Old-timers will undoubtly recall the days when the ticker tape which reports prices from exchange trading floors to brokerage-house board rooms was a paper-and-ink contraption that projected its information magic-lanternlike onto an overhead screen. Although the buying-and-selling pace was then unimaginably slow (more than 3 million shares was an active day), the roll of canary-yellow ticker paper often would expire in a smear of purple gibberish while the printing mechanism kept clattering on, telling an unseen -- and possibly, for all the now-ignorant stock player could tell, urgent -- story.
One thinks back to such primitive settings as if they took place in some Wall Street Stone Age, but actually non even 20 years have elapsed since the introduction of the high-speed electronic ticker and the octupling of average daily NYSE trading volume to about 30 million shares -- merely one of the many leaps that the Big Board has taken since its fabled under-the-butterwood-tree inception 200 years ago.
A number of NYSE traditions have remained stubbornly intact over the years. For instance, the exchange is the last bastion of the verbal contract, a place where a man's word, no matter how scurrilous the underlying design, is unquestionedly his bond. The specialists's so-called "book," too, has stayed the same tall and narrow ledger where limit orders are scribed page after page in fractions without the fraction slash. And to this day, a runner is not allowed actually to run; an untrafast walk is tolerated. Most important of all, perhaps unexpectedly the stock-exchange floor is one of America's quintessential melting pots offering a (comparatively) prejudice-free opportunity for poor clerks to advance themselves into seat ownership, and thus fiscal equality, along-side the idle rich.
The author calls the NYSE floor "efficient pandemonium," and that's exactly what anyone who has observed it from the visitor's balcony gets to witness each weekday from 10 to 4. The buying and selling of common stocks there has to be the fastest-paced, most exciting, longest-lasting, most expensive game -- and it is a game -- ever invented. Yet Sloane conveys none of the high-roller aspects of floor dealings, and very little of the chance-taking heroics that not only are legendary but still occur. Except to retell the oft-told tale of Richard Whitney striding up to the U.S. Steel post on Oct. 24, 1929, and, in an effort to stem the selling tide, loudly announcing, "I bid 205 for 10,000 Steel," the author seems oddly removed from the trenches, concerned more with presenting a noblesse oblige view of the NYSE through its past executive officers. Richard Whitney, elected president in 1930 and convicted of grand larceny in 1938, was certainly one of the exchange's more interesting figures, but his misadventures have been recounted by far more stirring chroniclers (John Brooks, for one).
The author maintains he has not attempted to write and official history, but his book contradicts him. While the NYSE careers of such luminaries as William McChesney Martin Jr., Emil Schram, G. Keith Funston, Robert W. Haack, James J. Needham, Bernard J. "Bunny" Laser and William M. Batten (the current chairman) are spelled out in tedious detail, only slight recognition is given to the men (and the few women) who make the whole thing tick -- the specialists, two-dollar brokers, pages and clerks. These are desultorily portrayed as inane schleps perfunctorily grinding out everyday jobs.
One floor worker, a specialist, remarks, "A lot of people think this job is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. What we do daily would make some guys' hair stand on end." Not Sloane's, however. Anyone truly familiar with the floor understands that many days are indeed routine, but that the not-in-frequent exceptions are probably more instantly scarifying than any other venture that business people anywhere execute. For one example, after Nixon announced a dramatic economic plan in 1971, many stocks were unable to open under an overnight imbalance of buy orders. The specialist in Chrysler, however, took it as a personal challenge, and to open his appointed stock sold short $2.3 million worth of his firm's funds against the prevailing trend. Such incidents not only can stand hair on end, but turn it gray in an hour.
A thorough anatomical examination of the NYSE trading floor would, instead of lingering on a chapter about "Members and Their Pranks," depict a continually evolving specialized society as intricate, as programmed and sometimes as mystifying as a hive of bees, with money the pollen and profit the honey. The NYSE (and its little brother, the Amex) is unique to the capital world. Among large free-enterprise countries, only the stock market in Japan is similar, having been established under NYSE guidance. (The Bourse in France is a sequential, rather than a simultaneous, market; London's exchange is not an auction at all.) New York's regulated auction markets; in which a specialist, by exchange rules, must conduct "a fair and orderly market" and commit his own and his firm's resources to so doing, offers the fairest (and sometimes, in terms of unregulated laws of supply and demand, astoundingly more than fair) prices to the outside public as well as to large traders. These are few elements of American business that treat the man-in-the-street so squarely.
Preceding a woefully inadequate glossary, one last section ruminates on what the floor of tomorrow may be like, but even here diffidence spoils what could and may very well be an exciting adventure. Many members of the NYSE are reading the handwriting on Wall Street -- a message spelled out clearly on video display consoles -- and are already taking diversification precautions against the day when specicalist firms are no longer needed. Sloane, however, hasn't speculated beyond the countrywide limit-order file system now under implementation. The liklihood, an imaginative observer might conclude, is that in a decade or two complete computerization will swallow up the floor and its only-human people just as it will any number of other traditional enterprises, such as publishing lackluster books.