Billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, the wealthiest person in Illinois, told the Economic Club of Chicago Monday he has grave doubts about the future of Chicago, and that his investment firm, Citadel, will probably move its headquarters elsewhere — if the city doesn’t “change course.”
Griffin said Chicago remains the corporate headquarters, but the firm’s New York office is now the “central point” with well over a thousand employees. He cited increased crime and violence on the streets of Chicago as one of several reasons why Citadel, which has $38 billion in assets under management, may seek greener corporate pastures.
“It’s becoming ever more difficult to have this as our global headquarters, a city which has so much violence,” Griffin said. “Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day. And that’s a problem.”
That was one of many civic blows delivered by Griffin, 52, during his pull-no-punches appearance Monday, where he took on city and state leaders over issues including “broken” public schools, high taxes, the need for pension reform and crime.
Griffin said during the height of the civil unrest in the summer of 2020, when more than 2,100 businesses across Chicago were damaged following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, he implored Gov. J.B. Pritzker to declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard.
“I told him to deploy the National Guard and he goes, ‘it won’t look good for there to be men and women on Michigan Avenue with assault weapons,’” Griffin told the Economic Club members in attendance and those viewing online. “’If that saves the life of a child, I don’t care.’ And he doesn’t care.”
A Pritzker spokeswoman denied the accuracy of Griffin’s recounting of the conversation and responded to the criticism in equally blunt terms Monday afternoon.
“Ken Griffin is a liar,” Emily Bittner, a Pritzker spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Gov. Pritzker is dedicated to the safety of this city and state, deployed the National Guard during the social unrest in the summer of 2020 and is making landmark investments in crime prevention.”
Griffin, who founded Citadel in 1990 and built it into one of the largest hedge funds in the world, is worth a reported $16 billion. He has donated more than $1 billion to organizations such as the Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Science and Industry, which announced it would be renamed in honor of Griffin in 2019.
While he has been a leading civic light in Chicago for years, he painted a dark picture of his hometown during the hourlong event, which also addressed everything from vaccinations and the need to return to the office to the inadvisability of another Trump presidency.
Working from Home
Citadel employees are 98% fully vaccinated — on a voluntary basis — and have been 100% back in the office since June, Griffin said. He is a strong proponent of vaccinations against COVID-19 and believes mandates for schoolchildren and for “areas of the economy where people are in frequent contact with others” may be beneficial.
Working from home, he said, is adversely affecting the careers of young employees.
“If you are early in your career, you are making a grave mistake not being back at work,” Griffin said. “It’s incredibly difficult to have the managerial experiences and interpersonal experiences that you need to have to take your career forward in a work remotely environment.”
Griffin said former President Donald Trump’s economic policies were “pretty damn good” for America, but the polarization during his administration was not. He never financially supported Trump’s campaign because of the former president’s “incredibly offensive attacks on the Hispanic community,” which he said hit home after growing up in Florida.
As such, Griffin does not support another Trump run for president in 2024.
“I think it’s time for America to move on,” Griffin said. “The four years under President Donald Trump were so pointlessly divisive, it was not constructive for our country.”
Citadel does not trade in the unregulated, $1 trillion cryptocurrency market, and Griffin is less than bullish on the decentralized digital currency. He said “thoughtful regulation” around cryptocurrency will make it a safer and smaller market.
Griffin said regulation is the only way Citadel would wade into the frothy trading waters of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
“I just don’t want to take on the regulatory risk, in this regulatory void, that some of my contemporaries are willing to take on,” Griffin said.
The Arlington Heights Bears
The Chicago Bears announced a $197.2 million purchase agreement last month to buy Arlington International Racecourse that may presage a move from the team’s longtime home at Soldier Field to a new stadium in Arlington Heights. Griffin said he hopes the Bears don’t leave the city, but likened it to a broader exodus of businesses and talent.
“I so hope they stay in Chicago,” Griffin said. “I see it as I lose my friends, one by one from this great city. The combination of crime and estate tax that’s incredibly higher than most states. People just don’t want to call this home as they get older.”
Moving Citadel’s headquarters
Griffin said Chicago’s days as the headquarters for Citadel may be numbered, with crime topping the list of reasons why the hedge fund is considering, like the Bears, an eventual move to another city. He said the firm isn’t “as here was we were” a decade ago, with other offices such as New York growing rapidly.
“There is nowhere where you can feel safe today, walking home at 9:30 at night, and you worry about your kids going to and from school,” Griffin said. “That’s no way for our city to exist. And it’s really hard to recruit people to Chicago, when they read the headlines.”
As to how long Chicago remains the global headquarters for Citadel, Griffin issued a vague timetable and a clear warning.
“It’s probably measured in years, not decades, if we don’t change course,” Griffin said.