Why New York is (still) the center of the business universe

November 11, 2013, 10:57 PM UTC
New York remains the top city for business. But for how long?

FORTUNE — At a big business conference recently — where the rules forbade my quoting participants by name — I was surprised to hear a famous CEO refer in passing to “New York City, which is still the center of the world.” The CEO isn’t American (he’s English), and whenever I see him he’s always just coming from or going to China. And he thinks New York is the center of the world. I wondered, Could he be right?

A few days later I got a call from Noel Tichy, the well-known leadership expert and professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, to say he was bringing 15 global MBA students — all of them from outside the U.S., most of them Asian — to the city for two days. “I asked how many of them had been to New York, and only two or three of them raised their hands,” he explained. “I said, ‘Come on. How can you understand global business if you’ve never been to the world’s financial center? We’re going!’”

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So are these guys right? The conventional view is of course that the global centers of gravity — economic, intellectual, social, cultural — are shifting unstoppably east, and little old New York is receding to the middle of the pack. Yet a case can still be made for New York’s primacy, as follows:

-It is arguably still the preeminent financial center. Its claim was in danger after the scandals of the Enron/WorldCom era prompted Sarbanes-Oxley and other heavy-handed regulations, which drove many companies to capital markets elsewhere, especially London. But now London and the EU have heaped mountains of regulation onto firms, including proposed limits on bankers’ bonuses, and New York looks a lot more alluring once again.

-It is unquestionably the global media capital. Of the world’s 10 biggest media companies, five — CBS (CBS), News Corp. (NWSA), Time Warner (TWX), 21st Century Fox (FOX), and Viacom (VIA) — are based in New York. No other city has more than one.

Money and media — when a city is world headquarters for those two sectors of today’s economy, maybe it really is the center of the world. So all hail New York! It has held the title for, let’s say, 68 years (since the end of World War II). But for how much longer? Five years? I wouldn’t bet on it. The famous CEO who called New York the center of the world made his remark in Singapore. That eastward trend may surge and pause, but it isn’t stopping.