OPINION

Updated February 26th, 2024 at 20:51 IST

Wall Street lives libertarian-lite dream in Miami

FII Priority summit backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, typifies Florida’s financial rise.

John Foley
Wall Street week ahead | Image:Unsplash
Advertisement

Big Apples to oranges. Why has so much wealth moved from places like New York and California to Florida? At a plutocrat-studded conference in Miami, one speaker had an answer. “Capital goes where it’s welcome,” Franklin Templeton Investments chief Jenny Johnson told an audience including Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, ex-Google chair Eric Schmidt, and technology mogul Michael Dell. If what makes capital welcome is low taxes and small government, Florida’s fortunes still have room to run. Making a financial hub that can really rival New York, though, may require ingredients still in shorter supply.

The FII Priority summit, taking place on Thursday and Friday and backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, typifies Florida’s financial rise, and that of its southern-most big city. The state has in recent years become home to people like Citadel’s founder Ken Griffin, activists Nelson Peltz and Carl Icahn and many of their staff, and a large cryptocurrency cohort. Individuals flocked southward as Covid-19 lockdowns in places like Chicago and New York lingered long after they were lifted in Florida, to bask in year-round warmth, lack of state income and estate taxes, and dearth of overall red tape. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos recently changed his domicile from Washington, thus avoiding the Evergreen State’s new capital gains levy.

Advertisement

While at first it was easy for New Yorkers or San Franciscans to scorn financial snowbirds as a pandemic phenomenon, the ascent of both Miami and nearby Palm Beach as Florida’s answer to Wall Street is looking more durable. The network effect and entrepreneurialism show up in U.S. Census Bureau data. New business applications per capita put Florida third in the country, after Wyoming and Delaware. The bureau expects over 32,500 businesses to open in Florida in the next year, beating New York’s total by around 10,000. Property prices have soared, even as some home insurers ditch the state because of extreme weather and a storm of litigation.

Saudi’s endorsement adds to the idea that the migration will be permanent. At the FII event, venture capitalists, private equity chiefs, dealmakers from financial outfits like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America and numerous representatives of the oil-rich desert kingdom’s $700 billion Public Investment Fund swanned around the Faena hotel, one of Miami’s most Instagram-worthy crash pads. Last year the event attracted roughly 700 delegates; this year it was more like 1,100. The Saudis originally held their U.S. gathering in New York in 2022, and then dumped the Big Apple for its sunnier southern rival.

Advertisement

Many delegates at FII argue their decision to decamp to Florida isn’t just about tax. But tax is emblematic of the state’s approach to staying out of capitalists’ hair. Hiring and firing is also easier in some respects than in New York. When it comes to worker protections, Florida ranks 30th out of the 50 states, according to a study by Oxfam. The Sunshine State puts “small government” into practice with the third-lowest ratio of public-to-private sector employees, says the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Then there’s the politics. Not present at the FII confab, but looming over the whole thing, was Donald Trump, the former U.S. president and likely frontrunner for the Republican nomination in November’s election. Not just because Trump lives around 80 miles up the coast in Palm Beach, nor because several members of his administration were on the stage, including former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Rather, because if he wins office, the impression is that Trump will give Big Finance more of what it likes.

Advertisement

For example, Trump would probably make soon-to-expire federal income tax cuts permanent, and formerly favored cutting the corporate tax rate to 15%, compared with 21% now. He has strongly advocated for lower interest rates, which would create a fillip in investment and rising asset prices, and has threatened to replace Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell at the earliest opportunity. A Trump administration would almost certainly seek to lighten regulation on financial firms, from scrapping onerous merger reviews to easing off on the Basel 3 capital reforms mega-banks loathe.

But even though Florida and its most famous resident offer a glimpse of something like financial libertarianism, there can be too much of a good thing. Rules and restrictions keep markets in order, and asset prices buoyant. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers reminded the FII audience that roughly half of the world’s market capitalization is in the United States, the highest in a decade, partly because companies there are governed by rule of law – which goes hand in hand with responsible regulation and fiscal policy. Delegates including Blackstone’s Schwarzman argued this week that when it comes to governing artificial intelligence, a hot topic for the finance and tech crowd, rules set through global cooperation are a must.

Advertisement

Florida is also a test of whether financial freedoms are undermined by what to many would-be residents feel like social restrictions. A law curbing teachers’ ability to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity drove Walt Disney to cancel investment in Florida. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis hopes to enact a prohibition on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, aping restrictions that in places like Texas have made it harder for companies to recruit. Both policies set the state in stark contrast to California and New York. In that regard, the world’s largest oil producing nation has found a fitting partner. Both Saudi and Florida have wooed the wealthy, but have yet to show they can make future residents feel as welcome as their money.

Advertisement

Published February 26th, 2024 at 20:51 IST