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By The Skanner News
Published: 29 October 2008

NEW YORK (AP) _ By the time Jeffrey Frankel got to bed it was past midnight, but sleep did not come easy.
Twice during the night, the broker had climbed out from the covers and returned to the television, trying to get a read on what investors were thinking in Tokyo and Hong Kong and to see what the futures market foretold about the trading day ahead.
Now, the digital board hanging over the New York Stock Exchange's maple hardwood floor showed 9:24 a.m.
Six minutes left until the open.
But in one corner of the trading floor, brokers for Stuart Frankel & Co. had been at their stations for more than 21/2 hours. Frankel, president of the company founded by his father, had been on the floor since 8, working the phones, swigging coffee, "trying to get ready for what seems to be getting whacked in the head every day."
After weeks of riding the Wall Street whipsaw, this new day -- Wednesday, Oct. 29 -- held out both reason for hope and the potential for even more pain.
The previous session had ended with an adrenaline-pumping 889 point surge in the Dow Jones industrial average. The gain was welcomed warily on the floor. But it did little to clarify the doubts or ease the fears of the people whose lives and livelihoods are staked to a market down 40 percent from a year ago.
In minutes, the world's investors -- from millionaire hedge fund managers to ordinary workers trying to protect decimated retirement savings -- would turn their attention to this trading floor, studying the televised frenzy in a search for reassurance and direction.
If they chose, they could look ahead to the promise of a cut in interest rates, likely to be announced at mid-afternoon. But who could blame them for looking back? This, after all, was the anniversary of the 1929 market crash, perhaps the darkest day in exchange history.
There was only one certainty. This would not be an ordinary day on the floor. There are no ordinary days here anymore.
The electronic board showed investors were betting on stocks to open near the previous day's close, a good sign. Now it was up to Frankel and his trading floor compatriots to figure out whether yesterday's brief exhilaration signaled the edge of the oasis a parched Wall Street had been searching for, or just a cruel mirage.
"That's the million-dollar question," Frankel said.
But for now the only answer was the sound of the opening bell.
9:39 a.m., Dow down 88.97.
Traders greet the bell with light applause. But it fades in seconds. Wall Street has plenty to think about today and isn't wasting time on formalities.
Just over an hour ago, it looked like stocks might start the day strong after the Commerce Department reported that orders for products like cars and appliances rose in September.
But that bit of good news doesn't appear to be enough for a market where half of the stock drop has been compressed into just four weeks. After Tuesday's big gain, some investors appear ready to claim a little profit and it's easy to understand why.
Standing at his booth, broker Theodore Weisberg cranes his neck, peering up at the board. Weisberg sports a tie covered with silhouettes of the Buttonwood Tree, under whose branches 24 traders founded the NYSE in 1792. It's a souvenir of his four decades on the trading floor. But even with that tenure, he acknowledges it's harder than ever to read the market.
"In times like this you need to be more of a psychologist than a trader," he says, "because so much of stock trading is driven by human emotion."
Still, Weisberg likes what he sees. Citigroup stock is holding above $13 a share, a good sign for banking companies beaten down by the financial crisis. Just the fact that the overall market is sustaining most of yesterday's gains is encouraging, he says.
Sure enough, 12 minutes later, and the Dow has narrowed its drop, down just 37. Still, even 40 years of trading can't tell Weisberg whether yesterday's jump and today's steadiness is a sign that battered stocks have bottomed out.
"Wall Street is the only business in the world where when they have a fire sale nobody comes," he says. "And they don't come because they're scared to death."
10:30 a.m., Dow up 52.09.
After some early fluctuation, traders and investors seem to be settling into waiting mode.
At least part of the explanation for the previous day's rally is investors' expectation that this afternoon the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates, continuing its battle to save the financial system.
There's wide agreement that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and fellow policy makers will cut a key rate by 0.5 percent to 1 percent. But until the decision is announced at 2:15, investors seem uncertain about whether to buy or sell.
"It's been a very quiet morning, actually," says Jennifer Lee, a partner in independent broker Mogavero Lee & Co.
The quiet, though, shouldn't be misread as calm. Most of Lee's clients are mutual funds, state pension funds and hedge funds. And most remain wary of the market, planning to buy eventually but for now mostly watching from the sidelines.
"This is a very difficult market to predict, very difficult to trade," says Doreen Mogavero, one of Lee's partners. "It's not historically like anything we've seen before."
Mogavero believes, at least for this moment of this morning, that the previous session's surge and the focus on the Fed is distracting investors, lifting stocks in a way that may not be sustainable. Soon, she says, they'll have to refocus on the long-term prospects for businesses and consumers. Her doubts are confirmed by TV reports before she left this morning of fresh rounds of layoffs by several large companies.
"When all is said and done and people start to look at the underlying economy, that's what really tells a story," she says.
11:43 a.m., Dow up 2.47.
Seen on television, a day on the trading floor looks like one more repeat of the same controlled chaos. But from trader's eye level, it becomes clear neither is true.
What looks like a frenzy is actually remarkably organized. Under the gilded tobacco leaf motif woven across the exchange's 50-foot ceiling, brokers work the perimeter, fielding orders and gathering information for client investors trying to read the market. In the middle of the room, specialists work the trading posts, horseshoe-shaped counters decked in flat screen monitors. Each specialist runs trading in five or six stocks.
In much the way they've done for decades, brokers and specialists converge on the building at Wall and Broad streets each day, arriving in colored mesh-back jackets with their nicknames embroidered on the front.
But only about 1,200 people work the floor now, down from 3,000 a few years ago. Trading used to fill five rooms. Today, it's down to two -- the main floor and the adjacent Garage, rumored to be the site of a long-ago horse stable.
Traders whose jobs were eliminated have been replaced by technology. In the old days, floor workers typed more than 40 million keystrokes a day processing orders. Now, more than 95 percent of all buying and selling is done by computers. Brokers dash around toting e-brokers, a wireless handheld device.
The NYSE's management touts the resulting hybrid as the best of both worlds -- the speed of automation but the judgment and care that only a human being can offer. Skeptics, including those at other exchanges, most now entirely run by computers, say the Big Board is a relic.
Those still on the floor think the extreme volatility of the past few weeks confirms both the value of the human component -- a computer after all can't console or advise an uncertain investor -- and tests its limits.
"I'm half human and half machine, which is OK with me," Mogavero says. "As long as both halves are working -- and it has been tested several times in the last two weeks."
1:20 p.m., Dow up 42.69.
David Henderson has two trader's coats in his closet. When stocks are tanking, he dons the red one. It's been very well worn recently.
But for two weeks now, Henderson's been telling others on the floor that the bottom may be near. Other brokers rib him about this. But Henderson is steadfast. To show he means it, the trader -- whose family has worked the floor for 150 years -- got his green jacket off the hanger.
"I told a few people if we don't get a good rally, I'm going to burn this jacket," he says.
Now, with less than an hour before the Fed weighs in, Henderson at last sees justification for his optimism.
Yesterday's gain was sweet. But even today, he spots glimmers of what could be good news. The price of oil is up about $5 a barrel, good for energy stocks that have been battered recently. General Motors, one of the 30 blue chip stocks that make up the Dow, is up 41 cents -- about 6.5 percent -- on reports that fuel investor hope of a merger with rival Chrysler. Investors seem to be moving to stocks like McDonald's Corp., whose value meals draw consumers even in a down economy.
Henderson isn't kidding himself. Stocks never rise in a straight line and there's no instant gratification in this market. But, maybe, the massive plunge in the market and equally massive moves by federal policy makers to rescue the economy set the stage for better days.
On the digital board overhead, the latest headline flashes past: "Time to Give Bernanke Some Credit."
"No joke, Sherlock," Henderson says.
Beneath the headline, the board shows the Dow gaining steam -- up nearly 100 points in 17 minutes.
2:14 p.m., Dow up 76.78.
Just a minute to go now before the Fed is expected to speak.
But traders have been whispering "shhhh" since noon. Now the whispers grow louder and more frequent, a joking way to let off steam.
"Quiet on the set," one trader shouts.
But 2:15 ticks by. Then 2:16. Finally, two minutes past due, the headline flashes past on the digital board: "Fed Funds Rate 50 BPS to 1 percent. Door open to more cuts."
The only reaction from the floor is a murmur. Almost immediately, though, investors begin parsing the Fed's statement for clues to the future. At 2:18, the Dow is down 18. A minute later, it's up 14.
Warren Meyers stands at trading post No. 5, his e-broker in hand, his eyes still fixed on the screen. Another headline pops up, noting that investors -- based on the Fed's assessment -- are betting there's a 100 percent chance of another rate cut in December.
That might be good news for stocks, but offers a grim verdict on the economy.
"What does that tell you?" Meyers says. "We're nowhere near the end of it."
2:52 p.m., Dow up 17.44
Can this market hold its ground? If it does, it will be the first time all October the Dow has sustained two consecutive gains.
It's striking, though, that for all expertise clustered on the floor, there's little agreement on just where things might go next.
"It would be a great day if we were plus 50 or down 50," Frankel says. He turns to Anthony Riccio, a fellow broker, who's tracking incoming orders for Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and other banks stocks. Buyers outweigh sellers, Riccio reports. The market seems to be building momentum.
By 3:16, the Dow is up 165.
Three minutes later, it's up 186.
Eventually it peaks up 290.
At 3:40, specialists post sheets on the sides of their computer monitors, showing trade imbalances for the stocks they supervise. There are many more orders to buy than to sell, and the sheets are posted to draw more sellers into the market. That could make for a strong finish.
"This is what we've grown accustomed to," Frankel says of the market's wild swings. "They're violent. They're fast, and you just can't believe the price movements."
That's not always apparent to the average investor, who pay attention mostly to how stocks finish days, and who may have lost track of how things use to be. Now stocks are fluctuating more in a single day then they used in a whole year.
But it's not just the size of the jumps. It's also the sudden snaps in momentum. And no time is more dangerous than the market's final minutes.
3:31, Dow up 220.64.
As the session enters its final half hour, the market waffles.
"Oh, they're giving up some of the gains," shouts Steve Grasso, who trades for Frankel. "Hold, hold!"
But the Dow catches itself. At 3:48, it is up 276.
"Pretty impressive," says a smiling Weisberg, the longtime trader. "We'll take it."
Minutes later, though, the market seems to come off its tracks. Just why is not easy to figure.
At about 3:45, one of the financial news channels relays a report about General Electric Co., quoting its CEO as saying the company forecast a 10 to 15 percent drop in its revenues. Before the afternoon is out, a GE spokesman will clarify that the comments were merely hypothetical.
But that will come too late for the market, where investors are rushing to sell GE -- one of the mainstays of the Dow -- pushing it down sharply.
The selling seems to beget more selling. To Weisberg, the longtime trader, it hints darkly at hedge funds and others gaming the market. He blames the Securities and Exchange Commission for allowing shortsellers -- who bet that stocks will fall -- to do so even when the stocks are already dropping.
The gains of the day are disappearing fast. But the Dow clings to a small gain until, at 3:57, it loses its toehold.
"Ring the bell! Hurry up!" a trader shouts from the middle of the floor.
But Weisberg, disgusted, has seen enough. He grabs his baseball cap, wraps a scarf around his neck and bids his co-workers goodnight.
A moment later, the board shows 4 p.m., and the bell sounds. Dow down 119.
The market has fought bravely. But it has lost today's battle.
4:30 p.m.
The damage isn't quite as bad as it first appeared. It takes a few minutes for all the trades still in the system to settle out, curtailing damage to the Dow to 74 points lower than where it began.
Just half an hour ago, this floor was mayhem. Now, nearly all the traders are gone, leaving the custodians to sweep up the notes jotted on napkins, the water bottles and paper cups.
"We had a great run for 98 percent of the day," Frankel says wistfully. His voice is ragged and he's short on sleep. It's days like this, the 43-year-old trader jokes, that have turned his hair white. He heads for the door.
Mogavero, too, is trying to look beyond the market's brutal last minutes and keep things in perspective. There's a whole economy to think about. Even when it's not going well out there, investors and companies still need to transact business, she says.
It's been that way for 216 years, ever since that afternoon under the Buttonwood Tree. What will tomorrow bring?
"We'll do it all over again," she says. "That's what we do."

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