By Jonathan Hoenig –
Forget Millennium Park, Marshall Field’s or the Sears Tower. Chicago’s best attractions are the commodity pits, where billions upon billions of dollars pass through the hands of a small community of traders and clerks.
In Leg the Spread (Broadway Books; $24.95), Cari Lynn, a one-time Mercantile Exchange clerk, takes you onto the floor and into the lives of some of the brave women who thrive within the testosterone-fueled world of professional futures trading — as done only in the Windy City.
Chicago traders — both men and women alike — are the young, street-savvy hustlers who thrive on rare steaks, stiff drinks and fast-moving markets. In Chicago, trading isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. Leg the Spread, whose title refers to a hedged style of trading, offers a glimpse into that world.
Like many Chicagoans before her, Lynn is bitten by the magnetic energy of “open outcry” trading unique to the city. “After my first visit to the Floor, I desperately wanted to return,” she writes.
So begins her journey into the subculture of floor trading. From first putting on the mustard colored clerk’s jacket to learning the awkward sign language to communicate across the pit (palms out means selling, palms in means buying), Lynn takes us with her through the Wild West of capitalism.
The characters we meet are larger than life. There’s Romey, well-known around the Merc as the best “arb” clerk in the history of the Exchange. Although his lightening fast fingers help move thousands of futures contracts every day, a single mistake once cost his boss a cool $1 million. On the floor, that’s often just the cost of doing business.
Then there’s Bev Gelman, the hugely successful Eurodollar trader who trades billions of dollars against the world’s biggest banks. Lynn vividly describes how Bev made $4 million in one afternoon after an announcement from the Federal Reserve.
At the neighboring Board of Trade, we tour the floor with Ginni McGathey, the lesbian options broker whose tough-as-nails persona shuts down men twice her size.
Lynn’s job as a clerk gives her a fly-on-the-wall perspective that terrifically captures many of the subtleties other documentations of floor life have missed. For example, you quickly understand how in his world people don’t have names, but badges. Your pal Bob Krzinsky is known as “Berserk,” based on his trading acronym of BZRK. Zak Moser, whose trading badge is MOSZ, goes by “Moses.”
She describes how, despite a ban on throwing paper, one quickly becomes accustomed to walking through a trading floor full of discarded garbage.
“People scattered unused trading cards for the hell of it. If they made a bad trade, whoosh, they whipped a card to the floor. If they made a good trade, they threw it like a Frisbee to celebrate, and at 3:15, the end of the trading day, as the series of boxing-match bells sounded, they ripped their extra cards in half, and in half again, and tossed them into the air like confetti.”
Traders will bet on anything. Lynn recalls how when one trader was dared to eat 50 chicken McNuggets, he “managed all fifty; then, just to rub in his achievement with typical trader bravado, he chomped another two nuggets — which was just enough to put him over the edge, and he vomited all over himself.”
On more than a few occasions, they’ve bet or paid clerks to jump off the Madison or Monroe Street bridges into the Chicago River directly adjacent to the exchange.
Although Leg the Spread focuses primarily on the women who make the floor their own, we quickly learn how both sexes must deal with the addictive and oftimes debilitating nature of the high-stakes game. Alexis, an S&P 500 trader known by her badge LEX, confesses. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up five grand by nine a.m., but end up walking away at the closing bell down for the day. Why? Because I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to play.”
Jonathan Hoenig, a former clerk at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, is managing member at Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC. (www.capitalistpig.com)
Source: Chicago Sun-Times