than initial public offerings, threatening bank underwriting fees.

And at the same time that revenues have been pressured, the costs of operating in coastal urban hubs where the finance industry has traditionally been clustered continue to rise. Although conservatives might snicker and chalk it up to the higher taxes in coastal finance centers, the bigger story has been the concentration of the technology industry and the young, highly paid knowledge workers they hire. In the first decade of the 2000s, when the credit and housing booms were roaring, the tech industry played second fiddle to finance when it came to urban employment. Even San Francisco was relatively tech-free until Twitter set up shop in the latter half of the decade. Rents, although high, were manageable for many workers with good financial industry jobs.

That's no longer the case. With tech on a tear, young college-educated workers have, in turn, clustered in a handful of cities to gain access to more job opportunities. This dynamic has driven up rents in New York and San Francisco, posing stiff competition for financial companies looking to hire workers with the same types of skills prized by tech firms. The mediocre post-recession environment in finance has also meant banking and investment firms often find themselves outbid for talent.

For the financial industry, that means if you can't beat 'em, retreat to cheaper pastures. That helps explain why Goldman Sachs has expanded in Salt Lake City; AllianceBernstein is planning to move its headquarters from New York to Nashville, Tennessee; and BlackRock is opening an "innovation center" in Atlanta. Perhaps the most significant announcement was made by JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon in October, when he said that he expects Texas to eventually overtake New York as the state with more of the bank's employees than any other.

As with the shifts in the manufacturing industry, these changes take place over years and decades, but it's likely that the trend of decentralization will continue. Although Schwab is a high-profile financial firm moving its headquarters out of San Francisco, a much bigger one -- Wells Fargo -- remains based there. But for how long? The scandal-plagued bank recently hired a new chief executive, but he plans to remain in New York rather than move to the West Coast. The bank has five times as many job postings on its website in Charlotte, North Carolina, thanks to its acquisition of Wachovia, as it does in San Francisco. It wouldn't be a surprise if -- as part of its long-term repositioning strategy -- a headquarters relocation is part of the mix.

It's been a bit more than a decade since the financial crisis, and banks and financial-services firms have had enough time to dust themselves off and adjust to the new environment for the industry. If the 2000s were defined by the bust, and the 2010s were a period of recovery and sluggish growth, then maybe the 2020s will be when the industry consolidates and finally lowers costs by shifting to cheaper cities.

To contact the author of this story: Conor Sen at csen9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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