As the New York stock exchange entered a second hour of non-trading on Wednesday, an increasing numbers of traders emerged to take in air or enjoy a quick cigarette break.
The NYSE, a regal building on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, is the embodiment of American capitalism, draped in a huge American flag. Tourists snap selfies and family portraits nearby but the building remains inaccessible, the traders who work on its floors separated from the public by metal barricades.
The exchange has claimed at least a 10ft-wide sidewalk, where traders can smoke in peace. And smoke they did on Wednesday. There was little else to do.
About an hour after the trading halted, one walked out. “What happened?” two photographers standing nearby asked. He shrugged: “The system crashed.” Another trader told reporters that trading being halted wasn’t scary, but them asking questions was.
It wasn’t until an options trader, who only gave his name as Chris, came out to puff away on his e-cigarette that reporters finally got some of their questions answered.
“Before [the exchange] opened, before the bell opened, there was an issue saying that they are having a problem with 220 symbols throughout the floor,” Chris explained. “Once those 220 couldn’t be resolved, it seemed like they stopped everything to be safe.”
According to Chris, the traders were told that trading was halted due to a technical issue and that the exchange was working on it.
“We need better technology,” Chris said, adding that in his 16 years of working on the New York stock exchange, nothing like this has taken place.
'It makes me worried that they are trying to make this a fully automated exchange. What they are doing, they are slowing things down on purpose, saying: ‘We don’t need people. If we had different technology and we didn’t have people running certain things, we wouldn’t have this problem.’ They are trying to make everything electronic. That’s what happened.”
So does the exchange need people? “They don’t need human beings,” he said.
But could today’s technical difficulties be a sign that the exchange does need people?
“Hopefully it will help,” Chris said, dragging his hands over his face. “Who knows when it comes to technology? I have no idea.”
There is a reason the NYSE is feeling pressure to modernize: the other guys are doing it. On Monday a number of buying pits owned by CME Group in New York and Chicago went silent as they were closed for good in favor of electronic trading.
Among the remaining pits are those where Standard and Poor’s 500 stocks, futures and options are traded, as well as the floor for stocks listed on the NYSE, which is owned by Intercontinental Exchange.
As for whether Wednesday’s three-hour break was due to a hack or really was just an technical issue, Chris couldn’t say. “I am just reading headlines as you are so I can’t tell you if it’s a hack or whatnot. I don’t believe it is [a hack],” he told the press gathered outside the stock exchange.
This article was written by Jana Kasperkevic in New York, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th July 2015 22.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010