At the Corner of Wall Street and Memory Lane

I started in the investment biz in 1977. Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 840—it’s now approaching 18,000! Our industry has changed a lot in these four decades. Stroll with me down memory lane.

My career began at one of the larger national firms of its day, Paine Webber Jackson & Curtis. In the early 80s, it became simply Paine Webber. Remember those great “Thank you Paine Webber” TV ads? In the early 80s, I headed up Paine Webber’s National Marketing Center in New York, broadcasting investment information to our 8,000 advisors via the firm’s private “squawk box” (speaker boxes located on every advisor’s desk, with live commentary coming directly from the New York headquarters).

Whatever happened to Paine Webber and other old-line firms from the late 70s like E.F. Hutton, Dean Witter, Shearson, Lehman Brothers, Sutro, Prudential Securities, and Bateman Eichler? The first bunch—Hutton, Witter, Shearson and Lehman—eventually became part of Morgan Stanley. Sutro, after more than 100 years of independence, is now part of RBC Wealth Management. “Pru” and Bateman are among the many predecessor firms of Wells Fargo.

All this was well before the advent of online brokers. Heck, it was well before the advent of the internet! Double-heck—it was before PCs!

Today, we process client stock trades electronically, with near-instantaneous execution and confirmation. Back then, we (a) wrote up a paper trade “ticket” and (b) walked the ticket to a wire operator who transmitted the order to a central office who would, in turn, send it on to the floor of the exchange. When the trade was executed, our central office would send a wire back to our wire operator, who, in turn, would put the confirmation slip in our wire-room slot and turn on a light that was visible throughout the office. Running to the wire room with a ticket in hand (or running back to the wire room to check a confirmation when our light went on) usually meant that we had a very market-sensitive order. Big offices used pneumatic tubes to take the place of wind-sprinting brokers.

Do you remember the electronic stock tickers with the stock symbols racing across them? Our office housed some 20 brokers in one large high-ceiling room, with the brokers’ private offices separated by glass. The “tape” (as it was called—a vestige from the pre-electronic days when the same information was actually printed on a narrow roll of paper) ran the entire width of the office. In front of this ticker you could always see a half-dozen or so “regulars”—tape watchers who stared at every trade for hours on end. By the time I started, we used Quotron terminals to get our stock quotes. They weren’t anything like today’s robust quote delivery systems, but it was a quantum leap ahead of the ticker tape. Thank goodness!

I used to do a stock market update on a local radio show. I can remember getting very excited about big movements in the Dow—up 30 points in a single day! Nowadays, the Dow can move 30 points in a few seconds! And, of course, the volume of shares traded then paled in comparison to the volume today. In 1977, the NYSE reports that their average volume per month was 440 million shares. CNN Money shows that we now trade that much before lunch in a single day! (NYSE Composite volume has averaged 962 million per day for the three months ending Dec. 7, 2015.)

Thanks for letting me wax nostalgic. Let me be clear: I like most of the changes: more and quicker information, better investment tools with lower expenses, easier communication methods, but in many ways, nothing has changed.

We still practice our craft one client at a time. We still build relationships with families who depend on us to make sense of all this stuff. And, after nearly 40 years, it’s still intrinsically rewarding to help people achieve their financial goals.