October 23, 2009
“My money’s on the red shorts. Who’s in?” Ryan asked as he slammed $0.50 onto Laurence’s desk.
Laurence jumped from his office chair and reached into his jean pocket.
“I’ll take a piece of that,” he replied. “Even odds on the white shorts.”
We turned to watch one of the many T.V. screens suspended in the corners of the office. It was tuned to TSN. And it was airing a table tennis match.
It was a slow day on the stock market.
They were bored. It was a Friday before a long weekend and not much was happening. Little was selling. Little was being bought. And they were missing the thrill of the gamble. So they created their own. Ryan and Laurence watched eagerly as their players rallied the ball back and forth across the ping pong table. They cheered raucously when their player scored a point. There was trash talking. Manhoods were questioned. Preferences and tastes were taunted. And like the language of the kitchen, it would make an HR director run screaming. Their excitement attracted a small crowd as other brokers turned to watch the action. It was game point. Red shorts nailed his serve flawlessly and sent White Shorts into a futile dive for the ball. The game was over. Ryan victoriously swept up his winnings.
From across the office, a voiced boomed: “Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.”
Everyone dashed to their computers. Hands were poised to pick up the phone. Breath was held. Eyes were intent on the climbing stock keen to see if it would rise enough to make a significant profit. It didn’t.
People flipped their monitors back to the quote screen, which displayed rows of numbers and letters, each row representing the current value of a stock. The numbers on the screen flipped and changed. Some rows were in red. Others in green. (Which is the preferred colour.) The information displayed looked like the Matrix but with an expanded vocabulary. My mentor for the day, Laurence Bucca, clicked on a chart to show me the stock’s trajectory. He explained the stock’s pattern and how the tops and bottoms (the peaks and valleys) on the graph could indicate what would happen next. It was demonstrating what’s called a rising flag pattern–each day the top of the stock stops at the same value. It won’t break above it. But each day the bottom rises a bit, hitting a higher bottom than it did the day before. Visually, the chart looks like a flag. With this pattern, Laurence can get a good sense of when the top will break and start to climb. But of course, nothing is a sure thing.
Grow a Pair
Before each roadshow gig, I research the job or the company I’m about to work for. I read up on the organization. I check out trends in the industry. I dig up what I can find on the employees. But for this roadshow stop, I also decided to look for a little inspiration. I figured if I was going to be a stockbroker, I should grow a pair. (metaphorically speaking, of course.) I wanted to awaken inside myself something cut throat and unscrupulous. So I watched Wall Street, the 1987 Oliver Stone film starring Michael Douglas. Sure there’s a lesson in morality at the end, but the best part of the film is the unapologetic swagger and sleazy corporate cowboy confidence of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko doing their modern day (or I suppose, eighties) version of raiding and pillaging.
This film is not an accurate representation of stockbrokers. Most brokers are not unethical, lawbreaking scumbags cheating, lying, and swindling to turn a quick $100G. I’m sure there are some out there that fit that description. But it’s not the majority. And not at all who I met on my day as a broker. Quite the contrary. The brokers I met work hard. They do research. They obsessively follow stocks. They do things legally. They have ethics and compliance departments to ensure everything is done by the book. And in Vancouver, they get up early. The market opens at 9:30 am Eastern Standard Time, which is 6:30 am here. So late nights out with easy women, cigars, and single malts are not on the agenda.
Bull and Bear
They also don’t have ridiculous slick hair dos (much to my chagrin) or wear power suits. At least not in the office I was in. The majority of the brokers and traders were dressed in jeans or khakis. Most of them looked like they could be selling World Music CDs. But appearances aside, they do know money. And in economic climates like the one we experienced from last October to this March, they don’t panic like the general public tends to. They’ve seen it before. Many times before. Just like the current bull market (yes, we’re in a bull market) has its opportunities and advantages, so did this past bear market. Bear markets don’t have as many big win days that are charged with elation and adrenaline. But they still happen.
Unfortunately, my day in the office wasn’t a big win day. But it wasn’t a lose day either. So it gave Laurence time to explain how the system worked and what everything meant. And to my surprise, I understood it. Laurence seemed convinced that I could be a pretty successful broker. Gekko and Fox’s cavalier and confidence must have rubbed off on me. And maybe I could be a decent broker, but the accountability would eat me up. Being responsible for losing people’s money, because no matter how good you are it still happens, would keep me up at night and make me miserable. I couldn’t forgive myself if I lost a client $1,000, let alone $10,000 or $100,000. And I don’t think it’s regular practice among stockbrokers to send “I’m sorry” cards or bake cupcakes when they lose a client’s money, which I would feel compelled to do.
The day was coming to an end. Only a few more minutes before the market closed and it was slowing down even more. Ryan sauntered back over to Laurence’s desk. He glanced up to the T.V. This time it was Tennis. “Want to raise the stakes a bit?” he asked, pulling out a dollar. This time I lept from my chair, pulling a Loonie from my pocket. I may not be cut out for making or breaking people’s wealth, but this type of gamble I could take.
“You’re on,” I said slamming my dollar down on the desk.
Note: In order to work a day as a stockbroker, I was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. (And of course, I was not permitted to actually do any trading or see any client information.) To protect the best interests of the firm and its clients, I have chosen to not mention its name, and have changed the names of the brokers I worked with. Sensitive stuff, this money business! However, if you want to get in touch with the gentleman I worked with, I would be happy to pass on your information. Just email me.