On first glance, the formidable architecture of lower Manhattan gives one the impression that New York is the rock-solid center of money. The World Trade Center and her acolyte buildings rise sheer and mighty from the sea. It is an architecture that New York Times critic Paul Goldberger describes as reflecting the ''hushed power'' of money.
Little today seems to threaten the national and international predominance of the megabanks, brokerage firms, and stock exchanges of New York. If anything, they are growing stronger - banks pushing to go interstate, brokerages diversifying and becoming quasi-banks themselves, and stock exchanges reaping the benefits of a 14-month-old bull market.
But a twist or turn in tax laws, technology, economy, or city attitude, say a number of financial analysts, could scatter imperial Wall Street to the far corners of the globe.
''Nothing is set in stone, especially in the financial industry,'' says William C. Freund, the New York Stock Exchange chief economist. ''New York is going to have to be extremely competitive in order to keep and to attract new business.''
Dr. Freund characterizes the financial sector and its peripheral businesses (printing, public relations, data processing) as New York's biggest growth industries: ''The jobs, the income generated, show that New York has benefited enormously.''
New York is the financial giant that it is, says Richard Scribner, American Exchange executive vice-president, because the nation's two largest stock exchanges (the NYSE and the Amex) have fostered a huge population of brokers and traders - and the brokers and traders not only need the exchanges, but they also need related financial services. The presence of the big investment bankers in New York - such as Merrill Lynch, E.F. Hutton, Morgan Stanley - makes the city essential to companies going public.
Interestingly, New York also is first in marketmaking for the over-the-counter (OTC) trade. OTC is generally considered the entrepreneurial sector of the securities industry; it is often associated with investors far from the financial power centers.
Officials of the securities industry estimate that 350,000 jobs rely directly or indirectly on the New York brokerage trade alone, and this represents $5 billion to $6 billion in wages. Many more jobs are involved in banking, insurance, and all the supporting fields, ranging from Wall Street's fast-food spots to its executive limosine services.
But high taxes and a somewhat worsening quality of life, coupled with a relatively new decentralization mechanism called the Intermarket Trading System, could change all that. The ITS allows traders at exchanges across the country to gain access to stocks listed on a variety of exchanges, including New York's. Earlier this year, the NYSE, the Amex, and the Securities Industry Association persuaded New York City to withdraw a proposed stock-transfer tax because of the possibility that - coupled with the ITS - the tax would act as an incentive to the financial industry to relocate and simply access the New York markets from elsewhere.
''That certainly was a challenge to New York,'' says Edward I. O'Brien, president of the Securities Industry Association. ''Fortunately, because the city administration saw what could have happened, it is no longer a threat.''
Another concern is the quality of life in New York. Housing and related costs are exorbitant; the infrastructure - especially the roads and subways - are in poor repair; street crime is frequent (though possibly on the decline). New York, Mr. O'Brien says, ''is a crowded, busy, sometimes dirty and rough-and-tumble place.'' Nonetheless, he says, other cities do not have the theater, commercial industry, capital, jobs, and income opportunities that New York has. Despite its plentiful drawbacks, the city seems able to attract high-quality talent.
The NYSE's Big Board is still far and away the industry standard. The preponderance of the nation's stock trading is done on the NYSE or around the corner on the Amex. The Chicago Board of Trade dominates the options market, and the Pacific Coast Exchange receives a great deal of activity after East Coast exchanges close for the day. But the Big Board can handle 100 million shares a day and is gearing up for handling up to 250 million.
Even federally mandated plans to decentralize the power of the Big Board - plans which some New York traders have viewed with suspicion - ultimately may work to New York's benefit. While traders at regional exchanges have access to stocks listed on New York exchanges, New York traders can use the same system to find competitive prices regionally. Far from dispatching New York's trading business to the countryside, these linkage systems actually may be making it less necessary for New Yorkers and their clients to deal directly with traders on regional exchanges.
Moreover, as the financial-service industry expands, due to government deregulation, New York is gaining the lion's share of the burgeoning business. The branches of multiservice financial supermarkets - such as Sears, Merrill Lynch, and Shearson/American Express - may initiate many of their transactions outside of New York, but ultimately these are funneled through the city for completion.
Will the electronic age ever make the frenzy of the trading floors obsolete? Probably not.
NYSE spokesman Rich Torrenzano says that despite advances in computer technology and telecommunications, there is still no substitute for the speed and flexibility of an individual in a competitive floor-trading situation: ''A guy can put all the variables together much faster than a computer can. He can step back and watch the psychology of the floor, analyze the news, and move cautiously or quickly depending on what he perceives.''
Lower Manhattan's business culture is best typified by the floor-trading activity of the NYSE and the Amex. It is from those intensely competitive environments, with their huge dollar volumes, that the rest of the city seems to take its cue. Mr. Scribner, the Amex executive, characterizes this as the ''synergy of the exchanges.''
As long as the synergy is positive and upbeat, Scribner says, ''the city can look forward to remaining the world center of finance.''