Turmoil Tarnishes a Cherished Tradition

Duncan L. Niederauer needed someone to ring his bell.

On Monday, one of the darkest days in Wall Street’s history, the actress who was supposed to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange decided not to push the button given the turmoil in the markets. Mr. Niederauer, who heads the exchange, had one of his officials do the job, officially ending a day on which the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 778 points.

The actress Missi Pyle, who appeared as the buxom alien Laliari in the cult hit “Galaxy Quest” and is currently on Broadway in the French farce “Boeing Boeing,” said on Tuesday that she had “decided to let the day be about the market and not about having a celebrity ring the bell.”

She added that she had watched the close from the floor of the exchange.

The Big Board says it has plenty of ready ringers. The job, after all, is supposed to be an honor, or at the very least a photo opportunity. But at a time when the markets are unsettled, some public relations types wonder: Who wants to ring in — or out — the next black day on Wall Street?

“Right now, it can be a little bit like being asked to blow the foghorn on the Titanic,” said Jim Haggerty, chief executive of the PR Consulting Group, which advises companies on communications strategies.

The New York Stock Exchange, downtown Manhattan.
Photo: Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com
The New York Stock Exchange, downtown Manhattan.

On Tuesday morning, as anxious traders poured through the exchange’s Corinthian marble facade, no corporate executives or celebrities mounted the podium high over the floor to sound the start of trading. Instead, an anonymous floor manager kicked off a session in which stocks rebounded sharply. According to the exchange, no one in particular was scheduled to ring the bell, partly because it was Rosh Hashana.

“There is huge demand to ring the N.Y.S.E. opening and closing bells, and those people and organizations who participate are respectful of both the global recognition in doing so and prevailing market conditions,” said Richard Adamonis, a spokesman for the exchange.

Ringing the Opening Bell (the capital letters are part of an N.Y.S.E. trademark) emerged as a powerful corporate branding exercise in mid-1990s. Big publicly traded companies started swallowing up entertainment properties and began trotting out film stars, singers and other celebrities to promote movies and products.

The N.Y.S.E. also often invites heads of state and sports figures, like the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, to push the button that activates the brass bells in each of the exchange’s four trading rooms.

The boom in initial public offerings in the late 1990s also brought a parade of young executives to the N.Y.S.E. podium and to the opening and closing ceremonies at the Times Square headquarters of the Nasdaq, the all-electronic exchange.

With the explosion in financial news coverage on CNBC and other cable networks, the N.Y.S.E. opening bell is now seen by more than 100 million viewers a day, many of them affluent consumers.

The question now is whether executives want to take the risk of having those wealthy millions associate them or their companies with another big sell-off.

At the Nasdaq on Monday, that question confronted executives from the Solar Electric Power Association who were scheduled to ring the closing bell on a day when the markets were crushed by the failure of the House to approve a rescue package for the financial industry.

Julia Hamm, executive director of the association, said the group went ahead with its plan after discussing the issue with Nasdaq officials. Executives flew from around the country over the weekend, she said, and they decided they might be able to offer a small ray of light on a dark day.

“The market was in a really bad place, but solar and green technology are areas that continue to do well,” Ms. Hamm said. “Sometimes when things are going badly, you need to have some things to look at that are positive.”

In addition to fear in the markets, a significant decline in initial public offerings this year — another sign of trouble — has somewhat damped the flow of first-time ringers at the N.Y.S.E. and the Nasdaq.

As a result, sports stars and public officials, as well as executives from companies that went public long ago, have been ringing the bells lately. Panasonic, for instance, was set to do so on Wednesday to celebrate the official changing of its name from the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company. The event is to include a display of the world’s largest high-definition plasma television, a 150-inch monster, in a tent outside the N.Y.S.E.’s entrance on Broad Street.

Thus far, most of the scariest drops in Wall Street history, including the crash on Oct. 19, 1987, occurred before the bell become a public relations phenomenon. One big exception came Sept. 17, 2001, when the N.Y.S.E. reopened after the 9/11 terrorist attack on Lower Manhattan. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani joined Richard A. Grasso, the N.Y.S.E. chairman, and a group of police officers and firefighters in ringing the bell that day, when the Dow plunged 7.1 percent.

The 7 percent drop in the Dow on Monday came after executives from Duff & Phelps, a financial advisory group, celebrated their first anniversary as a public company by ringing the opening bell.

While chagrined at the day’s events, executives at Duff & Phelps take some heart that because of electrical glitches, the bell never actually rang on Monday. “We didn’t actually open the worst day in recent history,” said Marty Dauer, a spokesman for the company. “And that is fortuitous for us.”