On this day in 1987 (that's 30 years ago, if you are burdened with a graduate degree), the New York Stock Exchange had one of its most dramatic trading days in its 225-year history.
It suffered its largest single-day percentage loss (22 percent) and its largest one-day point loss up until that day (508 points). No one who was on the floor that day will ever forget it. While it was an unforgettable single day, there were months of events that went into its making.
The first two-thirds of 1987 were nothing other than spectacular on Wall Street. From New Year's Day to shortly before Labor Day, the Dow rallied a rather stunning 43 percent. Fear seemed to disappear. Junior traders laughed at their cautious elders and told each other to "buy strength" rather than sell it, as each rally leg was soon followed by another.
One thing that also helped banish fear was a new process called "portfolio insurance." It involved use of the newly expanded S&P futures. Somewhat counterintuitively, it involved selling when prices turned down.
The rally topped out about Aug. 25 with the Dow hitting 2,722. Interest rates had begun to creep up amid concerns of early signs of inflation. Treasury Secretary James Baker began a rather open debate with the Germans on the relationship of the dollar and the Deutsche mark. Soon, the weakness in the market was turning into a visible correction. By the middle of October, the Dow fell to break an uptrend line that had protected it for over 1,000 points. The flurry of takeovers and leveraged buyouts that had flourished all year began to dry up.
On Wednesday, Oct. 14, there were widely discussed rumors of a new punitive tax on takeover profits. Selling turned a bit ugly, and the Dow fell 96 points by the close (a record point drop at the time). The next day there was no bounce and the Dow fell 58 more points.
Friday the 16th was an option expiration day. There was a very bad storm in London and that market closed, which forced more people to seek liquidity in New York. Stocks faced a steady wave of selling. As the close neared, rumors spread that first lady Nancy Reagan, the president's right hand, might be admitted to the hospital with cancer. The selling intensified and the Dow closed down 108 points, a new record point drop.
The weekend was a rumormonger's delight. The first lady was admitted to the hospital. Japan was considering a confiscatory 96 percent tax on real estate speculation. Germany proposed a change in taxes on some interest rates, which would make U.S. Treasurys unattractive to Germans. Rep. Richard Gephardt was talking about a trade bill that would freeze imports. Baker went on a Sunday talk show and openly challenged the Germans on currency. There were even rumors of U.S. planes engaging Iran.
At the time, I was running the floor for PaineWebber. Monday morning I got up well before dawn and saw that Hong Kong was down about 10 percent and other markets were looking equally weak before their openings. I headed for the NYSE to check on our systems and staffing. I reached out asking the team to get in early.
Once I had checked out the systems and verified staffing, I went with a partner up to the Luncheon Club for a quick coffee. With markets around the globe all down about 10 percent, I didn't know if we'd get to a coffee — or anything else after we opened.
We sat about two tables away from a table where NYSE Chairman John Phelan sat with several directors and some staff. Every 10 minutes or so, someone would rush up to Phelan and slip him a note or whisper in his ear. It was evident that things were deteriorating. As I headed for the floor, I went past Phelan's table, put my right arm across my chest and said — "Morituri Te Salutamus Esse." It was the gladiator's salute to the Emperor — "We, who are about to die, salute you." Phelan nodded without a smile.
The opening was not an outright disaster, but that was primarily due to the fact that many stocks did not open immediately. They were delayed, with indications to warn investors of the prices that they might open at (with hopes of inviting bargain hunters). Meanwhile, in Chicago, where you could short without a plus-tick, prices headed for freefall. Soon prices were lower in Chicago than in New York. That brought even more selling pressure to New York.
Shortly after the opening, as it became clear that this would be a very special and very dangerous day, several NYSE directors met in Chairman Phelan's office. They checked around the street to gauge any new trends in the selling pressure. They were also on the phone with the White House via former Sen. Howard Baker, who was White House chief of staff.
Meanwhile, back on the floor, the situation felt more unreal. Orders flowed in faster and faster and the tape ran later and later. (The tape was linear and the human eye can only recognize a certain number of symbols per second, 900 I think. To run faster than that would make the tape an unreadable blur. Traders can trade faster than the maximum reading speed — so the tape ran late). One broker said it was like a bizarre dream sequence — nothing seemed real.
In late morning there were signs that the markets might begin to stabilize. Then the newly appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, David Ruder, was intercepted by reporters leaving a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Whatever they asked and whatever he said, it somehow was reported that the markets might have to be halted. Later, he would swear it was a typo but you can't unring a bell. The fear of a halt sent buyers scurrying away. Stocks went into virtual freefall.
The interaction with the futures saw prices melt away. The Dow closed down 508 points. One specialist, who made too good a market, ran out of funds and the firm was sold to Merrill Lynch that very night. At watering hole after watering hole, traders and specialists reported again and again how strained their resources were. Wall Street could not survive another day like this. Luckily, innkeepers like Harry let them put the drinks on a tab.
What is often lost in the retelling is that the next day, Tuesday, was far more dangerous. It was the day that the wheels almost did come off the locomotive. The Dow opened up about 200 points Tuesday to a round of cheers on the floor. But, stocks quickly turned lower. The 200-point gain was erased and the Dow went negative, accompanied by an audible gasp on the floor. Soon it was nearing -100 and trading was being halted in several of the blue chips that make up the Dow.
Then we learned that several key banks were shutting down the credit lines of market makers and NYSE specialists. The banks feared exposure to an apparently collapsing stock market.
NYSE Chairman Phelan reached out to the recently appointed head of the Fed, Alan Greenspan. Unfortunately, Greenspan was on a plane. Desperate, Phelan called the president of the New York Fed, Gerry Corrigan. He sensed the danger immediately and began calling the banks to reopen the credit lines. They were reluctant, but Corrigan ultimately cajoled them. The credit lines were reopened and the halted stocks were reopened. Best of all, the market started to rally and closed higher on the day.
It was an incredible time, and the financial system was within hours (and a few phone calls) of an absolute collapse. It was a time I'll never forget.
—Art Cashin is director of floor operations for UBS.