Not everyone wanted to wait until 9:30. Some couldn't resist the Wild West premarket trading, the type that only hedge funds really play. At the very moment we first saw the smoke -- not even the flames -- on television, I was online with a bunch of traders
and at the risk of sounding callous, I want to tell you what went through our heads. Maybe enough time has passed that you won't judge me harshly for what we were thinking, maybe enough time has passed that you can recall the moments between the "accidental fire" catching our attention and the discovery that we were under attack, that there was no accident and that the world as we knew it was changing.
At first we all asked, "How bad?" I must have gotten six or seven "How bad(s)?" via instant messenger in the first two minutes. Given that we didn't know it was a terrorist act, I shot back the same IM to everyone: "?????" Others came back with everything from "seems weird" to "time to buy." No one said sell, not one of my friends. More importantly, no one said, "This is it, the big one." No one was thinking that way. And no one was thinking that anybody was going to die, least of all people we knew.
One grizzled trader -- I will keep them all nameless -- IM'd me: "Futures down big, bringing in short." Many brokerages make active markets in everything every morning; this morning was no different, and you could trade millions of dollars worth of stuff freely -- as almost everyone I knew did. I came back with: "Wise, don't take short off all at once." That wasn't reflecting any knowledge whatsoever about what was happening at the WTC, it was simply about discipline. Another trader IM'd, "Stocks indicated down big, buying right here."
I asked, "Know anything?" He answered quickly, "Doesn't matter, can't be that bad, gotta bring em in, gotta buy something, too much for sale."
Had to bounce, I thought, had to.
You must remember the unimaginable was happening, but it is the trader's job to imagine. All of these IMs were about imagining. You have to trade. You can't not trade. Everyone was trading
. They were trading, in retrospect, with no knowledge at all.
As the fire raged, the futures seemed to stabilize for a moment, down something like 3% or 4%, and more guys IM'd that they were bringing in their shorts and going long. Don't know a soul who was selling
. That kind of pessimism just didn't exist
, even among the most jaundiced of the vets. No one was selling even though that was the only thing to be done. "Gotta make a stand" was pretty much the conventional wisdom. And then the second tower got hit.
Believe me when I say that all anyone knew before the second strike was that there was this big, nasty, smoky accident downtown. As soon as the second tower got hit, we knew. We knew that the greatest buying opportunity of the century, the one that had the market down 4% because of a suspicious fire at some tower in Lower Manhattan, wasn't a buying opportunity at all. It was a disaster of mythic proportions.
One of the guys who had been buying, a close friend, sent me an IM a second after the second plane hit that was just a simple acronym: "FUBAR?"
Which is Army slang for fouled up beyond all recognition
." I replied, "total FUBAR." He then confided that he had brought in all of his shorts and gone long.
Mind you, we were still
talking about stocks. We were still lamenting opportunities. We were still gaming
. We were still IMing about financial losses. We still couldn't grasp what was happening.
Many falsely remember that they got wise to what was happening instantaneously. But we didn't. The dawning, again, wasn't about the enormity. It was about the merchandise just purchased on weakness caused by the situation in the first tower. For close to five minutes, traders I know were frantically trying to offload what they had purchased between the hits of Tower One and Tower Two. They were still worried about making money.
It was slow to dawn on us that day. But it didn't dawn the way you'd think. We didn't think about the people who were trapped
. We all simultaneously went through a slow-motion recognition that we were focused on the wrong thing
. That we were somehow witnessing something that was killing our friends and could kill us. That we weren't going to make money that day. That even thinking about making money was wrong. That instead it was about self-preservation -- of the body, not the capital.
It was about who might have been killed. It was about getting out alive.
One by one, the IMs went offline. One by one, people left their turrets, some out of fear, some out of respect, but all having recognized by the time the market would have been actively trading that on this particular 9/11, our world, the world of money, was at once totally and completely unimportant.
We all know what happened then. For me, it was fear as I waited to be able to get out of the building
. The building that TheStreet.com's New York offices occupy had been locked down. We all heard that there were more planes, that they were coming for the New York Stock Exchange
, that they would have hit our building, which is located across the street, to get to it. We saw the smoke, heard the crashes -- loudest thing I ever heard
-- of the first and second planes. We learned of all of the death and destruction and that nothing would ever be the same.
Now we all know too much, not too little.
I marvel to this day that until that moment of recognition, the sunny dispositions on the trading desks matched that day's sunny weather. Many people think that nothing's changed since then, and that such a lack of change is just a shame. I know that for the bereaved, everything's changed.
But in my world, the trader's world, something's changed, and it's actually a change for the better. When people hear about terrorism now, local or national, they don't think "buy or sell." They think family, they think children, they think life and death.
[Kann ich mir kaum vorstellen bei den Gier-Lollys dort - A.L.]
That was the day we grew up. That was the day we learned that when a cataclysm strikes, you don't worry about your money. You worry about the bigger things.
I guess we're better than we used to be. I hope we can pass that on to the next generation that doesn't recall or wasn't there. But I bet we can't. A new group will come, and they too will trade until they learn that there's something bigger than money. As we did that fateful day.
At the time of publication, Cramer was long TheStreet.com.