As the European debt crisis roils the markets, American traders who once awoke at dawn are now rising in the dead of night to gain an edge when business begins in London, Paris and Frankfurt.
Gone are the days when traders showed up to work just before the New York Stock Exchange opened at 9:30 a.m. Now, Wall Street has an unofficial opening bell: the 2:30 a.m. alarm clock.
“We have a new credo: carpe noctem — seize the night,” said Douglas A. Kass, a hedge fund manager who routinely sets his alarm for precisely that time to scan the headlines coming out of Europe. All last week, the musings of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other European leaders put the markets on edge. “You are almost forced to get up and watch the goings-on,” he added.
The nest of night owls is growing more crowded. Senior executives at the Pacific Investment Management Company, the giant bond-trading house, wake up at 1 a.m. in Southern California, to check their BlackBerrys for updates from colleagues in Europe.
“Your nerves are twitching,” said Christian Stracke, Pimco’s global head of credit research.
Michael Mayo, a longtime bank stock analyst, said he was working the lobster shift so often just to keep up with the latest International Monetary Fund rescue or Slovenian parliamentary vote that he might as well call himself a 24-hour-a-day research shop. “Who would have thought we would have to be looking at Italian sovereign debt yields to figure out what Morgan Stanley’s stock will do?” he said.
For traders, there is too much to lose if they sleep through history.
That’s why Craig Gorman, a partner at First New York Securities, routinely monitors his trading positions in the middle of the night. He turns on CNBC and fires up the Bloomberg terminal with six screens at the foot of his bed. “With the TV and all my monitors on, it gets a little bright in there,” he said. “My wife is not thrilled about it.”
The other downside? It is hard to fall back asleep once the adrenaline from trading starts pumping. Even so, Mr. Gorman said it was worth the price: “You can’t get the same feel for market psychology looking back at the charts in the morning as when you are up,” he added.
News organizations and brokerage firms see an uptick in early-morning activity, too. Bloomberg reports at least a 30 percent jump from a year ago in the use of its mobile applications, which allow customers to remotely log into the trading terminal at their office desk. The biggest spikes have occurred well before the New York markets open, between 5 and 7 a.m., when traders wake up and commute to work, as well as between midnight and 3 a.m., when trading in Asia winds down and the European markets open, according to company officials.
CNBC has recorded a 50 percent increase in the tiny audience watching “Worldwide Exchange,” which broadcasts between 4 and 6 a.m. Traffic on its Web site between 2 and 5 a.m. has risen about 30 percent compared with a year ago.
There are also signs that predawn trading by American retail investors has increased. TD Ameritrade, which caters to individual investors, said customer trading volume in S.& P. futures — a bet on the coming day’s direction in the market — has more than doubled between 3 and 6 a.m. over the last year.
Wall Street has long been the land of the early riser, and plenty of fixations in high finance have come and gone. In the late 1970s and 1980s, traders obsessed over the state of the money supply; in the late 1990s, they focused on rapidly rising Web page views of the leading dot-com companies. Last year, traders acted like armchair engineers in deep-water drilling as they monitored images of the BP oil spill gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Whether or not Europe’s new plan struck on Friday to achieve budgetary discipline brings market stability, some suggest that the current middle-of-the-night frenzy heralds a lasting change for an industry that coined the term “bankers’ hours.”
“It is now making people aware that they can become a global trader,” said J. J. Kinahan, the chief derivatives strategist for TD Ameritrade. “They don’t have to rely on the hours of the New York Stock Exchange” between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern time.
Several forces are at play. The convergence of mobile technology and financial information allows investors to trade on news — anywhere, anytime. The markets, meanwhile, have grown so interconnected that what happens with sovereign bonds can quickly affect equities.
Any whiff of trouble in Europe can send markets into a tailspin and easily overwhelm the hard-earned edge a trader might have gained by digging deep into the financials of an individual stock.
“The degree to which asset prices are connected is off the charts,” said Dean Curnutt, the president of Macro Risk Advisors and another early riser.
That is the main reason that Brad Alford, the chief investment officer of Alpha Capital in Atlanta, rolls over in bed, grabs his iPad and glances at the Bloomberg market feeds with one eye, sometimes two, before the sun comes up. Or why Mr. Kass trudges over to his poolside home office in Palm Beach, Fla., to e-mail hedge fund friends about the latest troubled country du jour. “There is a pretty active cabal in those early hours,” he said.
It is also why Al Moniz, a European bond fund manager at Fore Research and Management in New York, has been waking up at 2 a.m. at least several times a month, and expects even more bleary-eyed nights next year.
“It is probably going to get worse,” he said. “I don’t think there is any end in sight.”