In the midst of a worldwide economic crisis, city officials and Wall Street executives are talking about turning the battered U.S. financial center into a global hub of green finance and environmental commodities trading.
The spark: draft energy and climate legislation unveiled by two senior House Democrats in Washington this week.
The cap-and-trade proposal from Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts has been the talk of the Wall Street Green Trading Summit, which wraps up today. Most of that talk has been positive, with investors and analysts viewing the measure as a kind of blueprint for the nation's economic future.
"It gives us some certainty about what the markets are going to look like," said Randy Lack of Element Markets.
To be sure, there are provisions that financiers are wary of – in particular, those concerning a federally mandated carbon market. Neil Cohn, senior vice president at MacQuarie Bank, complained that the bill "has made it pretty tough to find domestic offsets." Carbon offsets require low capital intensity and promise guaranteed returns.
What stands out to many here is that the bill reflects the position on cap and trade for greenhouse gases outlined by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a green coalition heavy on corporate membership.
"It's very heavily influenced by that," said Rubén Kraiem, a partner with the energy law practice Covington & Burling.
The Waxman-Markey proposal seems to offer confidence to many here that Congress is poised to pass a bill that offers more business opportunities than costs. New York is hoping to put itself in a position to capitalize on those opportunities.
Insiders say Michael Bloomberg, New York's independent mayor, has an explicit plan to encourage Wall Street to pull itself out of the dumps by financing renewable energy, "smart grid" technologies and other green innovations. As the city and state rely heavily on the financial sector for revenue, the move seems to be as much about survival as about helping to promote a U.S. shift toward sustainable energy.
Bloomberg's vision of New York becoming the center of a national clean energy movement was confirmed by Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber, who is in charge of economic development. Lieber's speech at the start of the green trading summit was designed to assure the financial community that the city was standing behind it at a very bad time.
"One of our key goals is to make sure that we can redeploy talent here in the city," Lieber said. "We just can't turn our backs on the financial services sector."
And money managers are lining up for the challenge.
"All of us here are playing a key role in bringing America back strong," said Andy Ertel, president of Evolution Markets.
There are signs that banks, fund managers and investors here are preparing for the next big thing.
Though unemployment is expected to continue to rise and the deep recession is seen lasting throughout 2009, analysts say the stock markets appear to be ending their wild swings and are bottoming out. Those who have cash on hand are looking to environmentally friendly asset plays for places to invest.