On October 19, 1987, the stock market crashed hard. Together with my Columbia Business School classmates, we watched the market news that day with both awe and no small measure of trepidation.
That Fall, I had taken the trouble to enroll in a class very heavy in demand – “Securities Analysis” taught by one very notable professor (among several) named Jimmy Rogers. I have mentioned him numerous times in this blog because he shares an interesting commonality with my Dad, Bernard Olcott.
Jimmy hailed from Demopolis, Alabama (some stop-light out towards Mississippi) and was one of the few faculty members who didn’t speak in a flat Manhattan accent. No Sirree, he spoke with what could almost be called a southern “coon-dawg” accent. The opposite of a very different accent spoken by Professor Elliot Zupnick, whose cadence was marked by the thickest Bronx-ese, complete with “dese, dems, and doses.”
Jimmy’s solitary affectation was wearing bow-ties, a habit he had picked up as an Oxford student. (Leaving aside his penchant for asking of the birth years of attractive female students in order to send his servant to the wine cellar of his home in search of that very vintage).
The point of Securities Analysis was to look at past stock charts and determine why you should have bought or sold a stock (or a commodity) at a particular point in time – usually right before a great rise in prices or a precipitous drop. For example, consider the stock price chart below. Why would you have wanted, for example, to buy Toyota stock around 1976 for $12 a share? Had you correctly ascertained the economic dynamics at the time, you could have bought that stock and then sold it for $34 a share in 1981. Such a skill is obviously very profitable.
Long story short, the answer lies in the ‘invisible hand’ guiding supply and demand. Could you have anticipated the rise in oil prices, the non-competitive response of the American Auto industry in Detroit, and the higher production quality effected by the Japanese automotive industry? If so, you would have aced this class.
Jimmy’s acumen on what and when to buy something was impeccable. After all, he started the Quantum Fund with George Soros in 1973. From 1970 to 1980, their portfolio gained 4200% while the S&P advanced about 47%.¹
Supply and demand was surely a factor in the job market for us soon-to-be minted MBAs. We were all blinded by potential riches on Wall Street. For his part, Jimmy was a great contrarian and, in that way, he was kinda like my Dad. But while Dad had no opinion about choosing Finance or Investment Banking as a career, Jimmy, on the other hand, felt that most Columbia students were misguided in pursuing employment on Wall Street. He felt we were like lemmings racing to the cliffs. “Go look away from the herd” was his advice, or something very similar to it.
Probably wiser words were never heeded less.
It always pays to be the foreigner, the odd one out. Think about it. My Dad in Weehawken!
Classes finished out that Fall in their usual pattern. The investment banks and other financial institutions kept their agreed-upon schedules and came to school to interview me and my classmates.
Only one thing. They came. They interviewed. They went back to their offices. Only a paltry number of offers were made in the Spring of 1988. Mostly to those whose families were able to call in several favors. My pay phone, on the other hand, lacked coin.
Worse – and we didn’t learn this until later – the training classes that had started the previous summer were quietly shut down and everybody laid off.
The financial services industry, like most other businesses, goes through great cycles of head count expansion and decline. The era of growth had come to an abrupt end to the tune of maybe 40,000 jobs lost.²
A few businesses are immune to cycles of growth and bust. One of these is the patent annuity business. Ever heard of it? You’re in good company; many readers of the Bernard Olcott Story are now intimately familiar with this type of business. For one thing, it’s a protected must-have cost center. Up markets or down, those valuable patents need to be renewed and they need to done on time. No ifs ands or buts.
The jobs my classmates and I were angling for, on the other hand, were strictly profit-center positions. Sure, the pay scales were potentially superlative. But profit-center businesses can be fickle and are unusually sensitive to droughts. Another hazard of these types of jobs are “Sales Managers,” who are always spooking over your shoulder. Wall Street was full of these types, many of whom were trolls, mugwumps, scofflaws, scalpers, out of work sump-pump repairmen, or other mal-adjusted people. Occasionally, I would encounter some of these guys on interviews. You know, the Glen Garry Ross types as played by Alec Baldwin.
You see this watch?
Overall, the Black Monday or October 1987 crash had caused 25% of the market capitalization of the stock exchange to disappear. In other words, if you took all the companies whose stocks were traded on the exchange, added up the value of all their shares, you would come up with a value of $4 trillion for amount in the stock exchanges in late 1987.
Imagine $1 trillion just disappearing.³ Try going through your own house and throwing away a dollar for every four that you find.
Any way you slice and dice it, to have that money go up in flames is an economic disaster. All of sudden, everyone, individuals and institutions alike, are gonna guard what’s left of their poker chips. And they ain’t gonna be tossing them out on the tables to make new (foolish) bets with. At least not like they used to. Trading volumes dried up; buyers retreated. Overall, there was less financial work to do; and that meant fewer youngsters were needed in the trenches. And so the finance houses, investment banks, and bucket shops retreated into self-preservation mode.
I graduated the following Spring in 1988 with only one offer at a salary half as much as what I had anticipated. Hey, at least I had that! But I had had my heart set on a much higher value. And I didn’t feel like compromising. In hindsight, it’s easy to write that I should have taken it. But I held my ground and kept up my job search through the course of the summer.
But the summer came and passed without any further job offers. The shadows grew longer every day and they cut my soul and self-esteem like a six blade knife. The realization slowly sank in that this might take a lot more time. Finally, it was time to circle the wagons and take something, anything that could tide me over.
This was the start of my brief career in retail, high end Manhattan style! Like they say, it’s easier to find a job when you already have one. And my time of being choosy had come to an end. It was time for me to swallow my pride, and start knocking on doors. There is, as they say, dignity in work, in any kind of job.
And I’ll be coming back to supply and demand continuously going forward. Shoulda listened to Jimmy.
1 – “James Rogers“. streetstories.com. Retrieved 2007-07-26.
² – http://mcdigitaltj.blogspot.com/2014/11/marketing-digital-publicidad-241114-wsi.html
³- A Presidential Task force later estimated the amount of vanished wealth to have been $1 trillion. http://business.time.com/2012/10/22/25-years-later-in-the-crash-of-1987-the-seeds-of-the-great-recession/
As always, James, a well thought out and colorfully nuanced story of growing up and out in the legendary kitsch of 1980s Wall Street. This observation strikes a downright ‘Churchillian’ note:
“Probably wiser words were never heeded less.”
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What a surprise to read about Jimmy Rogers. I knew him quite well at my time at SwissRe in Portfolio Management 1985-2010. Jimmy was the… contrarian. We loved to invite him for his outspoken investment ideas! He was the only one (with Mark Faber) who had the “luxury” to be attended at highest level including full lunch service in Swiss Re famous 5 Stars restaurant! Great to hear about him!
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Did he use his colorful expressions like “trees growing to the sky” and “pigs in a poke?”
Jimmy Rogers sounds like quite an interesting character. Prudent and wise like your Dad, maybe we should heed his non-conventional approach and advice when it comes to investing. Your Dad wasn’t just lucky, he was wiser than you think.
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