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Brokers twiddling thumbs instead of waving hands

Forget romantic notions of sandy beaches and pink lemonade: The lazy, hazy days of summer are a season of boredom-induced insanity for adrenaline-pumped stock brokers.

Forget the romantic notions of sandy beaches and pink lemonade: The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are a season of boredom-induced insanity for adrenaline-pumped stock brokers.

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Online trading in summer doldrums
Trading volume of the major stock exchanges typically begins declining after Memorial Day in late May. It continues to slide throughout the summer, as denizens of Wall Street exchange wing tips for flip-flops.

By late August, trading volume typically reaches its low point, sparking a sort of crazed tedium for those unfortunate sentinels still keeping shop at the office or on the trading floor.

Fridays in August can be among the slowest days of the year. Many offices in New York and throughout the East Coast close early on Friday or give workers the entire day off. On the West Coast, many technology companies allow workers to telecommute on Fridays, and few companies bother with market-moving announcements.

This summer has been no different. The number of shares exchanging hands on the Nasdaq in late August has dipped as low as 1.2 billion shares per day, compared with 2 billion or more during the bull run of February and March and the frenzied retreat in April.

To blow off steam and create busy work, some traders think up mnemonic devices to remember the ticker symbols of up-and-coming stocks. Others do push-ups in their cubicles. Some monitor their pagers and cell phones while they scour end-of-season sale racks.

And who can forget the old standbys? For those who have already inputted every conceivable contact into their PalmPilots, crossword puzzles and computer solitaire are still popular.

"There's never no work to do," Tony Cecin, head of trading at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray, said of the summer doldrums. "But when it's slow, people's frustration level goes up."

The few traders who were at work this week to answer calls from reporters said they try not to let ennui fray their nerves. Why? Bored traders are often bad traders. Many admit to making stupid mistakes because they overly scrutinize research reports or doubt their gut reactions.

"They'll reach for a trade that doesn't work out because they are bored," Cecin said.

Kathy Taylor, a manager on the trading floor at A.G. Edwards, said traders are adrenaline junkies who often have a tough time when markets slow down. This summer has been especially tedious after the past year, as millions of new investors poured into the markets. Trading volumes and volatility kept brokers buzzing.

"If there is nothing happening, you try to make something happen," Taylor said. "When you are used to working at a pace that is absolutely, positively nonstop, it gets difficult when there's a lull."

Many trading institutions do not even try to maintain normal staffing levels during the summer slowdown. Tim McAdams, president of Pacific Day Trading in San Jose, Calif., said roughly 25 percent of the company's 800 traders are on vacation this week and next.

"From the time you're in preschool, you kind of learn that nothing really starts until after Labor Day and that you don't need to work until after Labor Day," McAdams said. "It's a psychological thing. That's pretty much the mode for everyone, including the stock market."

Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based consultant and expert in counseling psychology, said the seasonal slash serves a higher purpose than cleaning off desktops and reorganizing filing cabinets. She called it a "necessity" that recharges batteries for the rest of the year.

So why doesn't Corporate America close shop entirely and take a collective vacation for the entire month--or at least for a week or two? Why do so many people have to push papers in underpopulated offices and look forward to a meager, three-day weekend before the September slog?

"We're a work-addicted culture," Luban said. "Why don't we take or grant six weeks of vacation, like they do in Europe? Here it's two weeks out of 52 until you're indentured for some number of decades.

"We're a 24-7 culture, and our nervous systems have become immune to the pace. We get so attached that it gets hard to yank yourself away."