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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Gambling on the war
War can be a risky business especially if you play the stock markets. The Money Programme finds out who gambled and won during the Iraqi conflict.

For traders on the stock market it was a tough war. This Money Programme special follows two City of London traders over three weeks during the Iraqi conflict. The financial markets reacted to every piece of news and every rumour from the speculation on Saddam's death to the outcry over the American hostages and the final fall of Baghdad.

Arguments will rage long after the war has ended as to the rights and wrongs of the traders in financial centres around the world who betted on every twist and turn in the conflict.

Is what they're doing wrong? Is it unethical? Is it heartless? It may be all of these things, it may be none of them. But for the traders at the heart of the story, it's an unending adrenaline run as markets plunge and then soar and they try to keep abreast of the movements and make money for their firms.

Tough calls

At IG Index, a firm of City spreadbetters, quoting dealer Tamas knows that during the next few weeks he will have to make some of the toughest calls of his career. He knows the risks:

"It's a terrible thing to have a war but at the end of the day people are always going to want to bet on stocks and we are providing a service."

Tamas is 28 years old. His job is to predict financial market movements. During war this becomes extremely difficult and with his bonus entirely profit related, the pressure is on to deliver results by getting the predictions right.

"Our company thrives on a volatile market and it probably will be volatile over this period. So as long as we can keep on top of things it should be quite good."

IG Index were the first company to take bets from punters gambling on the movements of money markets. Most people bet on the FTSE the index of the UK's top 100 companies - or its American equivalent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But IG is different. It will also run bets on everything from individual stocks to the average house price.

What spreadbetting dealers do is predict where the markets will go within a spread of a few points - punters bet if they think it will go above or below that spread - the more the market moves in the direction you've bet the more you win. The more in the wrong direction the more you lose. For IG Index dealers, the skill is in constantly moving the spread to limit the company's risk.

An example of a typical bet in the run up to the Iraq war came from an IG Index client who thought that British Airways' share price was worth betting on.

Full-time spread better

Other clients include Paul Scott, who left his job as a finance director 18 months ago to become a full-time spread better.

"In general I would do between 10-20 trades a day during the week when the markets are open. Typically, on the FTSE I would bet about 50 a point, which means that for every single point that the FTSE moves up or down I make 50.

As an IG client, Paul has immediate market information via the internet. During the war Paul's eyes will flick from his personal computer to his TV as he makes decisions on how the conflict will affect his bets.

Paul's basic strategy is only to bet on markets or stocks going up. In the rally preceding the war he's made thousands of pounds.

News that George W Bush is to address the nation the following evening see calls flooding in from punters keen to cash in on the increased likelihood of war.

High stakes

IG could make or lose tens of thousands of pounds as dealers try to predict the market reaction. At one point there is so much business that the computer network starts to struggle.

Overnight, President Bush tells the US people that Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq within 48 hours - a sure sign that the countdown to war has begun.

When the war actually starts, the markets have a turbulent time. And IG Index is ferociously busy with trades. But once the war has finally begun, there is almost a feeling of relief in the IG office.

Film of war casualties being evacuated from the battlefield bring a grisly reminder to traders of what is actually moving the markets.

Tamas acknowledges the reality, but adds: "You very much disassociate yourself with what's going on, like on September 11th we saw it on the screens here happening but we didn't really know what was going on until you have the time to sit back and think what's happened.

"We are just trying to keep the desks going and you are thinking about what's going on with the markets rather than what's going on in real life. It's only when you take a step back that you realise what's actually going on - the war's happening and people are getting killed."

Ethical concerns

Another trader, Giles, denies that trading on war is wrong: "On an individual these people aren't doing anything ethical but they do bring liquidity to the market. They are necessary, it's like bacteria, you don't love bacteria but we all need it."

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 9 July 2003.




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