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A ‘Vertical Hedge Fund Neighborhood’ Lured Investors. Now It’s Breeding Anxiety.

At Hudson Yards and beyond, asset managers are racing to create contingency plans. Are they too late?

When news broke that an employee of Steve Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management tested positive for the novel coronavirus, coworkers and neighbor firms at 55 Hudson Yards nervously assessed the risk of contagion.

The top floors of 55 Hudson Yards, which houses Dan Loeb’s Third Point hedge fund and private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, was purposely designed as a vertical hedge fund neighborhood to lure investor tenants. Now that closeness is breeding anxiety.

[II Deep Dive: Will Hudson Yards Decimate Midtown Manhattan?]

Regulators also haven’t been immune, either. The Securities and Exchange Commission said a larger number of employees are working from home now that a staffer in its Washington, D.C. headquarters is undergoing treatment for symptoms of Covid-19 and has been referred for testing.  

J.P. Morgan has no known cases. Even so, the asset management arm is in the process of splitting its work force into A and B teams. This contingency plan, if invoked, involves the two groups alternating two-week shifts of working from home and the offices, with deep cleanings of the headquarters in between. The idea is to have a group of employees that has had few opportunities to be exposed to the virus at any point in time, according to a source familiar with the plan. JPMAM is on a wait-and-see basis about activating the plan, according to the official.

In the meantime, JPMAM is still working out the kinks and testing the routines and capabilities of homebound employees, including technological capacity and security. JPM has restricted both international and domestic business travel and recommends people meet by phone or video only. 

But the biggest issues for the firm remain the state of markets and trying to communicate to retail and institutional clients. David Kelly, chief global strategist, and Bob Michele, global head of fixed income, have been on television talking about the markets multiple times in the last few days. “During any period of extreme market volatility, we turn our focus immediately to helping clients understand the drivers of volatility and our view on investment implications over the short, medium and long-term. We’ve been consistently reaching out to clients with the latest updates on the COVID-19 outbreak as well as other issues (Fed rate reduction, Democratic Primary, and oil) impacting markets and portfolios,” George Gatch, asset management CEO, wrote in an email.

“Over the past two weeks, we’ve hosted a number of client calls and webcasts reaching more than 27,000 clients. We’ve increased our TV presence to ensure that we help put market moves in perspective with a broad audience of investors for both equity and fixed income markets,” he added.

Sean Chatburn, head of U.S. equity manager research at Mercer in Chicago, believes that asset managers need to invoke their back-up plans. “Organizations are up and running, but people may be operating in shifts, in the office, at home, or at remote locations. The number of face-to-face meetings has contracted and everything is migrating to video or conference calls,” he said. “The question then becomes, ‘When will we get back to business as usual?’”

MFS Investment Management’s employees in “Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Milan are working remotely until further notice,” said a spokesman. But the company is only encouraging, not forcing, Singapore, Tokyo, and Sydney-based teams to avoid the office and hasn’t made any decisions about its U.S. employees. Like most companies, the Boston-based asset manager is also asking staffers who have traveled to Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Iran to work from home for two weeks before entering any office. 

A spokeswoman for PIMCO said much of the Asia Pacific team has been working remotely for several weeks, and the firm has limited travel to and from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. PIMCO has also moved some of its portfolio management team out its main office in Newport Beach, California, to a contingency site. But, she emphasized, “this is a proactive, precautionary step and not a reaction to a Coronavirus-related exposure.”

Institutional investors “want to know that our business resiliency plans allow our investment teams to operate at full strength and that we’re prudently managing through this period of heightened market volatility,” said Gatch.

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