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Good-bye To Everything!
For the first half hour on that fateful Thursday, stock prices were steady.
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Equally alarming to many was the way the ticker had behaved. It had fallen far behind the news on the Exchange floor, leaving speculators in thousands of brokerage offices around the nation hopelessly in the dark. Once more (it had also happened during a break on Monday) men were reminded that they could be wiped out without even knowing it. Even more unnerving were the thousands of telegrams sent out that night by brokers, telling speculators they would have to put up more collateral for stocks they had bought on ten per cent margin with the blithe faith that the Bull would carry them to some dizzy profit-taking peak. The collateral by which the margin trader obtained the broker’s loan to finance his purchases was, of course, the stock itself. As long as prices kept going up, it was a delightful way to buy a lot with a little. But if prices sagged ten per cent, that slender cash investment was wiped out, and the broker had to call for more (ash or its equivalent to maintain the proper credit balance.
In the burbling optimism of 1929, it was practically sinful to consider such a possibility. Just how many speculators were betting on the Bull’s perpetuity could be glimpsed from the figures on brokers’ loans. In the fall of 1929 they were around the six-billion-dollar mark—a 400 per cent increase over the early years of the decade. In Chicago, racketeers responded to margin calls by dynamiting the home of a brokerage-house credit manager and throwing stench bombs into three branch offices. But the average speculator was devoid ol such unorthodox resources. For him it was either pay up—or be sold out.
For the first half hour on that fateful Thursday, prices were steady. But good stocks were being offered in large blocks, often a sign of trouble. Six thousand shares of Montgomery Ward changed hands at 83. (A few short months before, it had been selling at 183.) Then came 20,000 shares of Kennccott Copper, 20,000 shares of General Motors, 15,000 of Sinclair Oil, 13,000 of Packard Motors. By eleven o clock, the ticker was behind more than thirty minutes. Suddenly there was raw panic everywhere, panic wilder (ban anything ever seen in the long history of the Exchange. “Sell at market” resounded throughout brokers’ offices, as speculators clutched frantically at paper profits that were melting away before their horrified eyes.
By eleven thirty the ticker was forty-seven minutes late, and the floor of the Stock Exchange was a wild melee. According to the rules the traders might not run, curse, push, or go coatless. But they could shout their orders, and shout they did, especially around Post No. 2, where steel was traded. It was, according to one eyewitness, “the center of a sort of madness,” where specialists such as General Oliver C. Bridgeman fought desperately to keep the price above 200. As the traditional market leader, plunging steel could carry everything else down the chute. One small man in a large gray hat was pinned in the middle of the waving, roaring group. Every so often he would crouch down to scribble some figures on a pad, then leap tip and shout an order at the top of his lungs.
Around plummeting General Motors, there was also a considerable melee. One fat, perspiring man became almost hysterical, yelling orders that made no sense until some friends seixed him by the arm and led him away. Another tall, lean man with a shock of gray hair forgot the rules and raced frantically from one end of the Exchange to the other to shout an order.
Those on the floor at least had the cold comfort of knowing what the quotations were. Outside, as the ticker slipped steadily behind, ignorance added to the mounting terror. Ordinarily the alert speculator was never more than a few minutes away from a ticker during trading hours and could tell at a glance what the magic numbers meant, although the Exchange omitted all hut the final digit of each quotation. But on the twenty-fourth, when a man saw figures like R 6.5½.5.4 he could not he sure whether they meant Radio was at 66 or 56 or 46. At ten-minute intervals the bond ticker spewed forth a list of selected stock prices direct from the floor. But this only added to the panic by reporting quotations ten and twenty points below what was coming over the stock ticker.
A together, that morning, over seven hundred people jammed the Exchange galleries. (One visitor was Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was touring the United States as a lecturer during one of his political limbos.) At half past twelve officials closed the galleries, as a small attempt to cut oil one avenue of panic. It was a feckless gesture. Outside on Broad Street a “weird roar” rose from an already immense crowd. Police Commissioner Grover Whalcn hastily dispatched extra policemen to the scene to keep order. But they were unnecessary. The only thing wild about the crowd was the rumors sweeping it. Supposedly, eleven speculators had already killed themselves. The Chicago and Buffalo stock exchanges had closed. When a workman appeared on top of a nearby building, the crowd immediately surged in his direction, waiting for him to jump.