Working from home and a rapidly unfolding exodus of high-earning residents is putting New York City’s status as a “billionaire playground” in jeopardy, according to one top Wall Street strategist.
COVID-19 lockdowns and advances in remote technology are prompting many to reconsider life in the Big Apple — and those with means are relocating to lower-cost havens like Florida. Near-empty streets and office buildings, as well as deteriorating quality of life issues, prompted Jefferies chief market strategist David Zervos to invoke a cult classic movie.
In a client note this week titled "Escape From New York" — a nod to John Carpenter's 1981 film starring Kurt Russell — Zervos described how the coronavirus reversed decades-long trends of high-end gentrification for New York City.
He warned the ensuing exodus for less expensive areas that offer lifestyle and tax benefits won't be temporary.
"I'm bullish on the get out of New York trade,” Zervos told Yahoo Finance Live on Friday. He dismissed comparisons between COVID-19 and the September 11 attacks, when the city rebounded quickly after a brief recession.
“I don't think this is a 9/11 storyline. I think there's something bigger and a lot of it comes from work from home," he added.
Zervos, who made his first trip to the city in the 1980s, expects that New York City "will come back," but not as the bustling metropolis that made it different from other major cities, which became a draw for young middle class professionals.
"It will come back differently, and maybe it won't be the billionaire playground that it became, and for someone like me, I'd say that's probably a good thing, not a bad thing,” he suggested.
“But then again, it's a very difficult place to raise a family and do what we've done in New York for the last 10 or 15 years, which is really gentrify it beyond maybe where that gentrification should have gone, or maybe was inevitably unstable given the political backdrop of a city as complicated as New York."
‘Enormous’ cost savings
Even before COVID-19, there was an "escape tendency" for more favorable tax environments following the changes that severely curtailed the deduction in state and local taxes, known as the SALT provision.
However, Zervos highlighted the work-from-home story, and the implications that might have on where people choose to work and live. More and more companies are embracing remote work as a long-term solution for their workers, and that has big implications for the Big Apple.
The analyst said that “as people and executives get more comfortable with this idea that people can be more productive in their home environment, the potential cost-savings are enormous.”
In recent weeks, reports emerged about financial services companies exploring plans to set up shop in places like Florida. Moelis & Co.'s chairman and CEO Ken Moelis told Bloomberg's Erik Schatzker that his firm would be "much more flexible" about where people want to live, while maintaining a central office.
Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs' (GS) asset management arm is reportedly looking at South Florida, according to Bloomberg. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is also weighing moving parts of its business to states like Florida and Texas, according to Charlie Gasparino.
"I think it's just going to resonate with everybody that sort of knew deep down in their hearts that we didn't really need New York City,” Zervos told Yahoo Finance.
“You might have liked New York City, it might have been fun, but as it becomes more and more expensive and the alternatives become more viable, I think you're going to see that exodus really accelerate," he added — something that will rapidly become a “disinflationary story.”
Living outside of New York means less money spent on housing, food, education, daycare, and commuting, among other things, he noted.
"Even if you don't think there's wage disinflation, which there may or may not be spending on how competition rolls, I think there's just the services that people use are going to cause disinflation numbers to become more prevalent as we move through time," Zervos said, likening it to the offshore trend of the early 2000s that once threatened white collar jobs.
"We're sort of offshoring a bit of New York City into its own backyard in the United States, and that's just another disinflationary trend,” he added.
Zervos emphasized that while it may be negative for certain parts of the Empire State’s economy — like high end real estate — it’s actually a boost to growth.
"They make producing a widget cheaper and the cost of production cheaper. That's really what work from home does,” he said.
Julia La Roche is a correspondent for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.