Optimistic. That’s the one adjective that kept arising when financial advisers spoke about the general outlook for 2021.
This was in mid-December, nine months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which took more than one million lives around the globe, forced thousands of small businesses across the country to shutter, caused city- and country-wide restrictions and generated an economic decline as serious as the Great Depression. The U.S. also experienced two other major political and social movements and events: Black Lives Matter and a polarizing presidential election. With more than 3.5 million people in the hospitality and leisure sectors out of jobs, what is spurring the financial sector’s optimistic outlook?
“In Southwest Florida, most businesses have contingency plans in place for hurricanes, but I don’t think many could’ve predicted we would’ve had a global pandemic,” says Jennifer Gebeau, a client adviser at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, the wealth management branch of JPMorgan Chase, which has had a foothold in Florida for 129 years and works with 26,000 business customers in the region. “Looking back at initial thoughts in March, many business owners that I spoke with were really concerned about whether they would be able to continue to do business in this type of environment, if they could make it through and survive and how they would be able to support employees and customers. What I’ve seen is businesses and individuals having to quickly adapt and evolve; we are very fortunate to live in a community that’s so resilient.”
According to Florida Gulf Coast University’s September 2020 regional economic indicators report, the unemployment rate in the region rose to 9.3% in July 2020 (up from 8.6% the month before), and since July 2019, employment in Southwest Florida has dropped by more than 68,000. But where the local economy is seeing an up-tick is in real estate, with single-family building permits increasing 9% from June to July 2020, and single-family home sales rising 19% in July 2020 from the previous month to 2,630 units. “There are a lot of snowbirds coming from (the) Midwest and Northeast, and the real estate market is booming,” says Mary E. Kowarick, managing director at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. “I walk my dog every day and see sales signs going up and down. Since people can work remotely, I think as a community we will see Naples continuing to grow and business owners will benefit from that.”
REASON TO RELOCATE
The pandemic accelerated the remote work lifestyle, which drove more individuals—and companies—to relocate to the region. “The pandemic has provided additional motivation for people to relocate, and given them an opportunity to pick a place that’s like paradise,” Kowarick says, adding that weather and tax reasons are also huge incentives. As companies are turning to remote working for two to four years—and some even permanently— people are leaving New York or Connecticut, states with high taxes, and picking places like Florida. “By bringing those people into the community, it’s obviously going to have a positive impact—as long as we take precautions, and business owners do that,” says Kowarick. “We’ll see more on the hospitality side, which will flourish, and more industrial companies moving into the Fort Myers area, in particular.”
Gebeau added that the region has been an attractive one for businesses for some time now, but the challenge is helping individuals and business owners make that transition. “We work closely with a lot of other firms and industries to help get businesses’ teams in place in Southwest Florida by assisting in finding the right service providers in the community, such as an accountant, attorney or real estate agent,” she says, and to aid with the planning process, the firm provides a “domicile checklist” for those who are going to claim Florida as their primary residence.
In a year when it’s difficult to predict what will happen one day to the next, what do experts foresee for 2021? Will fiscal support from the government or unemployment benefit continue? Will debt levels lower? “We look at this as a global economic healing process. People are excited about investing in 2021,” says Kowarick. “I work with a number of large business owners in Naples, and they continue to look at opportunities to acquire other businesses, so we may see some consolidation of companies.”
Charles Capps, a partner at Fort Myers-based Pavese Law Firm, who is Florida Bar board-certified in both real estate law and condominium and planned development law, says he’s seen a lot of commercial lending and increased activity in businesses looking to have additional or larger credit “in case of the worst,” as he puts it. “Businesses are looking to refinance or take additional credit out, but I don’t know if that’s as much pandemic-related as interest rate-driven. Some may be looking to take advantage if something does happen in the economy.”
The government was swift in its initial aid through motions such as the CARES Act in March. In fact, J.P. Morgan Private Bank reported that bankruptcies are lower than before the pandemic, corporate debt default rates are declining and personal incomes and household wealth have increased. “We’ve seen some positive developments on the vaccine front, so hopefully that will help get us back to a better economic situation. We’ve seen a significant amount of governmental support for businesses and individuals, and that has been the key to preventing a more serious crisis,” says Gebeau. “Initially, the Federal Reserve acted quickly and aggressively to cut rates, and I think that was an important start—that’s been beneficial to individuals, since people have been refinancing mortgages, but also for business owners. Something that has been surprising is how quickly the economy has started to recover, particularly in the financial market, which is an example of how resilient businesses can be and a good reminder for investors to stay the course when thinking about long-term investment.”
As far as investing, Kowarick points to trends in technology and digital transformation. “You can almost look at this as a huge change in the way we approach and conduct business, whether on the consumer or industrial side,” she says, referring to how IA (intelligence augmentation) is taking over ways people do business to improve efficiency.
In the meantime, Gary T. Crisci, managing principal of Naples-based Crisci Private Wealth Management, said that most clients over 65 or 70 are still hesitant to go out as the number of COVID-19 cases rise, and that in early 2021, he predicts more businesses will close as restrictions get tighter. “Without people going out as much, governmental support is needed just to get people to the other side of it, until there’s a vaccine [readily available],” he says, adding that as much as 20% to 30% of small businesses may not survive. “I’m advising clients to not get caught up in the media and try to focus on fundamentals, because when [the] virus is over, people are going to be looking at companies’ earnings and balance sheets. If you look at the markets, you look long-term. What’s going to end up happening, with a cycle like this, is that larger companies that have cash are going to buy smaller companies and take more of the market share, getting bigger and, in the end, have less competition.”
In terms of health care, the vaccines entering the market are providing hope for an end to the lingering pandemic, but also raising the question of how the country will be able to broadly distribute them. According to KPMG, a global organization of independent professional services firms providing audit, tax and advisory services, before the pandemic, 13 billion laboratory tests were performed in the U.S. each year, making it the country’s single-highest-volume medical activity. As the report states, the pandemic “demonstrated the world’s need for quick and scalable medical testing and improved diagnostic capabilities.”
TRENDING: WOMEN IN FINANCE
The #MeToo movement prompted women to speak up about sexual abuse and harassment, but it’s also shown that women hold more power than before when it comes to equality—especially in the workplace. “Women have always wanted to pursue higher-level roles, but the encouragement across the financial industry is what has changed,” says Chelsea R. Ganey, portfolio strategist at Moran Wealth Management in Naples. “Over the years, people have become more open-minded to women in leadership positions, and companies are taking action to develop a more diverse pool of talent. Women have always been willing and able to lead, but now there seems to be more opportunity to do so.”
The wealth management industry has changed, and it’s less Wolf of Wall Street and more welcoming and inclusive. Whereas the lack of female leaders in the past may have been a deterrent, more women are stepping into these roles to inspire others to do the same. “It’s no longer the ‘eat what you kill’ scenario when advisers had monthly commissions to make from selling the hottest bond,” says Kylen Moran, senior vice president and chief of staff. “Instead, top advisory firms offer fee-based money management and act as fiduciaries. It’s a much more consultative process; you really need to be in tune with the client’s needs. I think this comes naturally for women, so it makes sense that they would thrive in this industry.”
According to studies from Harvard Business School, women comprise 9% of senior roles in venture capital and just 6% in private equity. In the world of hedge funds, women only account for 11% of senior management roles. “It’s no secret that finance is a male-dominated industry, but women shouldn’t be intimidated to throw their hat in the ring,” Moran says, adding that three out of five members on Moran Wealth Management’s executive board are women and two out of three of the portfolio managers are women. “The financial services industry is much more diverse than just investment banking on Wall Street. I believe that companies are recognizing that women are a real asset to have in management positions. Women are increasingly in charge of household finances, so I believe that the financial services industry needs to respond to the changing needs of their customers.”
Ganey advises women interested in entering or moving up in the industry to find a mentor either in the same company or industry. “Having someone experienced to help you sharpen skills, navigate situations at work or champion your ideas is incredibly beneficial in helping you grow and succeed in your career,” she says.
Moran Wealth Management client relationship manager Ryan Frank agrees. “I think the hardest part for women now is just taking the leap to begin a career in business,” she says. “Once you have one foot in, there are endless opportunities to learn and advance your career. Find mentors, ask questions, never stop taking the opportunity to read and learn something new every day.”