Trading Up

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Then the Civil War changed everything. The war caused an enormous surge on Wall Street as government bonds were issued in ever-increasing amounts to finance it (the national debt increased between 1861 and 1865 by a factor of 41). The demand for uniforms, boots, tents, gunpowder, ordnance, transportation, and a thousand and one other necessities of modern warfare transformed the American economy. This transformation had to be largely financed on Wall Street.

Customers and newly minted brokers flooded onto the Street because of the new business. The increase in trading made it impossible for many brokers to go home at noon, and lunch counters opened up to enable them to grab a quick bite before plunging back into the fray.

For many it was a most profitable fray. A contemporary wrote that brokers could earn between $800 and $10,000 a day, at a time when a skilled worker might earn $1,000 a year. But other than change its name in 1863 to the New York Stock Exchange, the Stock and Exchange Board did nothing to adjust to Wall Street’s growing into the largest securities market on earth after London’s. It refused to list any but the most prominent stocks or to admit many new brokers to its exclusive club.

The largest of the new exchanges was in a cellar on w\William Street and was known as the Coal Hole.

As always in boom times, new ephemeral exchanges opened up to handle the increased business. The Mining Exchange, which had collapsed in the crash of 1857, reopened and prospered thanks to often highly dubious companies. The Petroleum Board was born to handle securities in that new business. There was even an exchange, called the Long Room, that operated in a space rented from the NYSE in its own headquarters. Often deserted during the morning and afternoon calls, as the sit-down auctions were known, it was thronged at other times.

But the largest of the new exchanges opened in 1862 in a cellar at 23 William Street, called with no great affection, the Coal Hole. A few months later several traders departed for nicer quarters and organized the Open Board of Stock Brokers, with a trading floor on Broad Street just two doors down from the New York Stock Exchange. It quickly adopted the open-outcry method of trading used in the Broad Street curb market. Before long, with less restrictive membership and a willingness to list more securities, the Open Board was doing as much business in NYSE-listed stocks as the NYSE itself.

Worse, with all these exchanges (a second curb market soon opened up on William Street, and evening exchanges operated late into the night at the uptown Fifth Avenue Hotel and elsewhere), it was impossible to regulate the new, giant capital market effectively. The 1860s were Wall Street’s Wild West days, with few rules and few means of enforcing what rules there were. It was capitalism red in tooth and claw.

But while the speculators (and, all too often, corporate management pursuing its own interests rather than its stockholders’) enjoyed the lawlessness of Wall Street, the brokers, who depended on small commissions from a large number of customers, did not. They were afraid business would flee to safer places.

In November 1868 the Open Board and the New York Stock Exchange jointly imposed new rules on listed securities and greatly limited the ability of “speculative directors” to manipulate the stock in their own companies. Together, they found, they had the power to enforce the new rules, and in May 1869 they merged, under the name of the New York Stock Exchange. The number of seats was increased from 533 to 1,060, bringing much new blood into the NYSE. Furthermore, members were no longer to be elected. Instead, if you wanted to trade on the New York Stock Exchange, you had to buy the seat of a member.

For a while the sit-down auctions and the open-outcry trading continued side by side. Then, in 1871, as trading volume climbed relentlessly, the sit-down auctions were abandoned in favor of the system still in use today. The “seats” became merely symbolic of membership in the Exchange.

With the merger of the NYSE and Archipelago, it is entirely possible that the open-outcry method of trading that served Wall Street well for a century and a third will also disappear. That will present a problem—not for Wall Street but for television news. With no traders gathered around posts, shouting their offers to buy and sell, what will TV use for a visual when giving the stock market report?