The few dozen jobs that will be lost when the pits shut down is just part of it, veterans say. What's also disappearing is a rich culture of brazen bets, flashy trading jackets and kids just out of high school getting a shot at making it big. The pits were a ruthless place, but they were also a proving ground where education and connections counted for nothing next to drive and, occasionally, muscle.
"If people came to your spot, you shoved them out of it. `This is my two-foot space ... so get out of it,'" says Dan Sullivan, a broker who's been working in the pits since 1981. The competition, he adds, also bred camaraderie. "These guys knew me better than my wife."
Dan Grant, 53, traces his love affair with the pits to a $150-a-week job as a "runner" ferrying messages between clerks taking phone orders from customers and brokers executing them.
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Six years into his career, on Oct. 19, 1987, stocks were plunging around the world and he was a clerk taking orders from the head traders at Chemical Bank and Drexel Burnham Lambert desperate to buy anything to protect themselves. Grant still marvels that, just 24 years old and with no college degree, he wielded such power in the crash, later known as Black Monday.
"They were buying Treasurys and currencies, and watching their stock portfolios go to zero," he recalls. "It was a lot of fun."
The pits that are closing deal in futures, or contracts to buy or sell something at a later date at a set price. They're used by farmers to lock in prices for their crops before harvest, for instance, and investors as a way to bet that prices will go up or down.
Not all futures pits are going away. In its February announcement about the closings, the owner of the exchanges said the pits where Standard and Poor's 500 stock futures and options on futures are traded will remain open. Floor trading of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, which is owned by a different company, won't end, either.
But the few remaining pits are a small, perhaps fleeting, victory for the dwindling number of traders who still use hand signals to buy and sell.
Where once futures on everything from pork bellies and wheat to Treasurys and Eurodollars were only traded in this "open outcry" system, now just 1 percent are. Where once thousands of futures traders stood shoulder to shoulder, now just a few dozen show up on a typical day.
"There were five (people) in the wheat pit today," laments broker Virginia McGathey after the closing bell in Chicago last Wednesday. "Back in the day, there were 400."
Scott Shellady, a broker standing nearby, worries that fewer humans could mean more violent swings in food prices. He fears turbulence could be triggered by an unusually large offer from a stranger in India or another far off place to buy or sell a futures contract.