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COLUMN ONE

Downs, ups are his stock in trade

With 40 years on the floor of the NYSE, Ted Weisberg says it's all a sideshow -- even now.

October 16, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Just after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the glass doors on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange burst open, and the symphony begins.

"How's Cisco?" a trader shouts.

"What are you saying on Goldman?" yells another.

"Let's go! Let's go!"

Feet shuffle, fans whoosh, televisions blare, cameras click, electronic devices chime like slot machines.

No one knows what today will bring. Before the opening bell in New York, traders survey world markets: down in Hong Kong, in Australia, South Korea, India, Singapore, China, Britain, Germany and France.

Will the Dow Jones industrial average plummet? Will it surprise everyone and soar? Will this day on the trading floor foreshadow what is to come for the rest of us? Another job lost? A further diminished 401(k)?

Ted Weisberg races through the morning clusters of colleagues, getting briefings on the trading floor. He arrived early this morning, changing out of the navy-blue suit coat and dress shoes he wore to work and into a more comfortable ventilated jacket and black sneakers. In the madness of any given day, he often skips lunch or breaks.

Today the trader is feeling refreshed, back from a vacation in Bermuda. He left Friday, after the market recovered from a 700-point plunge to close 128 points down, capping the worst week in the Dow's history since the Great Depression.

With 40 years on the floor, Weisberg, 68, is an experienced hand when it comes to its bustle and swings. As he whizzes around corners, co-workers recognize his freckled, partly bald head encircled in a white puff of hair. He peers through square-framed spectacles to read updates on international markets. He pokes at a hand-held E-broker, an electronic device that manages orders.

Daniel Ustian, chief executive of Navistar International Corp., rings the brass opening bell, but Weisberg pays no attention. He's been around for more than enough famous bell-ringers: Puff Daddy, Olympian Michael Phelps, President Reagan, the current President Bush.

Within minutes, the Dow is down 83, 104, 94.

Weisberg whips back to his desk at his booth on the floor, where there are stools, yet he never sits. Multiple screens on the wall above his head offer a montage of information -- stock prices, business news, e-mails. It is multi-tasking at the blinking speed of modern technology.

"If you cannot walk and chew gum, this is not the business for you," Weisberg says. When it comes to customers, he adds, "we are their eyes and ears on the trading floor."

Economic reports released early Wednesday by the Commerce Department showed that retail sales plummeted last month by nearly double what had been expected. That has investors worried.

"If Main Street can't spend any money, you see how we connect the dots between Main Street and Wall Street?" Weisberg says. "We're all dependent on each other in an economic sense."

Weisberg's colleague David Henderson of Raven Securities Corp. stops by. Last week, Henderson wore a red jacket to work. The color signals to his work buddies that he believes the market will fall. Today he's wearing a green jacket, which means he's confident it will rise.

"It's bad. It's the worst calamity affecting our institution," Henderson says. "But the Feds and the Treasury are pulling out all the stops."

Weisberg looks up at the green numbers flickering on a digital ticker: The Dow is down 220. A second later, it is down 217. Weisberg has grown accustomed to the falls. "It's like a non-moment," he says. "You get used to it."

Before the rush of stock orders and sales surges through cyberspace, and before billions of dollars begin to flow through this building's veins, the New York Stock Exchange stands dignified, as it has for 105 years, unshaken beneath the sun-bleached morning sky.

The public has not been allowed inside since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The visitors gallery that overlooks the trading floor is closed. The streets around the NYSE are blocked to traffic, and police stationed outside wear bulletproof vests and hold machine guns.

In recent days, passersby may have noticed triplets in matching business suits holding briefcases overflowing with fake money as they jiggle tin cans of change, protesting the recent Wall Street bailout plans.

Inside the mausoleum-style structure, 72-foot-high walls harbor the secrets and lore of this so-called temple of finance. On its lustrous marble-clad facade is a sculpture entitled "Integrity Protecting the Works of Man," in which a goddess welcomes the uncertainty of the day with outstretched arms.

Throughout stock market crashes, public panics, lavish times and terrorist attacks, the heartbeat of this building stops only for weekends, holidays and national tragedies.

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