Best cities boast beer, not bankers
Commentary: How defection of the financial elite could help London, NY
By David Callaway, MarketWatch
Last Update: 12:01 AM ET May 27, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- A journalist friend of mine who transferred assignments to Vienna several years ago once recounted the emotions of a foreigner sent to live and work in what has been voted the world's most livable city.
My friend, Los Angeles-born and -bred but living in London before he moved, said the first evening there it snowed, and he went dancing in the streets, awestruck to be living in a fairy-tale city as the crystal flakes fell like sparkling champagne. The second day it snowed again, and as he walked to work he marveled at the way the whiteness brought romance and dazzle to the city's ancient churches and squares.
The third day it snowed again; and the fourth; and the fifth. By the start of his second month in Vienna, my friend said he was questioning his existence; trapped by snow and cold between office, bar and tiny flat in some endless Kafkaesque cycle, rather than a classic European cultural and financial center.
I thought of this story when I read Wednesday that Vienna was voted the world's most livable city for the fifth straight year by consulting giant Mercer, in its Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Survey. Click to read the Mercer survey. Clearly, they meant Vienna in the summer.
For all its beauty, culture and history as the residence of the Hapsburg Dynasties, Vienna hasn't evolved into much of a modern financial center. Zurich, which ranked second, and Frankfurt, which ranked seventh, would probably be the most popular financial centers in the top 10, which counted seven European cities.
Yes, the quarterly OPEC meetings are always held in Vienna, but aside from that you don't see too many bankers, or financial journalists for that matter, traipsing through the airport.
Perhaps that will change, however, as bankers in London search for new homes and places to work in the post-crisis world, with politicians eyeing their bonuses and creative deal-making talents. London was ranked 39th in the Mercer survey, one spot ahead of Tokyo. New York was 49th, just inching into the top 50 ahead of Seattle but behind, uh... Madrid.
It seems what makes a city good for bankers doesn't wash too well with the rest of us, or at least the ones who define these quality of life surveys. Which begs the question, does the presence of bankers in our cities bring down the quality of life? Seems a fair point, though doesn't explain why Baghdad was ranked last at 221st. Perhaps war zones are the only thing worse than financial centers when it comes to good living.
If the top livable cities have anything in common, it might be good beer rather than good financial centers.
The "no bankers" theory is backed up by the fact that Honolulu ranked as the top U.S. city to live in. When the stock markets close for the day in New York, it's only 10 a.m. in Hawaii. That means by the time you're done with a leisurely breakfast, the daily carnage and flash crashes on the Dow Jones Industrial Average INDU are over and you can head to the beach. Good for surfers; bad for bankers.
In fact, it seems that if the top livable cities have anything in common, it might be good beer rather than good financial centers. The Swiss and German centers, as well as other top cities such as Amsterdam and Sydney, all sport great beer cultures, as opposed to say, Lisbon or Lyon, two of the bottom dwellers. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two growing financial centers spending millions of dollars on tourism, but where it's reportedly hard to find a beer, both placed out of the top 50.
Beer is also known to influence votes, so there is a logical tie-in there as well.
These lists probably make little difference other than occasional bragging rights (San Francisco, No. 32, second in the U.S., baby). The big financial centers of New York, Tokyo and London will remain the big centers because they are where the money is, crisis or no crisis, politics and reform or not.
But it's interesting to see continental Europe do so well -- and in particular Germanic, non-Anglo-American, Angela Merkel Europe. Perhaps a little less scoffing at the German-Swiss-Austrian way of life and economics from the urban elite and a little more quaffing in some of the region's fine cities this summer during the World Cup will help the global crisis finally wear itself out.
Who knows, a few defections of the Armani-clad, wine-sipping undesirables from the major financial centers to some of these smaller ones might help London, New York and Tokyo improve their standings next year.