It’s the well-known, but little-discussed, reality of a life in the financial markets: very little business actually takes place on Wall Street, or anywhere in New York for that matter.
Even before coronavirus forced the world into an extended office hiatus, much of the financial services industry has been scattered around North America. Between visits to clients on their turf, conferences and marketing events in far-flung corners, and more, a career “on The Street” may just as easily have meant “on the road.”
MarketWatch checked in with a few high-profile financial road warriors to see how they’ve handled having to hunker down, their overnight bags gathering dust. We asked what, if any, shifts in the way financial services operate might be here to stay when things get “back to normal,” if there is such a thing.
These are not stories of hardship. Those interviewed know they’re lucky to have jobs they can largely carry out on a laptop from anywhere, plus the luxury of time and money to make the most of this particular crisis. Still, all describe a certain dissonance. It’s a strange turn of events when a million-miler has no plans to go anywhere.
The conversations that follow have been edited for length and clarity.
David Rosenberg , a long-time economist and strategist for wealth managers including Merrill Lynch and Toronto-based Gluskin Sheff, decided to strike out on his own in 2020. Rosenberg Research launched on Jan. 6; two months later, COVID-19 shuttered the global economy.
Rosenberg is often known as a “perma-bear,” but as MarketWatch has frequently noted, that’s not entirely accurate. He’s had his bullish moments. Now is not one of them.
“Things aren’t going back to normal for a long, long time,” he said in early June. “I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but we’re going to be living not just with this situation, but with the consequences for many years. [U.S.] GDP bottomed in 1933, but the Depression didn’t end until 1942.”
Rosenberg had expected that his travel schedule would be comparable to his time in previous roles. He was on the road about 25% of the time at Gluskin. As for Merrill, when he commuted back and forth between headquarters in New York and his home in Toronto, he says, “I had to list my suitcase as an official residence.”
MarketWatch: How often did you used to travel, and what’s your best anecdote from your time on the road?
David Rosenberg: I’m platinum, gold or silver on five different airlines. One time I was flying from Albuquerque to Denver on a small six-seater jet and they couldn’t land the plane. I didn’t know what was going on. The guy made the approach at Denver and the next thing I knew he was pulling up. He had to make four attempts. My fingernails are still in that plane.
I once sat next to Paul Giamatti going to Montreal when he was filming “Barney’s Version” in 2008. I said, “You know, we’re both renowned for destroying an industry. You destroyed the merlot industry and I destroyed the asset management industry.” [Rosenberg was known for predicting the subprime mortgage crisis, which eventually did in his employer, Merrill Lynch.]
MarketWatch: What have you had to get used to during the lockdown?
Rosenberg: The part of my job that I love is the social interaction — pressing the flesh — and the thrill of being on stage. That’s a big change. The replacement of Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM -0.13% for the real thing, that has been the biggest change. So much of my business is research and writing and you can do that anywhere. But the non-written interactions, that’s been the biggest adjustment. I’m managing a team now and we had a nice office in downtown Toronto and I think it’s hard on them. It’s nice when you’re starting a business to be physically present, especially as a leader.
There’s a lesson to be learned here for policymakers, especially in the U.S. and Canada, that dug their heels in for this whole thing: a stitch in time saves nine. The planning and preparation for this pandemic gets a big fat “F”. People are so glib about this, they don’t realize that in a situation like this, being ahead of the curve by a week makes a difference. I’m sad about the lack of political leadership everywhere.
‘It’s nice when you’re starting a business to be physically present, especially as a leader.’
David Rosenberg, Rosenberg Research
MarketWatch: Is there a silver lining?
Rosenberg: I’m home with my youngest son, Mikey, who’s 20 and a fourth-year psychology student. He has been my bartender. He makes a mean Manhattan, dark and stormys, whiskey sours, brandy alexanders, margaritas. We’ve been playing a sh-t ton of Monopoly and they kick my ass. My middle son, Jacob, who’s 24, said, “Dad, I thought you were in finance.” I said, “Jacob, this isn’t finance, this is real estate.”
But I feel really sad for the young people like my two boys who have had what could have been the best summer of their lives never come to fruition. I’m not wallowing in self pity, I feel sad for the young people. They are having memories robbed. I feel badly for that.
John Mauldin has written his popular macroeconomics newsletter, Thoughts from the Frontline, for two decades, and is a best-selling author of several books about investing. His firm, Mauldin Economics , offers research and resources for all kinds of investors, and runs one of the most sought-after annual conferences in the investing world, with attendees ranging from Jeffrey Gundlach to Ian Bremmer.
The Strategic Investment Conference was virtual this year, and Mauldin says he was both pleasantly surprised with its success, yet still convinced that nothing beats the real thing. He had recently relocated from Dallas to Puerto Rico, and while beach life has its perks, he misses getting together with a group of financial fellow travelers to try to solve the problems of the world over dinner.
Mauldin has kept up a grueling travel schedule since the early 2000s, starting with years of 100,000 miles and expanding from there.
MarketWatch: How often did you travel?
John Mauldin: American Airlines /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -2.29% called me last week and said, you’re now part of this special group , you have 8 million miles. That’s their tracking, not mine. But I’m used to traveling a lot. I’ve had a few years of 250,000 miles a year. I have traveled to 65 countries, (including) 15 in Africa, all 50 U.S. states and most of the Canadian provinces.
I have no scheduled plans to get on a plane, which is kind of weird. I’m writing a book and I’m doing a lot of video. We do [our Strategic Investment Conference] every year — last year we had 750 people. This year it was exceptionally large and well-responded-to over a span of 10 days. It was easier to get speakers because they’re all locked down, and we couldn’t have ever gotten all these people together at a regular conference.
But honestly I do miss sitting at meals, being in meetings with friends, and given how much I traveled, that was just a regular part of my life. That I do miss. And I miss my gym.
‘I once went to Cyprus and had dozens of people come to see me including the minister of finance. I’ve been doing this for years and I still find that cool.’
John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics
MarketWatch: What’s your best work-travel anecdote?
Mauldin: People coming up to you, holding up a book in an airport, saying would you autograph my book, or when you’re walking around say, Rome, and people walk up wanting to take pictures. Those are kind of cool moments. You meet people that recognize you because your face is on your newsletter that goes out or they see you on TV. People sitting next to you and they’re reading your newsletter and you look over and crack a joke, hey, I like that guy. I miss the dinner conversations, six to eight people in a room and you plow into stuff.