Thursday, December 09, 2004

Survival of the Toughest
Leg the Spread : A Woman's Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys Club of Commodities Trading by Cari Lynn (Broadway Books $24.95)
Not since Liar's Poker has there been such an up close and outrageous look at what goes on in America's financial institutions. Cari Lynn is a freelance writer in Chicago who clerked in the Mercantile Exchange or (the Merc) for two years. Why the Merc? A friend of hers worked at home a few hours per day trading via computer. He made $1,000 a day and the rest of the time, he lived. A severe and understandable case of "I want what he's got" ensued.
Lynn convinced her friend who had a seat on the exchange, to sponsor her as a clerk (the lowest form of life in the pits) so she could learn the ropes. An orientation video and a yellow polyester blazer later, she was in. The hours, depending on the pit you worked (wheat futures, pork bellies, Yen options, Eurodollars) were approximately 8a.m. to 2p.m.

Lynn went from working in quiet solitude at her own pace to a cacophonous, high-pressure, agressive, male-dominated workplace where millions are made and lost by the second. From the frenetic arbing (the sign language between traders and clerks to buy and sell), to the shouting (orders are shouted as they are signaled), to the shoving, cursing spitting and mauling, Lynn finds that working at the Merc is not for the faint of heart.

I've grabbed men by the throat before. Once you do that they start realizing,well, we can't fuck with her
The skills needed to succeed in futures trading are facility with numbers, a loud voice, not being easily intimidated and overall aggression because you're pushing and shoving and shouting orders in a pit with hundreds of other traders. The most important trait is the ability to handle stress. In her first week on the job, Lynn finds she possesses none of these qualities, and but signs up for an arbing workshop. She is repelled the behavior, fascinated by the vast sums of money to be made and totally hooked.

Overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of the pit, Lynn tries to find a mentor -- a female one, in a business where there are very few. Women at the Merc and the Chicago Board of Trade are routinely insulted, harrassed, felt-up and intimidated until they prove themselves. After that, they get the abuse everyone else gets (shouted profanity). The culture in the pits is "kill or be killed." People are there to make money, not friends. Most of the successful women in the pits have weathered the abuse and learned to fight back. One female trader who survived and eventually started her own firm remembers what she was told when she first stepped into the pit : "You belong on your back at home." The other traders cheered. Another female trader says "You have to knock a few prople over and stand up for yourself; I've grabbed men by the throat before. Once you do that they start realizing, well, we can't fuck with her." This sounds perfectly reasonable given what goes on in the pits.

As Lynn struggles to find her way, she seeks out the women who have not only succeed but endured in a culture that seems out to destroy them. The women share tales of survivial, success and bad behavior in the pits. Some legendary traders provide insight into a culture where money can rain down on you like leaves from a tree, and what that does to human behavior. This a fascinating story of the history of one of the biggest markets in the world.

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