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Cantor Fitzgerald, Victim of 9/11, Thrives in Recession

5 minute read
Stephen Gandel

Cantor Fitzgerald has plenty of experience dealing with crisis. Perhaps that’s why the firm, which is best known for bond trading and looked like it wouldn’t survive after suffering devastating losses on Sept. 11th, is weathering the recent financial turmoil better than most. Cantor is hiring and expanding into new businesses at a time when many of its larger rivals are struggling to keep their doors open.

One of the businesses it plans to launch soon is a futures exchange where traders can bet on the box-office success of movies. It will never be one of Cantor’s biggest businesses, but it offers a lot of symbolism. The firm gained regulatory approval for the exchange a week before the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center that killed 638 Cantor employees, which was headquartered on the top floors of the north tower. Cantor had to scrap the movie exchange shortly after the attack. But the firm’s executives never let the idea go. A little more than a year ago, it started working on the exchange again in earnest, and hopes to have it reapproved later this year. (See photos of what happened on September 11, 2001

“The financial crisis is a great opportunity to build out our franchise,” says Shawn Matthews, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., the firm’s investment banking subsidiary. “The dislocation in the financial markets has caused others to take the eye off the ball, allowing us to gain market share.” The parent company is still headed by Howard Lutnick, who is the CEO of Cantor and chairman of a publicly traded subsidiary BGC Partners, which is 40% owned by Cantor. Lutnick was famously taking his son to his first day of kindergarten on September 11 and not in Cantor’s offices when the World Trade Centers were attacked. Lutnick recently told analysts that he was optimistic for his company despite the uncertain markets, and that the evolving business models of Cantor’s largest customers and competitors was an opportunity.

To be sure, Cantor hasn’t escaped the biggest financial meltdown in decades unscathed. The firm was a prominent player in the trading of credit default swaps, and that market for bond insurance has been battered by the rising defaults in home loans and other debts. Worse, some politicians and regulators, irked by the huge losses rung up by AIG in CDS contracts, have talked about creating a central exchange, much like the New York Stock Exchange, where the bond insurance would trade. Some have proposed doing away with CDS all together. Those changes would significantly curtail, or wipe out, Cantor’s profits in its CDS business. What’s more, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has subpoenaed Cantor and other traders of CDS contracts to see if the bond insurance was used to manipulate the market. Fears about changes in the CDS market have weighed on BGC’s shares, which have fallen to a recent $2.90 from $12 a year ago.

But unlike its much larger financial rivals, Cantor never made home loans. It trades mortgage bonds, but never held onto bundles of those bonds hoping to make a big profit. That means Cantor has not had to suffer the same credit crunch that its larger rivals have been struggling with for more than six months as many of those loans or bonds have gone bad. Many firms have had to pull back from some trading businesses, or go out of business all together.

As a result, Cantor has been able to pick up clients, giving a big boost to its bottom line. Lutnick says his firm made more money in 2008 than ever before. He won’t say how much, and since Cantor is private he doesn’t have to. BGC, because it is publicly traded, does have to release its results, and officially that division lost $30 million. But exclude a one-time charge, and BGC profits come in at $105 million in 2008, up from $58 million in the year before. Analyst Michael Adams who follows BGC for brokerage firm Sandler O’Neill says there are a number of factors that should boost the trading of Treasury bonds, which is good for BGC. He rates BGC shares a “Buy.”

In the past year, Cantor has hired 200 people, upping the payroll to just over 3,500 employees across all its divisions. It hopes to hire another 200 staffers in 2009. Cantor has been able to lure traders, bankers and analysts away from much larger firms in part by doing away with one of Wall Street’s oldest traditions — the year-end bonus. Instead, Cantor is offering to pay most of its new employees in full each month, rather than holding a good chunk of their pay until the end of the year. “There is just too much variability in year-end pay,” says Martin Teevan, who joined Cantor & Co. from Goldman Sachs in December, and is the head of high yield and distressed bond trading. “There is a lot of concern that no matter how well you do at Big Bank XYZ, you just won’t get paid.”

The firm is taking advantage of the crisis to expand into more areas of investment banking. Teevan has hired 35 people since joining Cantor, with an eye toward building out its high-yield-debt sales and trading business. Other areas Cantor is looking to for expansion include the business of offering advice to troubled companies on how to refinance their debt. The firm is also hoping to break into the business of underwriting stock and bond offerings.

“I am very happy I made the move to Cantor,” says Teevan. “This place has been rebuilt and it is thriving.”

Read “What Has Changed Since 9/11”

See photos of Philippe Petit’s illegal high wire walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974

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