Yesterday I went to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (To be referred to as the NYSE henceforth). I had not stepped foot in that colossus of a building for 21 years. It was surreal. Sure, I knew the humans had been replaced by the computers. But to see it live, or more appropriately dead, was quite a different experience.
I couldn't help but think about how much had changed in a relatively short period of time. I worked on the floor of the NYSE, as a phone clerk from 1996-1998 for Goldman, Sachs & Co. A "phone clerk" back then was basically someone who got screamed at by traders upstairs for fucking up orders and by brokers on the floor for fucking up orders and, if one was real lucky, getting yelled at by Specialists for fucking up orders. As a junior clerk, I also got screamed at for fucking up lunch orders. I loved it.
Nobody in my family worked on Wall Street. My Grandmother always wanted my brothers and me to be lawyers. She got 2 out of 3. Those are way beyond Hall of Fame numbers. When I put my blue smock on for the first time in the "coat room," I didn't know the first thing about a bid or an offer. I had never heard of Barron's Magazine. I had no clue what the letters IPO, LBO, CDS, MBS or VIX meant. The only things I knew about Wall Street were from the eponymous movie. I spent most of my career trying to disprove any small part of that masterpiece, but to its credit I never was able to do so.
I remembered the scene in the movie when everyone was screaming at each other on the floor of the NYSE at the post that was trading Anacott Steel. And now I was here! I often was asked what it was like to be on the floor. I let people know that it was eerily similar to the Cantina in Mos Eisley. Instead of Hammerhead playing the Saxophone, we had brokers of every ethnicity screaming at each other in a cacophany that might as well have been Tagalog. Instead of Bounty Hunters stealing ships, we had Specialists and Day Traders stealing 1/8ths (That was the smallest spread back then.) Obi Wan Kenobi could kill a guy with his lightsaber in the Cantina and the music barely stopped. A Floor Broker could drop dead in the crowd, and the trading barely stopped. There were fist fights. People got suspended for a week or so. It was like a hockey game but people were swinging paper instead of sticks.
I was on CNBC yesterday and sat on a beautiful, professional set on the floor of the exchange. In 1997, Maria Bartiromo was making huge waves because she was the first person to really make the floor of the NYSE come alive for people. Yesterday, nobody walked in front of our cameras because, well, there weren't many people down there. In 1997, I had a broker who used to put on the most horrendous set of false teeth and stand right behind Maria while she was broadcasting and smile at the CNBC cameras.
Many brokers had nicknames. Some even had theme songs. The broker would enter a crowd and other brokers may start singing his or her song. I never had a song about me, but I did learn a lot. For instance, I once told an old-time broker some really specific instructions on how to execute an order. He looked at me like I had smote his first born and said: "Listen Kid, these orders say Buy and Sell. They don't say Fuck around." I never forgot that. Another long-time broker told me once: "Ian, there are 3 ways to get rich: Make it, Marry it, or Inherit It. I did all three." I didn't have the same success as that broker.
Nowadays, the NYSE is institutionalized to within an inch of its life. About the most daring thing they did recently was let employees wear Levi's denim when the company went public. I remember Gateway 2000 (yes that PC company) came to the NYSE in 1997. For whatever reason, the staff of the NYSE thought it would be cool to bring the company mascot (a pretty big cow) on to the floor while the executives rang the bell to open trading. I have never seen an animal shit this much. There was the stench of cow manure everywhere. They had "runners" with mops and buckets behind the poor bovine. Unsurprisingly, that was the "jump the shark" moment for Gateway and in a way for the floor as well.
I did really see a guy have a heart attack right on the floor. The other brokers kept trading around him while EMTs were trying to revive him. He may have died. I don't remember. The brokers kept trading. The heart attacks were no surprise given the steady diets of Bacon, Egg & Cheese Sandwiches and Cheeseburgers, preferably rare and for breakfast when people were hungover (which for me was pretty much every night of the week.) Well, thats not totally accurate. The floor of the NYSE closed at 4pm so I was usually drunk by late afternoon. But many of the brokers beat me to the punch because they were drinking at noon in the "luncheon club," a "members only" space where people above my pay grade could socialize and tell war stories of days long gone. I got to go a few times and I remember it felt like I had been invited to the White House. I would learn a lot from these meals about the nuts and bolts of trading and about how many of these kids off the street got into their positions.
Thousands of people were down there on the floor of the NYSE. Many of them were making way more money than they should have been, and I mean "way more." But, oh how the pendulum has swung. They are all gone now. My "two-dollar" brokers who would give me a few hundred dollar bills for Xmas (which at 23 out of West Point felt like all the money in the world) have left the building. The Specialists, who each had their own massive personality and handful of stocks they controlled for anyone on the planet who wanted to trade them are mostly gone. The runners (usually on the receiving end of practical jokes) or "squads" as they were called then have exited the premises. The other traders on the floor who carried around thousands of dollars in cash in a money clip holding on for dear life were nowhere to be found.
The price of progress? Maybe. Creative destruction? Perhaps. Survival of the fittest? Possible. Why the NYSE became a ghost town doesn't matter. In many ways it is a microcosm for our culture overall. Thousands of people used to scream, yell, laugh, cry, grab a beer at the end of the day, and do it all over again tomorrow. Now, the floor of the NYSE sounds like a library. Lights flash and stocks go up and down, but that was about all I saw yesterday. I couldn't help but wax nostalgic about my 2 years on the floor. The people that worked down there all were crazy, bonkers and off-their rockers. But as Alice said: "I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”