A few minutes past 10 AM, with a little time to kill, I sidle over to Malcolm at Green and Steele’s market-making post. Malcolm is a New York Stock Exchange specialist, maintaining orderly markets in a dozen large stocks. Malcolm looks drawn and tired, his hair all askew, and we still have six hours to go in the trading day.
Malcolm’s badge and blue jacket bear his company’s name and his personal exchange number, 805, on them. This allows quick counterparty identification when making trades. I work as a specialist in several different stocks, but for a different firm, Castle Securities, and my badge number is 913.
Malcolm and I, along with dozens of specialists and hundreds of floor traders, trade millions of shares daily, face-to-face with each other on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Specialists stay at their trading posts, while floor traders roam around as they make trades. Normally, the floor is frantic and moderately noisy, but the exchange governors have tried to create a more-relaxed environment with deep blue carpeting and soft lights.
Together, at Malcolm’s post, we look up at the electronic price boards, frozen in position at 9:54 this morning when trading was halted. The exchange big-wigs have declared trading will resume after the news announcement at 10:30. For hyperactive traders like us, a thirty-minute wait is an eternity.
Around the floor, numerous blue jacketed men, plus a few women, have adopted similar poses; heads tilted back looking at the price screens, plastic coffee cups in hand. They occasionally glance down at their tablets, then swivel back to the screens.
When the market opened today, it skyrocketed “up limit” in just two minutes, rising until it hit the circuit breaker at 9:32. After a five minute trading pause, it plunged “down limit,” hitting the circuit breaker the other way at 9:54. Trading was then halted until after the announcement. I have been on the NYSE trading floor for twenty years and have never seen prices whipsaw this rapidly.
“Hey, Frank,” Malcolm greets me.
“Hey, yourself,” I reply.
“Crazy morning,” says Malcolm, who started at the exchange around the same time I did. We both have seen some volatile markets with the coronavirus and in 2000 and 2008, but nothing compared to the compressed time frames of this morning. Today’s price movements represented complete 180-degree swings in sentiment and mood, total contradictory changes of future expectations. They say the stock market looks at business conditions six months into the future, but today, everyone was merely guessing, waiting on the news.
“May I?” Without waiting for a response, I pull some coffee from the air pot at the Green and Steele desk. It smells stale and unappetizing. A wisp of steam curls up but, by eleven, the entire pot will be empty or cold. “Want one?”
“Please,” replies Malcom. “I sure as hell aren’t leaving the trading floor to catch Azarian on a morning like this.”
Most of the traders, like Malcolm and I, were staying on the floor, even though there was no activity. Only a few had wandered out to find Azarian, knowing there would be no restarting the market until 10:30. Azarian trundles his coffee cart around the corridors just outside the wide electronic trading floor doors. Our recurring joke is that Azarian makes more money than us traders.
What the civilians who “invest” rather than trade don’t understand is that, as long as markets move up or down, floor traders make money. The greater the volatility, the wider the spreads, the more we make. In the thirty minutes just passed, I have probably made several million for my firm. Malcolm’s firm, which is much larger, has probably made tens of millions.
On slower days in the past, we’d talk politics and sports, however, for the last two years, politics have been out of bounds. People have become too vociferous, angry, and “in your face.” Those kinds of reactions get in the way of making money, so, of course, they are now taboo.
With all professional sports shut down since COVID, that subject is also off the table. We are left with discussions of bonuses and vacations. Nonetheless, today’s news trumps the restraints of the last couple of years, and with time on our hands, we talk about it until trading resumes in a few minutes.
“So, is he, or isn’t he?” Malcolm asks, gingerly sipping from his coffee cup. A grimace passes across his face as he tastes the coffee.
“Do you care?” I reply. “The news moves markets. Buy on the rumor, sell on the facts, and all that BS.”
“Well, it would certainly explain some of his behavior. The paranoia, the narcissistic behaviors, the name-calling, the tweets and rants.”
“Maybe it is just his way of expressing himself. He’s a New Yorker like us, you know, loud and abrasive. Not sure it matters anyhow; the election is only a couple of months away.”
Malcolm nods in agreement.
Half the pricing screens are switched to the news, mostly CNN and Reuters, with a smattering of Bloomberg News. As far as I can see, not one monitor is tuned to Fox News.
Seconds before 10:30, a hush falls over the entire floor. Someone cranks the sound on the CNN monitor in front of us.
“Per the invocation of the 25th Amendment by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, the examination of the President by our nation’s top mental health officials has been completed. The experts have found the President is…”
Drowning out the talking head’s final words, traders all across the exchange floor begin yelling prices and orders as quickly as they can. The market begins to rise upward like a SpaceX rocket headed for Mars, gaining momentum as it goes. Malcolm stays at his post as floor traders descend on him. I quickly return to execute trades with the traders now swamping my specialist’s station.
“Buy 300 at 56.”
“Buy 450 at 59.”
“Buy 1200 at 61.”
The roar of shouting voices across the trading floor is cacophonous. Using badge numbers, I enter trade tickets, each number representing one hundred shares, on my tablet, one after another, generally in larger quantities and at higher prices.
When I next draw a relaxed breath, the market is minutes from closing. What a day! The news crews are starting onto the floor to interview traders for their market wrap-up shows.
When the closing bell sounds, the Dow is up 1800 points for the day. Only then do I remember to ask the clerk at our trading desk, “So, is he, or isn’t he?”