The prehistoric humour of the old school trading floor has gone forever, for good and for bad.
I’m not quite sure how and when the ‘travel jape’ started, but it was in full swing by the time I joined Deutsche Bank in the summer of 1999. At first, the joke was simple: wait until someone on the trading floor was packed and ready to go on a trip, then surreptitiously slip something heavy into his cabin luggage. Maybe a full pack of A4 copy paper – or even two full packs, or three. For another victim, a heavy metallic hole-punch or a couple of taped-together house bricks. The target was meant to discover these cumbersome items – to his annoyance – while his luggage was being scanned in security.
The apogee of the stunt came as an English trader called Gavin flew back from New York. Just before his car left for the airport, a couple of his American workmates slipped out to a sleazy emporium in Times Square to buy some sex toys that they then inserted into Gavin’s bag. To make sure the toys showed up on the scanner, Gavin’s colleagues wrapped them in aluminium foil. Sure enough, at JFK, Gavin was asked to open his bags. As he did so, in front of the watchful eyes of a matronly member of the security staff, he unwrapped one mysterious wrinkly silver item only to discover that it was a dildo. And not an ordinary one: this awesome unit was eighteen inches long, had the girth of a bleach bottle and was realistically modeled on an erect human penis – head, scrotum, veins, the lot. The security lady was unfazed. Looking squarely at Gavin and ignoring his embarrasment-reddened face, she gave him some advice: “Be careful and use lots of lube, hon”, she offered solicitously, “ ’cos that is one BIG dildo”.
In a way, the story illustrates perfectly the somewhat cock-eyed, intensely juvenile, but ultimately pretty harmless humour that used to be native to the trading floor. Personal embarrassment, sure, but no long-term harm; Gavin himself, once he had recovered his composure, thought the prank as funny as the rest of us did.
Occasionally, though, the travel joke went too far. Like the time a managing director left the London office to go to Heathrow, whereupon his staff burst into peals of laughter. What was going on? What had they done? Still giggling fitfully, they showed me a Xerox of the photo page from the MD’s passport that they had snuck from his drawer and then artfully doctored to show, not the face of the MD, but a likeness of Osama Bin Laden. All very well, except this was late-September 2001 and their boss was going to New York where the ruins of the Twin Towers were still smouldering. I phoned the MD to warn him and told his staff that they might want to keep their jokes more under control for a while.
What’s eating you?
Why did these things happen? I’m no sociologist, but I guess that corralling hundreds of young, mostly male, very competitive and very sharp people into one large room and putting them under intense pressure for days, weeks and months on end probably had something to do with it. I’m sure that sports teams and the armed forces have similar tales.
Competitiveness certainly lay behind one common entertainment – the eating contest. I’ve seen these based on all manner of comestibles: chicken nuggets, Big Macs, cream crackers, dry powder cup-a-soups, sachets of ketchup. One junior employee in an ex-colleague’s old shop – to win a bet of only about £50, I was told – ate a large flattened dead spider under the horrified gaze of his deskmates. Even if the foodstuff was palatable, the penalties for losing sometimes weren’t. A steak-eating contest ended badly for one lad at Deutsche when he lost a time trial against a young, slightly built, but evidently furiously ravenous female colleague. His forfeit was to wait at the traffic lights at a nearby crossroads in plain sight of a crowd of traders and salespeople who pressed against the huge plate-glass windows of the trading floor. From this vantage point they watched him attempt to clean car windshields for thirty minutes while wearing lipstick, high heels and a blouse.
This was all simple stuff, but the most elaborate prank I ever witnessed also involved food. It was in the early 1990s in my time at Merrill Lynch when the FX team in London was host to a newly hired young Japanese visitor whose name I cannot recall. Let’s say it was Hiroshi. One morning, the word quietly went around the desk that Mark – the chief dealer – was going to prank Hiroshi and that we should play along. What was he planning? We didn’t have to wait long to find out.
As Mark chatted to Hiroshi about the state of the market, he suddenly gave a sharp cry of delight. “I’ve got one!” Mark exclaimed as, from the small pile of coins on his desk that he’d been idly sorting through, he picked out a 50p piece. On it was a design of nine interlinked hands – a design from the 1970s that celebrated the UK’s entry into the EU and which, although by no means common wasn’t rare either. “Ah!” said Hiroshi as Mark showed him the coin. “This 50p has been issued by McDonalds”, Mark explained cheerfully but mendaciously, “to commemorate their one thousandth store in the UK”. Hiroshi nodded, impressed. “If you take it to McDonalds”, Mark then said to him, “you can buy as much food as you want and just pay with this coin”. The trap had been baited.
“Maybe”, Mark went on, “if we order breakfast now for the desk, you could use this coin for us Hiroshi?” Hiroshi indicated that this would be an honour. Playing our part, the rest of us all shouted out our orders for breakfast, orders that, some twenty minutes later, Hiroshi read out to the young server at the packed and noisy McDonalds nearby. “OK”, said the server, once the mountain of McMuffins and the like had been assembled, “that’ll be £94.20”. Hiroshi beamed, grasped the prestigious 50p gently between the thumb and forefingers of both hands, then gave a deep bow and placed the coin reverentially in front of the server.
The next half minute or so must have seemed like a lifetime to poor Hiroshi as the server’s astonishment gave way to apoplexy and Hiroshi’s beaming countenance shifted first to concern, then to panic as his stuttered explanations made no headway. He was saved by the sudden arrival of Mark, who had followed Hiroshi and witnessed the entire episode from the back of the store while racked with silent, but convulsive giggles. He now stepped forward to save the day with a couple of fifty-pound notes. The two men’s return to the trading floor, their arms laden with food, was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation.
Now there are two things about this story, and the other stories I’ve mentioned, that I can state as true facts. One is that – while we thought the jokes funny – they were undoubtedly based on cruelty. The second is that they simply could never happen these days. Maybe some mild examples of this type of juvenile jape still occur but, by and large, such behaviour has been eradicated from trading floors in the same way that shouting and hand signals and sexist or racist remarks have been eradicated.
Jokes like this have been forced out by a technological revolution, social progress, and by a new culture of seriousness and surveillance that followed the financial crisis and the associated scandals that were uncovered afterwards. The old world in which the jokes existed has gone. To a large extent I think this is all a very good thing. But, just the same, I can’t help occasionally feeling a tiny pang of nostalgic sadness for the passing of the old, cruel, but fun trading floor of my youth.