2HRS2GO: Fractions begin ride into the sunset

3 min read

I'm a sentimental fool.

"As you've inevitably read, the exchanges are going (to decimals over the next few months," read this morning's e-mail message from my boss. "We're going to go decimals tonight (I can't see doing GTW in decimals and other stocks fractions). Therefore, change all templates, Midday, Market Close, etc. to decimals starting tomorrow."

There's no purpose in rehashing the debate over decimalization. That discussion has long been exhausted, securities regulators have mandated the shift away from fractions, and the exchanges are moving along. News organizations can only follow the change.

But I wish fractions were staying.

It sounds bizarre to think about the matter at all. After all, these are mere numbers we're talking about. The average investor has no reason to care whether the price of Gateway (NYSE: GTW) -- one of the stocks in the decimalization pilot program that started today for the Big Board -- is quoted at 67.81 or 67 13/16.

Even if people should be concerned, the arguments against decimalization are easily refuted.

Cost? Trading technology needed an upgrade at some point anyway, and all modern systems are designed to handle decimals.

Narrower spreads favoring professional traders over Joe Investor, and possibly forcing many dealers out of the market? That fear gives insufficient credit to the power of the Internet and the additional liquidity it brings. It also overlooks the fact that many investment houses, particularly large ones, increasingly view their brokerage businesses as incremental to the banks/brokerages' other services.

Besides, the entire concern about spreads -- the difference between bid and ask prices on a stock -- affects only traders. If you're an investor, opining over decimals versus fractions is a meaningless exercise from purely financial point of view.

Nonetheless, I will miss fractions. I'll miss the idea of an old mathematical construct maintaining a position in an increasingly digitized world.

Proponents of decimalization argue the shift will make the market more digestible for investors, particularly new ones. But anyone who doesn't understand fractions should probably stop investing and do something more immediately useful, like rejoining fourth grade.

Fractions are, if anything, more precise than decimals because they preclude rounding. And it's easier to write "11/16" instead of "0.6875".

Yet most important from my writer's point of view, fractions offered a harmless link to the past, a reminder of an era when computers didn't rule everything.

Obviously, Wall Street has to keep abreast of the future. Even now, New York government officials are hatching a plan to demolish a Manhattan building from 1907 and build a shiny, glass-and-steel edifice for the NYSE.

But I'd like to think that even a world as cold and ruthless as Wall Street could stand to keep some link to its roots in Spanish eighths and Hamiltonian fashions.

I'd like to think so. Too bad I know better.

Perhaps it really is just foolish sentiment. When I started covering the stock market, the first thing I had to learn was decimal equivalents for every fraction based on a power of two, up to 64ths. Associated Press style demanded that all figures, even stock prices, be reduced to decimals, but my editor rightly believed in reporting the numbers the way Wall Street does. Thus, one of my jobs was converting all the figures in AP business stories back into their fractional equivalents.

Now I wonder why we bothered. 22GO>