Back to Business?

  • Share
  • Read Later
RICHARD DREW/AP

CNBC reports on the Microsoft ruling from the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York

Four days and a million years ago, today was a big day on Wall Street. Retail sales for August were going to tell us about the state of the American consumer. Industrial production and capacity utilization numbers were going to tell us about manufacturing. The PPI was going to reassure us inflation was still dormant, and the Fed could safely cut rates again by another quarter-point on October 2.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Old economy, indeed. With Wall Street still checking its systems, assessing its structures and finding places to put its emotions, the Dow and NASDAQ will let another three days pass before returning Monday morning to the business of buys and sells, puts and calls, fear and optimism. Only then will the American economic world start to spin again in earnest.

The Chicago Board of Trade has been at it since Thursday, driving short-term Treasury yields lower than anybody could remember on the expectation of coming massive Fed rate cuts. The NASDAQ, despite concerns that its headquarters across from the World Trade Center site at One Liberty Plaza might collapse, has theoretically been ready for days — the economic bellwether of the last five years is little more than a massive computer. It fears no asbestos clouds, and it cannot mourn.

But on the New York Stock Exchange, home of the Dow, business is still conducted by people. Thousands of (mostly) men in suits, men waving slips of paper and shouting at what they like to call the Big Board, and the place they commute to in downtown New York is still a post-apocalyptic crime scene, still a place where rescue workers dig for miracles with masks over their noses and mouths. Not yet a place to go to work; not yet a place to begin trading on a tragedy that robbed New Yorks financial-services salarymen of thousands of their closest friends.

NYSE chief Richard Grasso vows to anyone who asks that when the doors swing wide Monday and the opening bell rings at 9:30 a.m., the granite heart of American capitalism will pump money and investments just like it has always done. That when Mr. and Mrs. Public phone their broker or log onto their eTrade account to look to their retirement, the call — and the trade — will go through.

What he cannot guarantee is what the trigger-pullers will do — and the investors, big and small, that stand behind them. Tuesday the talk was of a panic selloff, Wednesday of a patriots rally. By Thursday the markets had been closed for longer than anyone alive could remember, and by Monday, the emotional graph seems to suggest, investors and their stock markets could be back to very nearly a rational state.

There will be moments of silence. There will be light volume. There will be some unwillingness to rush in when so much is still uncertain. It will change things if George W. Bush this weekend gives investors something to focus on — some shape of the military response, some show of his leadership, some good guess about the state of gold, of oil, of the world going forward.

On the floor of the NYSE, there may well be the systemic disruptions that can result when the NYSEs human hordes, returning to work for the first time since the world changed, have to pass on the way in the ugly, chilling, terrible evidence of how their world has changed. Breaks will be long, and solemn, minds will be elsewhere; orders may well be lost.

The small investor has hopefully heard often enough this week that he will best serve himself by unplugging his phone and keeping away from his computer; in the market, small fools never get what they are after by rushing in. Besides, the markets institutional investors — its big money men — do not want an unseemly panic, a public running of capitalisms most savage dogs, and so there will not be one.

But the chances are good that by Monday, professional investors will be thinking again not of carnage or a show of the resilience of The American Way, but their way, and the reason why they work in lower Manhattan in the first place: their fiduciary responsibilities to their clients and shareholders.

They will sell airlines and insurance companies and Manhattan real estate. They will buy oil and gold, and defense and construction and security — and maybe even cell phones and Blackberrys after hearing so often how good it can be to be connected in a world like this. They will do so tentatively, because in economics every action has an equal and opposite reaction — insurance companies will have the luxury of higher rates after this and Manhattan real estate might be a bargain for the future — and because this is still a scared new world and everyone will have bomb threats in the back of their minds.

But they will definitely sell airlines, because after six days they do not have the luxury of sentiment, fear, or losing anyone elses money. Because by Monday the financial world will be officially up and running again.

And by Tuesday, they might even be interested in what the Consumer Price Index was for August, because after all, August was only a couple of weeks ago.