The economy is battered, yet the stock markets keep rising. Unemployment is soaring, but so far a real estate crisis seems to have been averted.
As the coronavirus pandemic upends businesses large and small, the heads of major financial firms are trying to meet the needs of their employees and clients despite unprecedented volatility and uncertainty.
At Edward Jones, the large investment advisory firm, the managing partner, Penny Pennington, restricted access to outside visitors at 15,000 branches across the country even as demand for the company’s services spiked, with clients scrambling to rebalance portfolios and stave off losses.
And at Amalgamated Bank, a union-owned bank based in New York, the chief executive, Keith Mestrich, kept some branches open while closely monitoring his company’s portfolio of loans, including many residential mortgages.
This conversation, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was part of a series of new live Corner Office calls discussing the crisis. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com to join upcoming calls.
DAVID GELLES Keith, when did it become clear to you that this was going to have a big impact on Amalgamated?
KEITH MESTRICH I was at a meeting of global bankers in Switzerland in mid-February and was watching the early days of the coronavirus crisis in the Lombardy region of Italy. I was supposed to travel to Rome but decided not to go, mostly because I was worried that I might not be able to come back. I had a long flight back home, and it really gave me a lot of time to think and I said, “Wow, we are going to probably face the same thing in the United States and potentially in New York City, where our bank is headquartered.” We got in preparatory mode pretty quick after that.
GELLES Penny, you of course had been seeing the volatility in the markets earlier in the year, but what happened in mid-March?
PENNY PENNINGTON The first really in-depth conversation about the crisis that I had was at a St. Louis Federal Reserve Board meeting early in the year, where a couple of the board members had global operations and were talking about the effects that they were seeing. Soon after that, we started to see the market volatility. Then right after that, we started to feel the local impact. We have a location in 68 percent of the counties in the United States and all 10 provinces in Canada. When we felt the effect of that in tandem with what our clients were already feeling with market volatility, it became a three- and four-dimensional problem.
GELLES Both of your companies have branches in addition to all your office workers. Keith, what decisions have you made for your branch network in New York, California and beyond?
MESTRICH Not only have we had the challenge of grappling with providing a retail business during the course of this, we’ve had to do it in New York City and had all the special challenges of being at the epicenter of the pandemic. We just had to prioritize, first and foremost, the health and safety of our front-line workers. So we are down to two branches open in New York City. They’re only open a couple of days a week. We practice social distancing in the branches. We’ve actually gone back to hiring guards in some of our New York City branches that help enforce on some of that.
GELLES Penny, you have a huge operation. How have you handled your branch network?
PENNINGTON We have about 15,000 branches across North America, and they are closed to the public. That was a very difficult decision because relationships are the center of the service and the value that we provide in helping people reach their financial goals. Not seeing them face to face was a very big decision, but it came from a set of guiding principles, to protect the health of our clients, protect the health of our colleagues and take care of the communities where we serve.
GELLES Penny, some states are opening back up. Are you planning to be among the first businesses to get people back into your branches?
PENNINGTON We don’t intend to be the leaders in terms of opening our branches back up to our clients. We will be very deliberate, very intentional.
GELLES Keith, as companies and leaders like Penny do start that process of getting people back into places where there just haven’t been people, can you give them a sense of what they face?
MESTRICH People are going to have to grapple with how to continue to make their places of business inviting. Over the last decade or so, in bank branches, for instance, we took down what used to be called bandit barriers, which were the plexiglass or other barriers that separated tellers from the customers, really as a way of protecting people from armed robbery. But those went away to create a more human touch and create a warmer atmosphere in many of our branches. Now those are all back. Not only are they back in bank branches, they’re in grocery stores and all kinds of other places of business as well.
GELLES Penny, can you explain what seems to be a real disconnect between record unemployment and the real economic carnage, and the markets, which seem to keep going up?
PENNINGTON The ignition switch for the market volatility that we’ve seen and will continue to see was not a weak economy. This is not a replay of the financial market downturn that we saw in 2008 to 2009. The ignition switch for this was a global pandemic during a period of time when the economy was actually pretty good.
When will the stimulus kick in? Well, it will when consumers are confident enough to go back into the economy and begin to spend money. Remember, 70 percent of our G.D.P. is consumer spending, and consumers spend in stores, online, in restaurants and entertainment venues and in health care settings. The market seems to be pricing in a return of confidence later on in this year. We don’t see a V-shaped return in the economy as some have described. It’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.
GELLES Keith, what kind of impact are you seeing to the ability of some of your customers to make mortgage payments, and what kind of capital needs are you seeing customers have on the commercial side?
MESTRICH Well, we’ve had 30 million people apply for unemployment in five or six weeks. You’re starting to see people having to make choices with the limited number of dollars that they have, and they have to make choices about paying for food and medicine or paying their rent or making their mortgage payment. While we certainly have seen requests for some relief from our consumer customers in terms of their mortgage payment, for instance, it hasn’t been overwhelming. I think people in the early days of this have been able to figure out how to meet some of their obligations. May payments are due now, and we’re starting to see some inquiries again. I think when June comes, we’ll start to see a lot more of it.
We’ve lived in an economy here for a long time now where tens of millions of Americans really can’t sustain themselves beyond living on a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. It’s a real problem that our economy has faced for some time, and we’re seeing the real impacts of that right now when people face unbelievable pressure.
GELLES Keith, what’s the outlook for residential real estate for the next year and beyond?
MESTRICH Some of the early numbers that came out actually showed very little decline in demand. I doubt that will last. As the impact from the economy deepens and goes on for some period of time, I think you’ll start to see decreases in demand. It’s not going to hit all parts of the country the same way. It didn’t after the 2008 financial crisis. Some markets did well. Others really suffered. What will happen in highly dense urban environments, where people may not want to live in those places anymore? Will people choose to spread out more into rural areas? People’s own fear of living in densely packed environments will change the nature of the residential market.
GELLES Penny, Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway hasn’t made any big investments recently because he didn’t see anything that attractive to invest in. If even Warren Buffett can’t find good investments, should we all be staying away from the stock market right now?
PENNINGTON In long-term investing, and that’s what we’re about, we are not looking for the thing that’s going to do well tomorrow, and neither is Warren Buffett. He said that his holding period is forever. I don’t know exactly where his investment thesis is right now, but ours would be invest in high-quality companies and investments, and recognize that there are going to be industries that, at least temporarily, are going to be really challenged. But if you have a long holding period, oftentimes this is exactly the time to be making investments in strong companies and industries. Don’t try to bet on what’s going to go on tomorrow, or next week, or two months from now.