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No vacation for Wall Street

Traders are at their desks during the normally sluggish trading month of August, and that's good for New York's merchants and vendors.

August 19, 2011|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Tempera, above, owns The Grotto near the New York Stock Exchange building. Pizzas have been flying out the door, with one order for 100 pies coming in from the Big Boards chairman.
Mike Tempera, above, owns The Grotto near the New York Stock Exchange building.… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Wall Street's stock traders and investment bankers are putting off their usual August vacations this year.

That's great news for the city's pizza delivery guys, the bartenders and hot dog vendors.

The stock market's wild roller coaster ride has caused financial workers to postpone trips to the Hamptons and roll up their sleeves at work. This rush of activity has given Manhattan a spark of life in what has historically been a sluggish month for the financial industry.

And that's helped the business prospects of places such as The Grotto pizzeria and restaurant, just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange building. Pizzas have been flying out the door, with one order for 100 pies coming in from the Big Board's chairman, who wanted the large cheese pizzas delivered in time for the closing bell at 4 p.m.

"Pizza orders, pizza orders, pizza orders," said Mike Tempera, the big-shouldered owner of The Grotto, which is known for its bacon cheeseburger pies. "The delivery guys are making out on this."

Directly across the street from the exchange, located in a building that once housed the original bank vault of J.P. Morgan & Co., Bobby Van's steakhouse has been operating at near capacity.

"August is usually our slowest month, but you wouldn't know it the last two weeks," manager Vincent Alessi said.

The surge in activity began to be felt in earnest in late July, as bankers began to seriously contemplate the possibility that politicians might not reach a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline.

When word went out that the talks in Washington had collapsed the Friday before the deadline, bankers across New York canceled vacations and hustled back to their offices to make emergency plans in case the situation was not resolved.

At JPMorgan Chase & Co., the firm's executive team holed up in their Manhattan headquarters over the weekend.

"We spent Sunday going business-by-business, reviewing contingency plans, if confidence in government payments began to slip," said Jes Staley, the head of the company's investment bank.

Things haven't let up since.

A week later, Andrea Jao, an analyst on the trading floor at Cowen & Co., was preparing to leave for a vacation with her family when she found out on her smartphone that Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+. The trip was immediately put on hold and Jao made plans to instead head into the office for the weekend.

Jao, who analyzes financial stocks, said that no one told her to come in. She just knew.

"It's part of the culture," Jao said. "For shame if someone has to ask you."

Jao's decision ended up being a smart one.

The Monday after the downgrade saw the single heaviest day of trading all year, with Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday just slightly lower.

Overall, the volume of stocks traded during the first two weeks of August was up 81% from the same time last year.

Although the long work days have generally been good for the businesses that cater to this clientele, some have had to adapt to the unusual times.

At the Esquires of Wall Street barbershop, the traders who normally duck out midday for a shave and a trim have had to wait until the markets have finished their gyrations.

"From 9:30 to 4 people are just sitting at their desks," said the shop's owner, Niall Costello. "But then in the evening we get slammed twice as hard."

At Brasserie, a midtown restaurant that is downstairs from Wells Fargo & Co. offices and across the street from the Citigroup Inc. building, bankers have been using the Bloomberg terminal at the end of the bar to check their portfolios during business lunches.

David Pogrebin, Brasserie's manager, said that he noticed one banker out at lunch putting his fork down between bites to look up at the televisions over the bar broadcasting financial news.

"You're not going to find anything appetizing up there," Pogrebin told the man.

"Are you kidding me, it's hard to keep the food down," the man shot back, Pogrebin said.

Bank executives in charge of marshaling their troops have tried to be sensitive to the stress and the long days.

Thomas Belesis, the chief executive at John Thomas Financial, has been ordering in breakfast, lunch and dinner for his traders.

Belesis himself called off his monthlong vacation to Greece that he was supposed to have left for Aug. 1. He has been getting to the office at 5 a.m. and leaving at 10 p.m. He isn't imagining an escape from New York any time soon.

"I would hope that before the end of the year I could take maybe a five- to seven-day break with my wife," Belesis said. "But right now I don't see it in the cards."

Down the street at Bobby Van's, Alessi is hoping Belesis is right.

"They drink a lot when it's up," Alessi said. "They drink even more when it's down."

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