One New Yorker pulled totally out of the stock market a month ago, thus reaping a $200 million profit and avoiding this week's Wall Street disaster. Another New Yorker lost millions -- perhaps including some of his own -- when the bottom dropped out of the Dow.
It only goes to show you that some people are smart about the market and some aren't, doesn't it? Well, no it doesn't.
The guy who made the killing -- real-estate tycoon Donald Trump -- is smart, all right. But the guy who took a bath is not exactly your borderline idiot. He is Mark Mehl, director of institutional stock trading at Drexel Burnham Lambert, Inc. The fact is, they both gambled, and only one of them won.
Trump's bet was that the Federal Reserve Board's move to bolster the dollar a few weeks back would make the market go crazy, he told the Associated Press. Acting on that "tipoff," he sold his half-billion dollars' worth of holding in Allegis, Holiday, Bally and other companies. By Monday, he was looking like a genius.
Mehl's bet, according to a Washington Post report, was that the market had bottomed out some time Monday morning and there was serious money to be made by going against the panicky trend. At 11 o'clock, with the Dow down 250 points, Mehl, along with other smart traders, made his move. He started snapping up depressed issues, a gamble he was sure would produce huge benefits for his firm and its clients. Less than half an hour later, he was looking good. The market was rebounding strongly, and soon was down only 150. A short time later, it was down only 125, then only around 100. But shortly after noon, the trend made a U-turn. Down 120, then down 150. By 12:35, down 177; by 2:05, down 287, on the way to a record-shattering one-day decline of 508. Mehl, like the market, was in big trouble.
And so are a lot of us who don't know a put from a call.
A colleague, blissfully ignorant of the market, remarked late Monday that the Wall Street catastrophe was a matter of huge indifference to him. He's wrong, of course. A substantial hunk of the pension and profit-sharing funds he's counting on for his retirement is invested -- wagered -- in the market. The point isn't that Mehl (and the others who took his tack) was stupid. It is that for both him and Trump the whole enterprise was a huge gamble. The curious thing is that so many intelligent people don't see it that way.
I'm thinking of D.C. congressman Walter Fauntroy, who was an outspoken opponent of the city's lottery on the ground that it would lure people into the sin of gambling. But this minister-congressman has no problem with stock market gambling. Indeed, I'd bet that he would think it irresponsible for pension funds (for example) not to invest in the market.
And what's the difference? Surely not that numbers betting is pure chance while market betting is scientific. If there is anything unarguable about what happened this week it is that such objective information as the strength and stability of individual companies had nothing to do with it. In fact, the only differences I can discern are that you don't have to have much money or sophistication to bet the numbers; that with the lottery, unlike the market, you know precisely how much you stand to win or lose, and that the lottery has no counterpart for computerized trading, which renders the individual trader's careful computations worthless.
Oh, yes. There's one other difference. Numbers players know they're gambling, and they don't expect anybody else to cover their bets. Market players think they are merely putting their wisdom to good use -- until things go sour.
Thus, on Monday morning Mehl was reminding one of his traders to cancel a vacation because "we're going to make a few million dollars." "Only in America!" the ecstatic trader shouted above the din of the market floor.
By 2:40, the disaster unmistakable, Mehl was singing a different tune. "The government has to intervene," he said.