Summer Reading Issue

Market Driven

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By T.M. Shine
Sunday, July 19, 2009

The energy in this closeted room is palpable. A main computer terminal is humming, and two laptops sit at my feet, teetering on milk crates. The jagged, knife-edged lines of charts and graphs glow off the screens like violent doodles on nuclear Etch A Sketches. I am buying, selling, covering, scalping. My fingers are flying across the computer keys with the classical virtuosity of all five of the 5 Browns. Every time I stretch my arms, sparks snap, crackle and pop off the fuzzy, static-ridden sweater I just took out of the dryer. I am kinetic, frenetic and apathetic about anything but the next stock trade.

The market opened only seconds ago, but I'm already knocking off picks I'd scribbled on the back of outdated Arby's coupons in the big, bold acronyms of the stock ticker. I am creating a portfolio as diversified as the passengers on a midnight bus heading to Atlantic City. WMI -- Buy! XOM -- Buy! CXW -- Buy! I knock down one trade after the other. I've got pharmaceuticals for both humans (MRK) and animals (PETS). I'm jumping from the light side, TUP (Tupperware), to the dark, (HAL) Halliburton.

This week's scary headlines are last week's scary headlines: "U.S. stocks tumble as retail sales report shows sharp decline." "The Worst Is Yet to Come." Experts talk about Black Wednesday, last Sept. 15, as the turning point -- the beginning of the downward spiral -- but the moment I keep fixating on was a few months earlier, a late afternoon in June when the entire stock market came to a standstill as the brokers stopped cold to watch the sudden death playoff hole between golfers Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate. After that, we could no longer say we had no warning that the individuals in charge of swapping, throwing around and watching over our life savings were not the men and women of great focus we deserved. That, and the time the stock exchange had Jessica Simpson ring the opening bell. But I'm beyond my weak reliance on the "experts." No more, my friends. I'm pure instinct now, and it's giving me the strength to buy. Pass the Jack Daniel's (BF-A), and plug in the Guitar Hero (ATVI). I could easily envision "Mad Money's" Jim Cramer slapping my picks up on his diversity board, rolling up his sweaty sleeves and shouting at the TV audience, "Terry, fantastic job!"

Thank you, Jimbo. But I don't need the props this time out. Hunched over on a buying spree, I have become cash on a long leash. My silhouette in the morning light is the undeniable shape of the dollar sign -- my posture telegraphing flexibility, daring and bravado. The shackles are off. The waiting to get back in the stock market is over. I am all in!

"Whoa! Buddy, what are you doing?" a message flashes on my screen. "Why are you long this market? Why aren't you shorting?"

Uh-oh. It's a fellow trader who calls himself BWS, and he can get a little ... "Buddy! Short selling is just like buying low and selling high. This time round it's about selling high and buying back at a low price to profit from the difference." I didn't understand a word he was saying.

I better admit right now: I'm a player only in my imagination. I'm in a stock market fantasy league, WallStreetSurvivor.com, and one of its most savvy and popular participants, BWS, is dragging me back to reality.

I know, I know, "not another fantasy game." But don't mock it yet. Hear me out. This one is different. "I've been overheard mumbling about how much I've lost in a day's trade and discovered people really thought I had lost thousands in real life," says fellow player AnnieC. If you mumble about your fantasy football losses, nobody thinks you're Dan Snyder. But this fantasy league drills down deep into our current national nightmare. The game seamlessly allows you to play the stock market in real time and create a portfolio without the harsh risk of losing your own nest egg, but with something close to the thrill of the hunt. It might very well be the gateway drug we all need to meander back to the real thing. On our own terms this time.

Schmoes Like Me

Like most of you, the only real investment I've considered making since last September is purchasing a $14 portable battery-operated shredder. I'd carry it out to the mailbox and mulch my 401(k) statements into poor man's cat litter the second it arrives. I have to smack myself now for never even questioning what was actually in those pie charts my benefits company kept sending every quarter. Give 'em a three-colored Retirement Fund Pie to stare at, and they'll be mesmerized. Dazzled, even.

"I, myself, lost a bunch of money in the real market," admits WSS founder and CEO Rory Olson. "And it was all blue chip -- very conservative. My quarterly statement was getting pounded, and I'm thinking, 'What am I involved in!? How do we decipher what is in this black box we call the stock market?' " Olson is suggesting something here, but it's his marketing director, Mark Berger, who spells it out: "Unlike something like fantasy baseball, this does have real-life application," he says. "One in a million is actually ever going to have Theo Epstein's job as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, but everybody has a shot at managing their own money."

When the game was founded two years ago, the market was bullish and the "Survivor" tag simply a play on the popular reality television series. All that changed when financial institutions started unraveling and the market tanked. "By October of last year, it truly became about real survival, something we never intended," Berger says. "When things started going south with the economy, that's when our traffic spiked."


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