As I gleefully communicated this week to my Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and even clients and professional associates via private email distribution, I enjoyed one of the great blessings of my life this week in participating in the ringing of the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
The specific business interest and portfolio strategy that brought me there is not important for purposes of this blog, nor would it be prudent to delve into investment matters on this public blog (a sign-up is available for my privately distributed weekly commentary on the home page of this site). What I do want to address, though, is just why this event would be so significant to me, and why the stock exchange matters.
In a literal sense, the stock exchange as defined by the actual floor brokerage activity going on in the physical building at the corner of Wall and Broad actually doesn’t matter a whole lot any more. There are still some floor brokers there but the entire U.S. equity market could function without those literal activities. The exchange almost seems like a studio for CNBC now, and that is fine by me (I watch CNBC all day, every day). Of course, the activities of trading and market-making and listing securities (etc.) matters a great deal, but massive technological advances have enabled that business to mature beyond our wildest dreams. Execution prices are better than ever. Markets are more liquid than ever. Transparency is easier to come by than ever. And countless traders and market-makers are still employed all over the world.
So why does the actual New York Stock Exchange matter, then? Why was this a milestone event for me as a financial professional? And why is the corner of Wall and Broad important to Americans?
Just as the term “Wall Street” has long been a catch-all phrase for “capital markets” in our country, so is the “stock exchange” a catch-all phrase for the making of markets – the facilitation of the buying and selling of financial securities – and with that, the democratization of financial investment. There are actually few things MORE important to average Americans, whether we are able to realize that on a daily basis or not.
I am sensitive to the reasons many find the demonization of Wall Street so tempting, and I am certainly aware of some of the transgressions that have originated in the halls of Wall Street over the years. I do not offer a Gordon Gekko defense for the merits of greed (though I recommend a vigorous defense of the virtue of the profit motive re-enter American consciousness, and quick). Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason sometimes, and the fact that many Americans see the white collar world of finance as a den of iniquity, greed, hubris, and callousness is most unfortunate (and only in a minority of cases fair).
But I need to return to this concept of the democratization of investment finance. America has been the city on a hill to the world when it comes to finance for over a century. Our national free enterprise system has lent itself to the greatest innovations and advancements the world has ever seen, and those innovations and advancements have produced a lot of wealth. Certain countries have done quite well at generating wealth for their select oligarchs and power-holders, but the United States has seen its innovations, improvements, pursuits of profit, new technologies, and business feats create wealth for the MASSES. Stock option plans have made millionaires out of former pizza delivery drivers. Mutual funds and 401k plans have provided for the retirement savings of millions and millions of blue collar workers, teachers, municipal employees, and administrators. Concentrated stock positions have enabled loyal employees to retire with income far greater than they ever earned in their working lives – all from the publicly traded security of their employing company. Hundreds of billions of dollars of funds in the non-profit sector – foundations, endowments, and charitable trusts – have funded great acts of charity and compassion, all from the fruit of their capital markets trees. Ours is a nation of democratized investment access – from the pension funds millions of employees live off of (or will live off of), to the individual savings people of all incomes and net worths have accumulated. This is a celebration of the American way – a victory of the American experiment – and it is made possible by the “stock exchange” – the hub of market-making and trading that drive American financial markets.
Is this a simplistic summary of the nature of finance in our country? Sure. I’m not intending to do a deep dive here. I am, though, offering an indisputable thesis for how the oft-demonized world of Wall Street has improved the quality of life for so many in our society. I hope they keep that building at Wall and Broad there forever, and I hope I get to go back again, even if by the time I get there they are just running a souvenir shop. The history of that building and its iconic place in our society is powerful – more powerful than most could be expected to understand. This week I not only got to better understand it; I got to appreciate it at the deepest level possible. And this investment manager is permanently grateful not just for my experience ringing the bell this week, but for over a century’s worth of financial evolution that this glorious place has facilitated – to the betterment of all in our society.
(And if you are curious, I do not believe it will ever be just a souvenir shop; there is a glory in that building that will remain one way or another for decades to come – I am certain of it. And is it ever a gorgeous, gorgeous building).