It's the same voice of almost laughable understatement that emerged from astronaut Jim Lovell's mouth when he famously said, "Houston, we have a problem," just as he realized that the Apollo 13 spacecraft he was captaining in 1970 was on the brink of total disaster.
That voice betrays a certain calm in the face of calamity, a presence of mind to stay focused even when the body is telling you to panic, an indication that, at a moment of chaos, I am in control.That character trait, of course, is part of what Wolfe called "The Right Stuff"
In the wake of the volatile last few trading days on Wall Street, I'm beginning to wonder if we have any similar Yeager-like figures in control of the markets. I'm not talking about market leaders who merely have the voice of calm, though it would be nice to hear that, too. I'm talking about people who are really in charge and not freaking out.
As I noted in a post shortly after our financial system when into a tailspin in September 2008, I don't quite understand how those professionals who manage and trade in our securities markets every day seem to have hair-trigger nerves when problems arise.
It's even more striking because stock brokers and personal finance gurus are always telling the rest of us schleps, non-experts with our own life savings on the line, to be patient, to take the long view, to resist the natural temptation to do anything rash or dramatic. This too shall pass, they say, citing how, over time, the market will return a healthy sum and sustain us in our old age.
It's really the only thing we can do; most of us can't overnight transfer everything we've invested into a mutual fund into, say, gold or other investments that are at least stable, if not ascending. We, the mere passengers on this "choppy" flight are the ones trying to stay calm, even as our stomachs are roiling, but it seems that the pilots are the ones panicking.
That's one scenario: an enterprise in which those with their hands on the wheel are engulfed with fear and unable to resist their own natural temptation to to do anything rash or dramatic, like sell, sell, sell! Quickly, before we (the institutional investors, who really make the markets) lose our shirts, God forbid.
The second scenario, the one that seems to be the more likely -- or as likely -- behind the thousand-point drop of the Dow in mere minutes on Thursday, May 6, is that the human beings are not in control. This one is just as troubling as the first scenario.
"Traders parsing the mystery of Thursday's stomach-churning stock-market plunge are focusing on whether rapid-fire computer trading, coupled with the market's complex trading systems, triggered a free fall that appears to have begun with an order to sell a single stock," the Wall Street Journal wrote in a postmortem of that trading day.
"At a minimum, traders said, the selloff shows that regulatory oversight of stock trading has not kept up with the changing nature of trading," the article continues, adding:
"'There's no mechanism in the current system to stop an error from crushing a stock,' said Dan Mathisson, head of electronic trading at Credit Suisse. 'The regulators will need to explore restricting the use of market orders, or adding some type of circuit breakers.'"It's another example of how computer systems have not yet acquired the judgment -- or, put another way, the heart -- that humans (and even many other organisms, which instinctually know to remove their hands or paws from a flame) uniquely possess. This is, of course, no path-breaking insight; at least since the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey," we've understood the potential havoc computers can wreak when we humans cede our control to them. And, remember, the computer aboard the spaceship in that movie actually did have something of a heart, a human-like intelligence, albeit a rather malevolent one.
But I am not railing against technology, which is like howling at the moon. And I will give the benefit of the doubt to those who programmed the trading systems (people who, like me, have their retirement savings at stake in the health of the markets) did their level best to ensure that the computer could "think" as a human might, or at least alert a human when the storm clouds appear. I'm assuming they thought through a doomsday scenario and tried to head it off in their lines of code.
But what seems to be the case is that those systems favor the big investors, whose fortunes are the first to sell off as rapidly as possible, triggering a cascade of others to do the same. And the same seems to be true even of whatever parts of the markets are under human control. The economics of a market ensure that somebody -- or institutional body -- had to have protected itself from disaster, and, if they held a short position, maybe even profited. We, the common investors, are just not in the privileged position, or so it seems. We are on the debit side of the zero-sum system. Or, until someone with credibility explains otherwise, so it seems.
The rest of us are really at the mercy of the pros. We can only hope that these same automated systems and the unpredictable, inscrutable "mind" of the market will shift and raise -- or at least protect -- our meager fortunes. But hope is all we have.
The rest of us can only keep ourselves calm by closing our ears to what sound like failing engines and ignoring what feels like a precipitous drop in altitude. We are left to silently reciting the time-tested incantation that, in the long run, the market is the best place for us to sock away our money -- even if, in the short run, we are headed for a crash from which no one can say we will recover. Meantime, the pros, the ones at the controls who have news that the plane is about to self-destruct, are frantically strapping on their parachutes and heading for the escape hatches.
I have to believe there are brave, bright and calm-voiced Chuck Yeagers running our nation's financial system, people who understand the interests of their passengers. But why don't I see any evidence of them?