Christopher Walker: Wall St exodus to Sopranos country

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The Independent Online

I sat nervously in the restaurant, strumming the table, waiting for my client. When my PA booked Le Due Torri in Milan, I had subliminally translated the name as the "two towers". A more accurate rendering would have been the "twin towers", and there they were: on the sign outside the restaurant, in a painting on the wall, on the front of the menu, even cunningly woven into the tablecloth. I was left praying that my American client would share the restaurant owner's clear view that a rebranding exercise had been unnecessary. He didn't.

World markets were preoccupied last week by the fear that, after the Enron debacle, the American accounting system had turned into a game of spot the ball. At times, it has felt as if the valuation of companies, the very foundation of stock markets, was crumbling in investors' hands. Suddenly, Enron had replaced al-Qa'ida as the major threat to the global world order, at least in traders' minds.

But this was also the week when the nerve centre of capitalism received a new body blow – from the unlikely quarters of Goldman Sachs. Its equity, sales, trading and research operations are crossing the Hudson River to New Jersey. Well-heeled employees were understandably perturbed at leaving their prime location off Wall Street and joining the ranks of what one sniffily described as "the bridge and tunnel people".

Their colleagues at Morgan Stanley also learnt on Wednesday that they must make the move to Westchester county. A succession of companies have been having dramatic rethinks. The devastation of the World Trade Centre decimated many global headquarters. But these most recent moves are more significant. They imply an entire rethink of the 20th-century philosophy of single-site locations or campus-style clustering of offices. The terrorist attack clearly demonstrated the drawbacks of having all your operations on the same telecommunication and power grids. Are we then witnessing the end of Wall Street as a physical centre of excellence?

The City itself is one step ahead here: the (literally) medieval outlook of its governing fathers gave birth to Canary Wharf two decades ago, and many bankers have been forced to decamp. In the robust tradition of financial markets, traders referred to the Canary Wharf towers as the "bowling alley" in the weeks after the attack. No less a person than Donald Trump has even predicted the demise of the skyscraper itself. It was therefore somehow reassuring to read that the new Goldman Sachs building will contain the tallest tower in New Jersey.

While few of us in finance feel safer in our jobs since 11 September, our friends in the compliance department are enjoying a bull market derived from this increased focus on security and risk control. The investigations into the al-Qa'ida network have drawn attention to the massive scale of money-laundering operations. Wed-nesday saw the latest US efforts to combat this. American financial institutions now have new record-keeping and reporting requirements, including the need to report any trans- actions that "raise the suspicion of money laundering".

The Charity Commission is investigating seven British charities suspected of terrorist links. Gordon Brown says he intends to tighten the net on this side of the Atlantic as well. Bankers beware.

The news was not all bad for Wall Street. The World Economic Forum took place in New York without the violent scenes we remember in Seattle and Genoa. It would appear that the aggressive anti-capitalist movement of recent years has been severely winded. A useful reminder that the events of that fateful day could mark a turning point for good as well as evil.

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