Washington area residents have finally arrived in the eyes of New Yorkers, at least those who make up Wall Street's elite corps of private bankers.
The reason, of course, is money. People here are making more of it than they ever have, not only in the aggregate, but individually. Fueled by a burgeoning number of dot.com companies, telecommunications firms and other service businesses, this region boasts more millionaire households than just about anywhere in the country, behind -- but not by much -- only Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, according to the Spectrem Group, a San Francisco consulting firm that specializes in research on affluent markets.
Private bankers, who cater to rich people, are following the money. To that end, New York-based J.P. Morgan & Co., the nation's fourth-largest bank and one of the largest private bankers worldwide, is opening its first full-fledged office in the nation's capital. Though J.P. Morgan has had clients here for years, they have been largely handled by bank employees who shuttled down from New York.
The bank formally staffed a private banking office here in June in the person of W. David Lawson IV, a J.P. Morgan managing director who previously worked in the bank's Tokyo office and has run the bank's office in Australia. Lawson's already at work, and by early next year, he will reign over a newly renovated, wood-paneled office across from the White House that company officials say will serve as a plush investment center for its clients.
"Our research showed that people want a third place to go to talk about their investments, not home, not work, but a third place," Lawson said. Clients will be able to drop by and, while having a drink and perhaps a slice of brie and a handful of grapes, be able to gain access to computerized financial research or talk to a personal banker.
Will it work? The verdict is out on the investment center idea, but the need for sophisticated private bankers here seems clear.
"There's a tremendous amount of wealth that's been created in this area and it's notoriously underserved," said Carla D'Arista, bank analyst for Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., an investment banking firm based in Arlington.
David Toth, senior consultant for Spectrem Group, agrees. "It's a very affluent, very wealthy area, one of the richest in the country, but there aren't many home-grown organizations other than Riggs Bank that have staked out a significant claim of the high-net-worth market. So you're seeing a lot of companies either dropping in as needed or setting up offices."
So now, not only is there more money here than ever, there's more competition for it from Merrill Lynch & Co., Bank of America Corp., Fidelity Investments, Mellon Bank Corp. of Pittsburgh, Northern Trust of Chicago and other rivals that also have targeted the expanding layer of America's economic upper crust, analysts say.
J.P. Morgan, like many private bankers, has lowered the amount of income and assets it's looking for in a client as it moves to increase the total number of investments it manages. That could help direct business to other areas of the company, such as American Century Investments, a family of mutual funds in which J.P. Morgan bought a 45 percent stake for $900 million in January 1998.
"By lowering the threshold a little, they can greatly expand their target market," said Ron Mandle, a bank analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. "You still have to have seven digits worth of investable assets, but now it can be in the low seven digits, not just the high seven digits."
Private banking units manage an estimated $15.5 trillion worldwide for wealthy people, and pretax profit margins can run as high as 50 percent, analysts say. Many of these clients simply have lots of money and need sophisticated advice and money management. Many also want to move money secretly to avoid taxes or other encounters with governments. But growing federal scrutiny of foreign private banking customers has garnered bad publicity for some banks such as Citigroup and Bankers Trust for alleged money laundering.
For these reasons, many banks are concentrating on their private banking practices in the United States. To capture more clients at home requires J.P. Morgan to be more aggressive. That's reflected not only in the opening of J.P. Morgan's office here, but in an accompanying marketing blitz that for the traditionally staid, low-key bank is revolutionary.
The company in recent weeks has sent out fancy invitations to people in the Washington region and in several other cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, that state, "As a person of wealth, you are invited to experience an opportunity that J.P. Morgan has never before offered." Translated, that means customers can get a free consultation and sample the bank's research services, the wealthy's equivalent of free samples at the grocery.
Indeed, J.P. Morgan and its competitors want to become one-stop financial supermarkets for people with money.
"People with money" is a vague phrase with no specific cutoff, but Lawson says it typically refers to people with a net worth of $1 million or more. But many people with far less -- say $300,000 to $500,000 -- might qualify if they are about to come into a lot more money, perhaps through an inheritance or an initial public offering.
The first round of invitations will be followed by a second. And the local marketing is bolstered nationally by a series of print and television advertisements that tout the dedication and talents of J.P. Morgan's work force.
Analysts say J.P. Morgan's strategy melds two successful tactics of competitors Northern Trust Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp.
Northern Trust pioneered the idea of having private bankers attend garden parties, Rotary club meetings or other gatherings where there are ready-made groups of like-minded, sufficiently deep-pocketed investors, analysts say. Lawson says that in addition to providing a place for individual clients, its plush downtown investment club will be a place where the bank can hold group meetings for retirees or others with similar investment goals.
Chase Manhattan's private banking strategy has been to provide ways for individual investors to take advantage of higher-risk, higher-return investments, such as in start-up companies, that typically have been available only to commercial clients. J.P. Morgan officials emphasize that they, too, have pioneered such opportunities.
Earlier this year, for example, months before Congress finally passed legislation to revamp financial services law, J.P. Morgan created a certificate of deposit that enabled clients to invest only the interest on the certificate in a financial index based on the stock of banks and other companies that would benefit if the bill passed. By investing only the interest, the bank didn't endanger the deposit insurance on the principal, but clients were able to benefit from a well-reasoned gamble that Congress would indeed pass such a bill this year, which it has.
Some of the people J.P. Morgan will target with its investment club are from the ponytailed, jeans-clad world of computers, and some are traditional mid-level managers who may not even realize how much wealth they have accumulated, Lawson said. But potential clients can be anyone.
"It's important to remember that not all entrepreneurs are in their twenties," said Lawson.