Pinching Pennies in the Hedge-Fund Capital of AmericaBy and
Tastes and risk levels have gone through the wringer
‘One doesn’t want to become the next episode of “Billions”’
The lonely $250,000 S-Class coupe at Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich says it all. For six months, it’s been sitting in the showroom, shimmering in vain while models priced at only $70,000 fly out the door.
“We haven’t had anyone come in and look at it,” says Joey Licari, a sales consultant at the dealership, looking over his shoulder at the silver beauty. “I feel like normally they would, maybe a few years ago.”
Such is the state of affairs in Greenwich, the leafy Connecticut town famous for its cluster of hedge funds and the titans of Wall Street who occupy many a gated mansion. The rich are being maddeningly frugal, as Barry Sternlicht complained when he assailed his former hometown as possibly the country’s worst housing market. “You can’t give away a house in Greenwich,” the head of Starwood Capital Group said, causing something of a ruckus.
The reality is that places like Sternlicht’s, a nearly 6-acre estate priced at $5.95 million before he gave up, aren’t moving. No such problem if it’s $2 million or less. That Benz is going nowhere, but sales are up at Cadillac of Greenwich, where $50,000 is pretty much the basement. Ten-carat diamonds that can cost in the six figures collect dust in stores on the main drag. On the other hand, a husband will still drop $10,000 on jewelry for a 10th anniversary.
The new Greenwich is like that. “We aren’t getting caviar and champagne,” says Edward Tricomi, co-owner of Warren Tricomi Salon on Greenwich Avenue, “but we’re still eating steak.”
The town was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and never fully recovered: The median sales price for homes in the second quarter was $1.56 million, 17 percent below the peak back in 2006, according to data compiled by appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Now, with the hedge-fund business struggling and investment-banker incentive pay in a slump, bonus-fueled purchases are cooling again. These days, in fact, not losing money can be cause for swagger.
“We talk to a lot of guys from hedge funds, and they’re like, ‘Look at our numbers, we haven’t gone down, we’re staying level,’” says Brad Walker, who moved from Boston two years ago to open a branch of his family’s shop, Shreve, Crump & Low. A newcomer, he finds it perplexing. “I don’t run a hedge fund, I work in a jewelry store, but I think you’d want to do a little bit better.”
Flat probably isn’t so bad, though, if you’re already in the neighborhood of the .001 percent. Anyway, many factors are at play in the scaling back. Tastes are changing. And with income inequality a talking point across America, and the finance industry the target of criticism and scrutiny in recent years, some might just want to keep low-spending profiles.
“The things being bought are less trophy items and, more likely, carefully bought quality,” says Terry Betteridge, who owns Betteridge, a jewelry store. “One doesn’t want to become the next episode of ‘Billions.’”
Just 35 miles from Manhattan in the heart of Connecticut’s famed Gold Coast, with about 60,000 residents and 32 miles of shoreline, Greenwich is among the most prosperous communities in America. One out of every $10 in hedge funds in the country is managed here, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, by firms such as Viking Global Investors and AQR Capital Management. It’s home to finance heavyweights including Steven Cohen of Point72 Asset Management and Dick Fuld. The median annual household income is $135,000 -- compared with $56,516 nationally. Residents paid more state income taxes in 2014, the last year for which data are available, than in any other municipality in Connecticut.
The tax rate, by the way, is a sore point, and possible reason behind the departure of the likes of Paul Tudor Jones and Thomas Peterffy, who switched their permanent residences to Florida. The state income tax there is zero.
In 2015, Connecticut boosted the income tax for individuals making more than $500,000 and couples above $1 million to 6.99 percent from 6.7 percent. Levies on luxury goods rose to 7.75 percent from 7 percent on cars over $50,000, jewelry over $5,000 and clothing or footwear over $1,000.
Sternlicht said at a conference two weeks ago that this was why he relocated to the sunshine state. “We used to have no taxes,” he said wistfully, recalling Connecticut before it enacted its income tax in 1991.
Many continue to try to sell their real estate holdings. As of Sept. 14, there were 46 homes at $10 million or more on the market, some that have been lingering since 2014, according to data from Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman.
Among them: an 80-acre estate on Lower Cross Road for $49 million that until last month was asking $65 million, and a 19,773-square-foot manse once owned by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that has been looking for a buyer for nearly two years. It’s on the market now for $45 million, down from $54 million.
No takers yet for a seven-bedroom affair with a 3,000-bottle chilled wine cellar, a tennis court that converts to a hockey rink and a globe-shaped observatory with a retractable roof and high-powered telescope. That one recently returned to the market at $8.495 million, after an earlier effort at $8.95 million. Former Citigroup Chief Executive Officer Sandy Weill is trying to offload his 16,460-square-foot home at $9.9 million, down from $14 million more than two years ago.
One problem is that risk levels have gone through the wringer. Members of the younger Wall Street crowd are quite conservative, says Robin Kencel, a broker with Douglas Elliman. “They used to say Oh, I’ll stretch.’ Now they’re more practical. They’ll ask ‘What are the utility bills? Oh, wait -- I don’t want it.’”
That could explain why, this year through Sept. 22, pending sales of homes priced up to $999,999 jumped 29 percent from the same period in 2015, according to brokerage Houlihan Lawrence, and those between $1 million and $1.99 million were up 69 percent. Contracts for homes between $5 million and $5.99 million, meanwhile, fell 80 percent.
Back in the day, “everybody in the world wanted five acres and pillars on their driveways, because that’s what you got when you ‘made it,”’ says Frank Farricker, a principal with Lockwood & Mead Real Estate who’s chairman of the Connecticut Lottery board. “Now, ‘made it’ means on the waterfront -- on a small lot with a brand-spanking new house.”
Some things, though, never change. Kenny Preval, a resident of nearby Stamford who drives for Uber in Greenwich, says his customers are doing more than just fine. One guy just hired him to transport a sports jacket into Manhattan. “Easiest $70 I’ve ever made.”
— With assistance by Katherine Burton