The Consumer Republic: Trading Places

A 24/7 financial marketplace happens because it can-but its greatest impact may be in the world of entertainment.
Somewhere out there are people gleefully rubbing their hands together at the prospect of night trading on the stock market. Apparently, however, I don’t know any of them. After Nasdaq announced it was keeping the market open until 10 p.m., I did an informal survey of friends and acquaintances, asking what they thought about the chance to play the market during the family-viewing hour and beyond.
The responses were unanimous. Groans.
Grimaces. Shaking of heads. Rolling of eyes. All from upstanding citizens with 401(k)s. My respondents found the notion of more instant information tiring, if not outright threatening to the quality of life. That a pundit like William Safire doesn’t like it is to be expected. But no less than James Cramer, guru to the newly empowered individual investor and possessor of a dot-com IPO fortune of his own, has gone on record to say he hates the idea of night trading and dreads its impact on his family and leisure time.
True, Nasdaq is only offering extended-hours trading for its top 100 stocks. The New York Stock Exchange, scheduled to make a decision on night trading late last week, will likely also move cautiously. But my circle seemed fatalistic. We all know that the sun never sets on a global economy, and that 10 p.m. is no less arbitrary a closing time than 4 p.m. We’ve seen the future, and ready or not, it goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Of course, a phenomenon like a 24/7 financial marketplace doesn’t happen because we like it. It happens because home computer screens beckon in the dark, ready, willing and able to do its owner’s bidding. It happens because beepers and cell phones eliminate time-and-space gaps between us and information. It happens because the technology exists to achieve it. In short, it happens because it can happen-an evening spent with the spouse or at the movies be damned.
Here is money, the runaway virus, working its self-replicating will upon its hapless hosts. Money never sleeps, so why should we?
Yet the constituency for night trading is not the pros, but the small exploding cadre of stock-market cowboys, armed with a mouse and access to “instant” trades at rock-bottom prices. These self-starters probably already spend much more time at work checking the status of their stock portfolio than their employers suspect. Night trading gives them access to the game in what used to be called their free time. The operative word here is “game.”
A lot of online traders are traditional investors who siphon off a percentage of their portfolio for self-management, the better to test their skill at the ultimate videogame. Online trading has great graphics, requires concentration and split-second decision making and even offers the player the thrill of the hunt-except the only blood likely to be shed is his own. It’s as much about entertainment as it is about money. Or rather, it’s about money as entertainment. Just like gambling.
Do you remember the hero from state lottery ads of yore: the former schlub lounging in his mansion; the working stiff who shouts, “I quit!”; the toll taker dropping coins in the machine for passing motorists?
In the new generation of socially responsible (and much less funny) lottery spots, this character has been banished as a fantasy too tempting. He hasn’t disappeared; he’s just migrated to online-trading commercials, which often star the same regular guy whose life has been gloriously transformed in a single stroke. The stock market, however, goes lotto one better, since it’s not just about luck, which is a sucker’s game. Instead of “Hey, you never know,” the pitch here is “Hey, you’re the only one who knows.” Say goodbye to your senile boss or commission-sucking broker.
My favorite “hit the jackpot” ad is a low-rent spot for a course on “the exciting world of real-time trading” that makes explicit what the slicker, more clever ads only suggest. As the voiceover barks out the unique thrills and rewards of doing trades in real time, the camera pans the players, perched in front of computer terminals like so many slot machines. They intently scan the charts for a three-cherry payoff, their concentration unaffected when an occasional winner whoops and pumps his fist as a metaphorical shower of coins cascades into his lap.
How will networks keep the 25-54 male during prime time after he’s seen action like that? Why watch the game when you can be out on the field? The inauguration of night stock trading represents formidable competition for the time and eyeballs of sought-after consumers. It’s a big event in the financial world, but it may be an even bigger event in the world of entertainment.
And it’s our era’s great paradox: The more control consumers seize, the more out-of-control the world feels. ƒ