Tell someone you spent a long weekend in Chicago, and everybody assumes your favorite part was the museum, or the nightlife, or the blues. Not me. I loved the Board of Trade.
I confess: I’ve never really understood commodities trading. There was a Scott Turow book with a commodities subplot that I was able to follow if I read very slowly and moved my lips, but as soon as I closed it for the last time, it all flew smack out of my head. I know commodities are, basically, “things that spoil if you’re not careful” and hence have very shifty prices. One rainstorm can send the price of corn all over the map. This is what I know, and that’s about all I know.
But I also know the price of corn is set at the Chicago Board of Trade, and it involves men screaming into one another’s faces, and if you haven’t seen it yourself, I recommend it. It’s so totally cool.
They brought us in and showed us an instructional video, and even now, I still don’t entirely get it. We were introduced to “hedgers” and “speculators” and the concept of price discovery and open outcry and… I forget. Anyway, I can sort of sketch the broadest outlines of the market system, but the instructional video is the stuff you have to sit through. At 9:25 or so, they bring you into the visitor’s gallery, which overlooks the floor. Trading starts at 9:30. The floor is pretty crowded at five minutes to, and the pits fill steadily, everybody relaxed and cool and chatting with each other, and then you notice it’s 5-4-3-2-1 time and BRANG it’s 9:30:00 and BOOM everybody starts shouting at everybody else, waving their hands and throwing these white-guy gang signs (closed fist, open palms, different finger combinations) and somehow, everyone understands exactly what’s going on.
Bushels of grain and truckloads of pork bellies are promised for three months, six months, however many months down the road. Runners scurry to and fro. More shouting.
I looked at the clock. Forty-five seconds had passed.
I was entranced, but as I still had a pretty raw throat from my cold, just watching gave me a certain sympathetic pain.
Several of the overseas fellows were appalled. “It’s cruel,” they said. “Why can’t it be replaced by an electronic system?” I suspect maybe some day it will. But it won’t be worth watching then. I’m glad I got a chance.
There’s a statue atop the Board of Trade building. It’s Ceres. Goddess of grain. And, maybe, shouting.