Pandemic prompts Wall Street to look south for Florida's life and work benefits

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - A crowd of Wall Street executives, bankers and fund managers are leaving New York for Florida and hugging the Sunshine State opposite metropolitan New York as the coronavirus pandemic has removed many of the benefits of working at a global financial center.
Since legions of financial professionals started working from home in March, Florida's warm weather, low taxes, affordable space, and quick, easy flights to New York when needed have elevated its status.
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About 30 major financial firms are "kicking the tires" in South Florida, said Kelly Smallridge, who runs an economic development agency in Palm Beach County. A handful of them are serious about changing staff, she said.
Companies like Elliott Management, Citadel, and Moelis & Co are among the latest to say they will open satellite offices there or allow their moneymakers to be based in Florida, executives said.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc also intends to move some asset management staff there, according to those familiar with the matter.
In the past, Wall Street executives turned down the idea of ​​settling in Florida because of concerns about schools, culture, and networking opportunities.
Much of this has been eliminated as remote working and learning have taken over New York, while restaurants, museums, and other venues remain virtually closed due to lockdown measures to prevent the virus from spreading.
That made Florida's laid-back lifestyle and business-friendly practices more appealing, bankers and investment professionals said.
Florida is part of a broader trend: Large financial firms are moving employees from expensive cities like New York and San Francisco to lower-cost hubs in US states like Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
For many New Yorkers, Florida seems culturally and physically closer than other states. It's in the same time zone and has more Big Apple expatriates than Salt Lake City or Nashville.
Year-round open-air restaurants are another plus as there is no state income tax. Houses and apartments are generally cheaper, and commercial rents are about half the price of Manhattan in places like Palm Beach County.
"I absolutely love it here and am trying to get some friends to move here," said Kevin Couper, senior vice president at Wealthspire Advisors, who moved to South Florida six months ago. "People can live their lives down here."
Couper's view echoes what many of his Wall Street counterparts say: when they can't be in Manhattan's skyscraper offices and enjoy theaters, concerts, and restaurants, they'd rather be near the beach.
Increase in the number of patients
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has given the state's economy priority over rigorous coronavirus protection. In September, he declared Florida operational and banned local governments from restricting restaurant capacity, even though many other states restricted indoor dining.
Florida is one of 13 states without a mask mandate.
According to a Reuters tally, Florida hospital stays with coronavirus rose 32% from 4,280 on December 1 to 5,634 people on Wednesday. It is the fifth highest in the country after California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.
DeSantis supporters argue that his approach saved jobs and helped companies in Florida.
Couper and others said they take the pandemic seriously, but people should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to wear masks and eat.
Hedge fund Elliott Management, which manages $ 41 billion, plans to open an office in West Palm Beach next year. Its co-managing director, Jonathan Pollock, worked in Florida during the pandemic.
Citadel, the hedge fund, expects to open an office in Miami next year. Florida-born founder Ken Griffin put the state to the test when he moved some of Citadel Securities, its separate electronic commerce business, from New York and Chicago to the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach.
Blackstone Group Inc also plans to open an office for hundreds of back-office technicians near Miami.
According to sources, Goldman Sachs' asset management arm has dealt with South Florida. The bank has no specific plans to announce, but plans to create more jobs in "high quality" locations across the country, a spokesman said.
Deutsche Bank Group AG and JPMorgan Chase & Co have long had offices in Jacksonville, while many hedge funds have been based in Miami or Palm Beach for years.
Though Moelis has no plans to open an office in Florida, CEO Ken Moelis told Bloomberg TV that he is glad that top dealmakers work from there if they prefer.
"The pandemic has essentially taken and accelerated five years of a slow process," said Alan Johnson, who heads up consulting firm Johnson Associates, works with chief financial officers. "Companies are realizing they don't have to be in Midtown Manhattan, and employees are okay with that."
(Reporting by Svea Herbst; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Howard Goller)

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