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Page last updated at 12:36 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 13:36 UK

Chaos and fear in the meltdown zone

By Jon Kelly
BBC News, New York

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Wall Street trader's NYSE tour

Fresh off the BBC's US elections bus, Jon Kelly steps into the fray on Wall Street, taking the temperature on the trading room floor.

Shouts echo around the trading floor as the mood grows ever darker. Amid the din, hurried-looking traders bark into telephones and glance anxiously at their computer screens.

There is panic on the New York Stock Exchange; fear and loathing on Wall Street.

As politicians warn that a recession is looming, the Dow Jones plunges. Here at the epicentre of the world's financial crisis, chaos ensues.

Empty coffee cups litter every surface. A half-chewed pretzel is kicked around underfoot.

The scraps of torn-up buy-sell slips scattered on the ground look like something from the pre-computer age. But this is very much the scene in 2008.

Primal instincts

Even in this tough, macho environment, the traders don't conceal their nerves. In their brightly-hued jackets and shiny badges, theirs is a loud, colourful state of turmoil.

Teddy Weisburg smiles on the trading floor
There's no such thing as a rational, perfect stock market. Human emotions always tend to go to the extremes
Teddy Weisburg
NYSE trader

Teddy Weisburg, 68, shakes his head. Having worked here for 40 years, he has seen it all before.

But not for a long time. The last time he remembers such a mood descending on Wall Street was in 1973 and 1974, when the Opec oil shocks sent the markets crashing.

But to get a proper perspective, he says ruefully, you only have to cast your mind back to when share prices were riding high just 18 months ago.

And if his long career has taught him nothing else, it's that the financial system is driven by far more primal instincts than reason and logic.

"It's gone from the sublime to the ridiculous," he said. "Now we're at the opposite end of the spectrum.

"There's no such thing as a rational, perfect stock market. Human emotions always tend to go to the extremes."

'I'm not afraid'

And it has reached this point all too quickly. This time last year, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual had all been independent going concerns.

But the latest plunges in share prices come at a time when stocks briefly appeared to have rallied.

A row of traders at the NYSE
The blinking screens all tell the same story - bad news

Instead, falling retail sales figures are now suggesting that the economy is quickly heading in the same direction as the one in Manhattan.

Is this rock bottom, the ideal time to wade in and scoop up devalued shares? Or just the beginning of a very slippery slide?

William McInerney looks up at the blinking screens around him.

They all tell him the same story - bad news. The market is going to hit new lows, 45-year-old William predicts, maybe not today, but soon.

He insists he's serene. It's his job to make the best of a situation like this.

"I'm not afraid of volatility," Mr McInerney says. "As a trader, that's how I make my money. It's what I do for a living."

What is ultimately at stake, however, isn't the fortunes of the traders in this room. It is the wellbeing of ordinary people.

"My mother's down 30% in her funds," he says. "When you look at what's happening outside here, then we've got a problem."

The noise and fury of Wall Street might seem far removed from the nerves and anxieties of the world outside.

But with every moment that ticks by until the closing bell, it is clear that the melee in here can be heard and felt very far away indeed.

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