It was eerily quiet Monday in the Pit, the warren of cubbyholes at the center of Merrill Lynch's gold-toned office suite in downtown Los Angeles, where the youngest stockbrokers sit shoulder to shoulder, working the phones and staring at quotes on flashing computer screens.
The Dow had collapsed. Untold billions of the world's wealth had vanished. The young brokers--"financial consultants" they're called, to reflect the brokerage house's readiness to sell CDs as well as stocks--read the numbers, DJI -508 , cleared their desks, mumbled reassurances and swept out the door as quickly as they could after the closing bell had sounded, witnesses to enough history for a single day.
Kirk Michie, 25, a USC finance graduate less than a month away from getting married--had stress to burn. He jumped in his Porsche, drove from Bunker Hill to Beverly Hills and worked out at a friend's gym. "Really hard," Michie said.
Quick to Blame Yuppies
Welcome to the Crash of '87, as seen through the eyes of the Classes of '80 through '85. Yuppies all--aspiring ones, at least--the best and brightest of America's business schools and English departments alike have flocked in the 1980s to the securities industry, cowboys and cowgirls hankering to ride a bull market to all the good things love of money can buy.
When the bubble burst last week, the line formed behind Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot as gurus and sages sought to attribute the disaster, in part, to the youngsters' zealotry. "There's too much money chasing too few stocks managed by 28-year-old boys paid $500,000 a year who don't know what they're doing," snapped Perot, 57.
Tragic stories circulated of dollars loved and lost--of young specialist traders who'd taken half-million-dollar hits in a day, of baby brokers whose clients' margin accounts were cleaned out overnight. One joke was ubiquitous: What do you call a yuppie stockbroker? . . . Hey, waiter!
Yet in many Los Angeles brokerages, Michie's breezy calm, rather than the apocryphal panic, was the rule. Many young market professionals greeted the Dow's unprecedented slide--and the chaotic swings that followed through the week--with an almost perverse equanimity.
Schooled to balance portfolios and hedge bets, these brokers exuded a relentless confidence that the worst would pass, that fundamentals were strong, that bargains could be found and opportunities created in the market's rubble. Not that it wasn't bad, but that it wasn't that bad.
On the Dow's roller-coaster ride last week, the button-down children of the can-do '80s were the ones who bit their lips and wouldn't be caught dead screaming.
It was noontime Tuesday. The market was bouncing back. Debra Roberg, 26, had been on the phone since 6:30 a.m. in her glassed-in cubicle ("It's the fourth-biggest in the office") at Thomson McKinnon Securities in downtown Los Angeles.
"Hey, Shep! How you doing? We're having a party, Shep!" She is effusive, seemingly inexhaustible, belly-laughing at her own ripostes, wagging a pen in her hand when she's not waving her arm in broad gestures. "AT&T is at 27. You've got to buy it," she tells the client. "But not yet. Put an open order in at 25. And instead of laughing at what I'm saying, you're laughing all the way to the bank."
Leaves Afternoons Free
Roberg has been a broker for two years. Four years ago, she answered an ad for a commodities aide. "Before I went for the interview, I looked up what a commodity was," she said.
She needed a job where she'd be free by early afternoon. Business had been Roberg's minor at Cal Poly-Pomona. But her major, her real love, was drama. Especially musical comedy. She had played Ruby in "Dames at Sea" and sung comic leads in "Brigadoon" and "Oklahoma."
Stock trading proved more remunerative. Early this year, Roberg bought a town house in Pasadena and a new Chrysler New Yorker. She's a top producer in her office, managing $5 million of other people's money. She slips her brother, a UCLA undergraduate, $20 bills when she sees him because it makes her feel good.
Yet when the bull market she'd known throughout her brief securities career stopped dead in its tracks, it was to her dramatic training--not her business classes--that Roberg turned for a reserve of strength.
"It was the same kind of pressure you felt in doing theater, working up to opening night," she said. "You weren't quite ready, but you sure looked great when you went out on that stage."
Roberg is more than satisfied with the way she coped. Tuesday morning, and all week long, she was in the office an hour early, at 5:30 a.m., to clear away paper work so she could begin phoning through her roster of 700 clients at 6:30. She stayed till as late as 7 p.m. to return every call. She oozed calm--and thinks her customers bought it.
"My clients came through wonderfully, and I have to think that's a reflection on me," she said Tuesday. "I feel like a mamma. I'm so proud of them."