I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra-snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull
Now come on take a walk with me, arlene
And tell me, who do you love?
I was sitting at my desk in the dealing room earlier this week, juggling a Mandarin from hand to hand, on one of those Wimbledon or World Cup days when the whole world grinds to a halt to fully absorb the sporting drama. As it often does my mind drifted back to the days when it would have been equally acceptable to launch the Mandarin across the dealing room at any broker not paying attention, as it was to eat it, and betting wandered into my thoughts. Not betting on whether I could wake up a sleepy broker with a Mandarin, or even Horses as tradition would have it, but wagering on anything, literally anything.
In these days of rolling news and sports channels playing in dealing rooms and the advent of social media I no longer see or hear some of the old games we played. I’m not talking of marbles or spinning tops but the games that cantered around trading and on occasion would involve several companies and possibly countries. Not bloody FIFA 2018, but proper games that were the forerunner in many ways of spread betting. I for one cannot stand my brain being inactive and I suspect that this is a common thread amongst my peers and colleagues. From 5.30 in the morning I’m up and the brain is whirring , for example I’m writing this at 5.45 on a Saturday morning before going for a dip in the Sea ( more about the reason behind that next week! ). Whether it is because I went to school on a Saturday and have that discipline or its because I just want to get on with enjoying life I don’t know, but the brain whirs and whirs. As such a dealing room was the best environment for me that I can imagine.
The thrill, noise and general buzz from the day to day business were fantastic whether it was a market reacting to economic or political news or just general tidying up at the end of the day in the overnight market it was adrenalin city. But those quiet days when the markets were becalmed, as much as a yacht in the doldrums can be, just had to be livened up. Sometimes it would be a Mandarin chucked across the floor or less dangerously a ball of rubber bands but the real fun were the games we played. Not Scrabble or Chess but money market games. Later in my career on the futures floor we would play pound note poker which was a bastardisation of Liars poker that Michael Lewis wrote more eloquently about than I ever could and indeed at $1m a Dollar Bill probably 50 times larger than we ever did and let’s be honest John Gutfreund and John Merriweather were in a different league to all of us in terms of wealth. We also would pile up maybe 15 One Pound coins and then bet the roll ( it was the done thing to carry at least £2000 in £50 notes) we had in our pocket whether when knocked over there would be more heads than tails. Simple games but not nearly as much fun as trading Rhino shit.
Bear with me and I will explain. Imagine dozens of brokers in the mid to late twenties all with brains that just can’t sit still sitting in rooms across the City, Europe and New York becalmed and bored. All of us taking pride in making two way prices ( a two way price is one which a bank can buy or sell from without issue)and all looking for something to do to prove we are sharper than the guy sitting opposite. Some days we would play spoof, a word one hardly dare mention these days and on other days par to hundred which I guess was just a derivation of spoof. The real fun, though, was in Rhino Shit. The cry would go up “ Oi shag, got a price in a bucket of Rhino Shit “ ? Sane people would of course ignore that question but remember these were hardened money market brokers and traders who were oft regarded by the rest of the City as Shag brokers. Hard, quick but often times bonkers. A price, to those of you who have never worked in dealing or broking, means what level are you prepared to buy and sell a bucket of Rhino shit. Sounds simple? It does till you understand that you had to stand by the price and be prepared to deliver the foresaid Rhino poo if you got the price wrong.
Somewhat similar to the children’s game of pass the parcel the skill was to buy the rhino shit from say Danny on the Lira desk at £10 and pass it on to Nick at a bank (who would be blind on the price) at a higher price and pocket the difference. Sounds easy? It does doesn’t it ,really easy, until you find out that London Zoo sells every type of shit apart from Rhino shit as they were conducting experiments on it . So what do you do as you have to so as not to lose face , deliver it or make a cash settlement on the difference between what you sold it at and the price that the buyer deems to be fair. Not Elephant Poo , not Bear poo but Rhino poo.
The items traded weren’t always that tricky to deliver. There was a dealer who used to attend auctions, at a guess for items left on trains, and I remember buying 100 police whistles which luckily Gary Bone and I turned that weekend at a Kokomo concert at The Winning Post in Twickenham. Well apart from a couple which I would drive clients mad with by blowing them down squawk boxes when I was bored and wanted an order. Mind you that was better than Humming The Dam Busters tune down the box to our Hamburg office in 1996 after they had been flooded, but that’s a whole new chapter . All these games were fun, taught you how to deal and at times stretched your imagination.
As a mentioned earlier the markets in those days were made up of numerate , quick witted characters who loved a challenge and the only degrees we cared about were the those that related to the proof of the alcohol that we consumed. This is where Blue Smarties come in and they reflect how our minds were, and hopefully still are working. The call was for a price in 200 Blue Smarties. Immediately a messenger (this is pre internet when deals were delivered by hand by messengers who believe it or not were often retired footballers!) was dispatched to buy twenty packets of Smarties. The tubes were emptied , and of course the plastic tops were fired around, and a count was taken of the average number of blue Smarties per tube and a price calculated. So let’s say there were 10 per tube then the cost would be 20 tubes of Smarties. Easy price to work out. You would buy at 19 times the cost of a tube and sell at 21 times the price of a tube. The price got hit and hit till it was trading at one times tube .Each time the seller received the money and had to make delivery. It was only the next day when the Blue Smarties arrived we realised that we had been had ….one packet of Smarties and a can of blue spray paint had been a good investment for one canny broker. The moral of the story? Always check the details before taking delivery.
Those of you who have read all of this, and I hope that you enjoyed it and will share it, maybe wondering why I’ve chosen the lyric I have . Apart from it being one of the great opening lies to a song it just begs the question to be asked “ Price in a 100 Cobra Snake neckties , please shag “.
Richard Matthews, who began his career in 1973, is a former trader-broker in the London money, futures and foreign exchange markets. Twitter @dickiematthews5