On the Floor Laughing: Traders Are Having a New Kind of Fun


Wall Street twentysomethings are playing the most sophisticated, dynamic, immersive game in the world. Here's how it works -- and why your job might soon turn into a massive multiplayer experience.


It's just past noon on a Friday and I'm on the fourth floor of a skyscraper in lower Manhattan watching numbers rise and fall. The place is teeming with them--numbers by the screenful, screens everywhere you look -- but I've been told to pay attention to just one in particular, and what's really important is that I'm supposed to say something if it goes above 1,238. I'm not yet sure why.

I'm here to watch my roommate work. I realize that might sound insipid, but my passive curiosity about his job -- he trades complex equity derivatives for a "bulge bracket" bank -- has metastasized over this past year into something closer to devastating envy as I've seen him come home, day after day, buoyant and satisfied. I need to know what the hell goes on down here. I need to find out why, of all the fledgling professionals I know, he seems to be the only one genuinely delighted to go into the office every day.

Quickly you get the sense that something strange happens in this room. There must be three hundred people within eyeshot, all but a handful of them healthy, handsome, well-dressed men in their mid-twenties or early thirties. (My friend points at various colleagues around the room: "Triathlete; runs marathons; hardcore cyclist; marathons; marathons..."). They look less like they're working -- reading e-mails, say, or putting together a slide deck -- than calmly responding to a crisis. Maybe it's because they're wearing headsets and their heads are darting from screen to screen the way lizards' do and their keyboards are unusually colorful and they're talking fast like Aaron Sorkin characters in an incomprehensible argot as streaming real-time line charts flicker loudly in their faces. It's like a mission control center.

They're packed in pretty tight. Workstations are aligned in blocks of twenty, two facing columns of ten each, guarded by the dancing backs of ergonomic swivel chairs. It's a bit of a shambles to navigate, but no matter, hardly anyone stands up. The market is a fickle leviathan, after all, and its keepers don't like to leave it unsupervised. Hence all the takeout. And hence the way my roommate falls asleep (early, instantaneously). These guys are at it -- glued to their desks, mentally engaged--for six and a half hours straight.

The upshot is that there is a lot of energy on a trading floor. Go to a law firm, Silicon Valley startup, magazine, or corporate headquarters. Even if what they do there shakes the world, even if the staff practically sneezes vibrant creativity, still you can't escape that Office-y undercurrent, the unmistakable intimation of malaise you find wherever adults are stuck inside doing their homework. This place, on the other hand, feels like something closer to an active battleship.

I'm starting to think it has something to do with the computers. From far away each station looks like one of those extravagantly immersive arcade games -- like something you get into rather than sit down at. That's probably why I keep calling them "stations." 

My friend's has six distinct screens. They're arranged as a row of two above a row of four in a bowed-out fan pattern that looks basically like a robotic sail. I'm told that this array is driven by three machines, each with a preposterous eight CPU cores. Maybe he needs them -- at the moment he has forty-four windows open. These include a Bloomberg terminal with prices, news, charts, and analytics that all update or redraw themselves more than once per second; several small forms for buying and selling different kinds of securities; some PDFs ridden with legalese; e-mails with long, redundant subject lines and laconic bodies; a bare bones programming IDE; a dashboard that shows his "book," or set of open market positions, with stats regarding risk and the like; some very intimidating spreadsheets; chat rooms, IM conversations, and the occasional video conference; a custom program to query internal databases; and miscellaneous browser windows. It all runs snappily. 


Beneath the screens he has something called a turret, which is like a regular human telephone except that it has sixty active lines and a button density close to what you see on studio sound boards. Among other things it includes the option to broadcast its user's voice over the room's loudspeaker; this feature has apparently been used of late (though not by my friend) to share Rebecca Black's "Friday" with the entire floor.

The all-in costs for a setup like this -- hardware, software, and data subscriptions -- come to about $200,000 per year.

I'm feeling small when that number I was supposed to keep an eye on ticks to 1239. Excited, I look over to my friend as if to ask, what now?, and he says, "I have to buy $60 million worth of S&P futures." Which he does in about four seconds. Which he does as though wildly unreasonable sums of money weren't involved.

I think it's worth dwelling on this for just a minute. I think we're tempted to treat $60 million as not all that big of a deal, especially in the midst of an economic crisis involving sums literally five orders of magnitude larger. There is even a way in which being unimpressed by tens of millions of dollars is itself kind of impressive -- you come off like one of those rich guys who guesses the price of a beautiful house by saying "six or seven," as though anything less than a few mill might as well go on the far side of a decimal point. It tickles the ego a bit, is what I'm saying, to act natural around such indisputably absurd piles of money. Which is exactly what I'm doing as I watch my high school pal carefully, but casually, in his overlarge suit, put in an order for sixty fucking million actual American dollars.

You can see why a young guy out of college might get a kick out of working here. (And why a Phi Beta Kappa who studied physics and neuroscience at Harvard might have had a hard time getting in the door.) Imagine the psychological impact of having that kind of money and machinery at your fingertips. You must feel powerful. Too powerful, even, like a young pilot who's just been given the keys to his first F-35 Lightning II tactical strike fighter. A mixture of relish and trepidation.

Yet for all that I'm still unclear as to what my friend does, exactly, besides clicking buttons when one number gets bigger than another number.

He puts it this way: customers -- hedge funds, pension funds, insurance companies, rich individuals and so on -- come to him via a sales team demanding a very specific payoff function. A typical request usually involves a complex combination of rules and triggers, say, "We want a monthly stream of 12% returns as long as price X stays above 95, a downside no greater than Y, and a coupon of 120% of the principal in the event that A, B, and C all happen on or before the close of trading on April 11th." His job is to use math and intuition to figure out an appropriate price for that payoff function, and when the terms are settled, to make trades that satisfy the customers' constraints.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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