Friday, May 7, 2010

Dow Jones Index tumbles 1000 points in ten minutes. It wasn't Ralph's fault.

My step-father's one of the funniest guys I know. His perspective on the world really cracks me up. He names everything -- from the Martian bug that lives in the kitchen to the cottage he accidentally built on someone else's property. "Stupid of the North."

When he invested in a crawdad trap, he bought some crawdads to test it. He named them "Joan" and "Broderick."

Ralph can tell you about the origins of the universe, the history of Harry Rosen (the Toronto tailor), and the world economy. He can tell you how to read a horse racing form, who starred in every movie from about 1935, the words to every old song ever recorded, and why the stock market does the things it does. He can even explain why the market fell through the floor yesterday afternoon.

Ralph was the first trader in the entire world to use computerized trading. Honest to God! It was around 1974 when we noticed he'd written on the calendar in the kitchen, "CATS." It appeared every couple of weeks.

My Mom thought Ralph was doing something with Snyder and Polecat (yes, my step-father named our pets). But it turned out that CATS stood for Computer Assisted Trading System. The Toronto Stock Exchange was creating a system to trade stocks by computer and Ralph, being a technophobe, didn't think it could or should be done. So he joined the committee with the intent of proving it wasn't such a great idea.

But by trouble-shooting the concept, Ralph turned out to be aiding and abetting the enemy.

Before you knew it, they'd developed the system and to see if it worked, Ralph became the CATS committee's guinea pig. He jokingly referred to his computer as HAL, and was delighted that when he fired it up every morning it said on the monitor, "Good morning, Ralph."

Well, that's what he told us, but maybe he was joking. Ralph's got that great sense of humor and would crack jokes and tell stories that made me spit out my food or pee my pants regularly at the dinner table. (I think it was a game everyone played. Let's see who can make Debi choke on her food tonight.)

From his office on Adelaide Street, Ralph traded his stocks by computer...and when the computer crashed -- as computers are wont to do -- he'd have to run down the block to the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange to make sure the market was maintained.

Think about it. It was 1974. Most of us were baffled by the complexity of Pong. Ralph was trading online.

The test proved to be a success and the system was fully implemented. Eventually the trading floor in Toronto was closed as everyone switched to computers. The Paris exchange liked the system so much that they bought it from the TSE. A few years later when some bonehead moves in Toronto messed up what they'd originally invented, the TSE bought the program back from Paris. That always makes me laugh. I invent something. I sell it. I wreck it. I have to buy it back from the guy I sold it to. I suspect somebody got fired for that.

Yesterday when the (alleged) fat-fingered guy at Citibank hit a "B" instead of an "M" I thought back to Ralph saying that you need humans making decisions and overseeing the process. He knew that 35 years ago. (BTW, the "N" is beside the "B". How the heck did he hit a "B"? Nobody's finger is that fat, except maybe for Shreck.)

So, hat's off to Ralph for his prescience! He knew this could happen and had warned about it. The computerized bids to sell at a certain price would kick in automatically if no one was monitoring the activity.

I hope the market corrects itself today after regulators untangle the mess and people realize that if the market were real P&G wouldn't be worth a penny.

Boy, I wouldn't want to be one of the guys who has to sort out the mess. Maybe they ought to call Ralph.

No comments: