Reminiscences of a Stock Operator - Chapter 2
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Between the discovery that the Cosmopolitan Stock Brokerage Company was ready to beat me by foul means if the killing handicap of a three-point margin and a point-and-a-half premium didn't do it, and hints that they didn't want my business anyhow, I soon made up my mind to go to New York, where I could trade in the office of some member of the New York Stock Exchange. I didn't want any Boston branch, where the quotations had to be telegraphed. I wanted to be close to the original source. I came to New York at the age of 21, bringing with me all I had, twenty-five hundred dollars.
I told you I had ten thousand dollars when I was twenty, and my margin on that Sugar deal was over ten thousand. But I didn't always win. My plan of trading was sound enough and won oftener than it lost. If I had stuck to it I'd have been right perhaps as often as seven out of ten times. In fact, I always made money when I was sure I was right before I began. What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game-that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play. There is a time for all things, but I didn't know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily-or sufficient knowledge to make his play an intelligent play.
I proved it Whenever I read the tape by the light of experience I made money, but when I made a plain fool play I had to lose. I was no exception, was I? There was the huge quotation board staring me in the face, and the ticker going on, and people trading and watching their tickets turn" into cash or into waste paper. Of course I let the craving for excitement get the better of my judgment. In a bucket shop where your margin is a shoestring you don't play for long pulls. You are wiped too easily and quickly. The desire for constant action irrespective of underlying conditions is responsible for many losses in Wall Street even among the professionals, who feel that they must take home some money every day, as though they were working for regular wages. I was only a kid, remember. I did not know then what I learned later, what made me fifteen years later, wait two long weeks and see a stock on which I was very bullish go up thirty points before I felt that it was safe to buy it. I was broke and was trying to get back, and I couldn't afford to play recklessly. I had to be right, and so I waited. That was in 1915. It's a long story. I'll tell it later in its proper place. Now let's go on from where after years of practice at beating them I let the bucket shops take away most of my winnings.
And with my eyes wide open, to boot! And it wasn't the only period of my life when I did it, either. A stock operator has to fight a lot of expensive enemies within himself. Anyhow, I came to New York with twenty-five hundred dollars. There were no bucket shops here that a fellow could trust. The Stock Exchange and the police between them had succeeded in closing them up pretty tight. Besides, I wanted to find a place where the only limit to my trading would be the size of my stake. I didn't have much of one, but I didn't expect it to stay little forever. The main thing at the start was to find a place where I wouldn't have to worry about getting a square deal. So I went to a New York Stock Exchange house that had a branch at home where I knew some of the clerks. They have long since gone out of business. I wasn't there long, didn't like one of the partners, and then I went to A. R. Fullerton Co. Somebody must have told them about my early experiences, because it was not long before they all got to calling me the Boy Trader. I've always looked young. It was a handicap in some ways but it compelled me to fight for my own because so many tried to take advantage of my youth. The chaps at the bucket shops seeing what a kid I was, always thought I was a fool for luck and that that was the only reason why I beat them so often.
Well, it wasn't six months before I was broke. I was a pretty active trader and had a sort of reputation as a winner. I guess my commissions amounted to something. I ran up my account quite a little, but, of course, in the end I lost. I played carefully; but I had to lose. I'll tell you the reason: it was my remarkable success in the bucket shops!
I could beat the game my way only in a bucket shop; where I was betting on fluctuations. My tape reading had to do with that exclusively. When I bought the price was there on the quotation board, right in front of me. Even before I bought I knew exactly the price I'd have to pay for my stock. And I always could sell on the instant. I could scalp successfully, because I could move like lightning. I could follow up my luck or cut my loss in a second. Sometimes, for instance, I was certain a stock would move at least a point. Well, I didn't have to hog it, I could put up a point margin and double my money in a jiffy; or I'd take half a point. On one or two hundred shares a day, that wouldn't be bad at the end of the month, what?
The practical trouble with that arrangement, of course, was that even if the bucket shop had the resources to stand a big steady loss, they wouldn't do it. They wouldn't have a customer around the place who had the bad taste to win all the time.
At all events, what was a perfect system for trading in bucket shops didn't work in Fullerton's office. There I was actually buying and selling stocks. The price of Sugar on the tape might be 105 and I could see a three-point drop coming. As a matter of fact, at the very moment the ticker was printing 105 on the tape the real price on the floor of the Exchange might be 104 or 103. By the time my order to sell a thousand shares got to Fullerton's floor man to execute, the price might be still lower. I couldn't tell at what price I had put out my thousand shares until I got a report from the clerk. When I surely would have made three thousand on the same transaction in a bucket shop I might not make a cent in a Stock Exchange house. Of course, I have taken an extreme case, but the fact remains that in A. R. Fullerton's office the tape always talked ancient history to me, as far as my system of trading went, and I didn't realise it.
And then, too, if my order was fairly big my own sale would tend further to depress the price. In the bucket shop I didn't have to figure on the effect of my own trading. I lost in New York because the game was altogether different. It was not that I now was playing it legitimately that made me lose, but that I was playing it ignorantly. I have been told that I am a good reader of the tape. But reading the tape like an expert did not save me. I might have made out a great deal better if I had been on the floor myself, a room trader. In a particular crowd perhaps I might have adapted my system to the conditions immediately before me. But, of course, if I had got to operating on such a scale as I do now, for instance, the system would have equally failed me, on account of the effect of my own trading on prices.
In short, I did not know the game of stock speculation. I knew a part of it, a rather important part, which has been very valuable to me at all times. But if with all I had I still lost, what chance does the green outsider have of winning, or, rather, of cashing in?
It didn't take me long to realise that there was something wrong with my play, but I couldn't spot the exact trouble. There were times when my system worked beautifully, and then, all of a sudden, nothing but one swat after another. I was only twenty-two, remember; not that I was so stuck on myself that I didn't want to know just where I was at fault, but that at that age nobody knows much of anything.
The people in the office were very nice to me. I couldn't plunge as I wanted to because of their margin requirements, but old A. R. Fullerton and the rest of the firm were so kind to me that after six months of active trading I not only lost all I had brought and all that I had made there but I even owed the firm a few hundreds.
There I was, a mere kid, who had never before been away from home, flat broke; but I knew there wasn't anything wrong with me; only with my play. I don't know whether I make myself plain, but I never lose my temper over the stock market. I never argue with the tape. Getting sore at the market doesn't get you anywhere.
I was so anxious to resume trading that I didn't lose a minute, but went to old man Fullerton and said to him, "Say, A. R., lend me five hundred dollars." "What for?" says he. "I've got to have some money." "What for?" he says again. "For margin, of course," I said.
"Five hundred dollars?" he said, and frowned. "You know they'd expect you to keep up a 10 per cent margin, and that means one thousand dollars on one hundred shares. Much better to give you a credit --"
"No," I said, "I don't want a credit here. I already owe the firm something. What I want is for you to lend me five hundred dollars so I can go out and get a roll and come back." "How are you going to do it?" asked old A. R. "I'll go and trade in a bucket shop," I told him. "Trade here," he said.
"No," I said. "I'm not sure yet I can beat the game in this office, but I am sure I can take money out of the bucket shops. I know that game. I have a notion that I know just where I went wrong here."
He let me have it, and I went out of that office where the Boy Terror of the Bucket Shops, as they called him, had lost his pile. I couldn't go back home because the shops there would not take my business. New York was out of the question; there weren't any doing business at that time. They tell me that in the go's Broad Street and New Street were full of them. But there weren't any when I needed them in my business. So after some thinking I decided to go to St. Louis. I had heard of two concerns there that did an enormous business all through the Middle West. Their profits must have been huge. They had branch offices in dozens of towns. In fact I had been told that there were no concerns in the East to compare with them for volume of business. They ran openly and the best people traded there without any qualms. A fellow even told me that the owner of one of the concerns was a vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce but that couldn't have been in St. Louis. At any rate, that is where I went with my five hundred dollars to bring back a stake to use as margin in the office of A. R. Fullerton Co., members of the New York Stock Exchange.
When I got to St. Louis I went to the hotel, washed up and went out to find the bucket shops. One was the J. G. Dolan Company, and the other was H. S. Teller Co. I knew I could beat them. I was going to play dead safe- carefully and conservatively. My one fear was that somebody might recognise me and give me away, because the bucket shops all over the country had heard of the Boy Trader. They are like gambling houses and get all the gossip of the profesh. Dolan was nearer than Teller, and I went there first. I was hoping I might be allowed to do business a few days before they told me to take my trade somewhere else. I walked in. It was a whopping big place and there must have been at least a couple of hundred people there staring at the quotations. I was glad, because in such a crowd I stood a better chance of being unnoticed. I stood and watched the board and looked them over carefully until I picked out the stock for my initial play.
I looked around and saw the order-clerk at the window where you put down your money and get your ticket. He was looking at me so I walked up to him and asked, "Is this where you trade in cotton and wheat?"
He gave me the ticket and I went away and sat down among the customers to wait for the roll to grow. I got quick action and I traded several times that day. On the next day too. In two days I made twenty-eight hundred dollars, and I was hoping they'd let me finish the week out. At the rate I was going, that wouldn't be so bad. Then I'd tackle the other shop, and if I had similar luck there I'd go back to New York with a wad I could do something with.
He got up from his swivel chair. He was a whopping big guy. He said to me, "Just come over here, Livermore, will yeh?" and he walked to the door. He opened it and then he pointed to the customers in the big room. "D'yeh see them?" he asked. "See what?"
"Them guys. Take a look at 'em, kid. There's three hundred of 'em! Three hundred suckers! They feed me and my family. See ? Three hundred suckers! Then yeh come in, and in two days yeh cop more than I get out of the three hundred in two weeks. That ain't business, kid-not for me! I ain't got nothin' agin yeh. Yer welcome to what ye've got. But yeh don't get any more. There ain't any here for yeh!"
"That's all. I seen yeh come in day before yesterday, and I didn't like yer looks. On the level, I didn't. I spotted yeh for a ringer. I called in that jackass there"-he pointed to the guilty clerk-"and asked what you'd done; and when he told me I said to him: 'I don't like that guy's looks. He's a ringer!' And that piece of cheese says: 'Ringer my eye, boss! His name is Horace Kent, and he's a rah-rah boy playing at being used to long pants. He's all right!' Well, I let him have his way. That blankety-blank cost me twenty-eight hundred dollars. I don't grudge it yeh, my boy. But the safe is locked for yeh."
"You look here, Livermore," he said. "I've heard all about yeh. I make my money coppering suckers' bets, and yeh don't belong here. I aim to be a sport and yer welcome to what yeh pried off'n us. But more of that would make me a sucker, now that I know who yeh are. So toddle along, sonny!"
I left Dolan's place with my twenty-eight hundred dollars' profit. Teller's place was in the same block. I had found out that Teller was a very rich man who also ran up a lot of pool rooms. I decided to go to his bucket shop. I wondered whether it would be wise to start moderately and work up to a thousand shares or to begin with a plunge, on the theory that I might not be able to trade more than one day. They get wise mighty quick when they're losing and I did want to buy one thousand B. R. T. I was sure I could take four or five points out of it. But if they got suspicious or if too many customers were long of that stock they might not let me trade at all. I thought perhaps I'd better scatter my trades at first and begin small.
It wasn't as big a place as Dolan's, but the fixtures were nicer and evidently the crowd was of a better class. This suited me down to the ground and I decided to buy my one thousand B. R. T. So I stepped up to the proper window and said to the clerk, "I'd like to buy some B. R. T. What's the limit?"
There was no sense in getting mad or trying to argue, so I went back to the hotel, paid my bill and took the first train back to New York. It was tough. I wanted to take back some real money and that Teller wouldn't let me make even one trade.
I got back to New York, paid Fullerton his five hundred, and started trading again with the St. Louis money. I had good and bad spells, but I was doing better than breaking even. After all, I didn't have much to unlearn; only to grasp the one fact that there was more to the game of stock speculation than I had considered before I went to Fullerton's office to trade. I was like one of those puzzle fans, doing the crossword puzzles in the Sunday supplement. He isn't satisfied until he gets it. Well, I certainly wanted to find the solution to my puzzle. I thought I was done with trading in bucket shops. But I was mistaken.
About a couple of months after I got back to New York an old jigger came into Fullerton's office. He knew A. R. Somebody said they'd once owned a string of race horses together. It was plain he'd seen better days. I was introduced to old McDevitt. He was telling the crowd about a bunch of Western race-track crooks who had just pulled off some skin game out in St. Louis. The head devil, he said, was a pool-room owner by the name of Teller.
"Well," says old Mac, "he tried to connect here in New York and couldn't make it, so he's opened a place in Hoboken. The word's gone out that there is no limit to the play and that the house roll has got the Rock of Gibraltar faded to the shadow of a bantam flea."
He did. It seems Teller was already doing a big business and would take all he could get. This was on a Friday. The market had been going up all that week-this was twenty years ago, remember-and it was a cinch the bank statement on Saturday would show a big decrease in the surplus reserve. That would give the conventional excuse to the big room traders to jump on the market and try to shake out some of the weak commission-house accounts. There would be the usual reactions in the last half hour of the trading, particularly in stocks in which the public had been the most active. Those, of course, also would be the very stocks that Teller's customers would be most heavily long of, and the shop might be glad to see some short selling in them. There is nothing so nice as catching the suckers both ways; and nothing so easy-with one-point margins.
That Saturday morning I chased over to Hoboken to the Teller place. They had fitted up a big customers' room with a dandy quotation board and a full force of clerks and a special policeman in gray. There were about twenty-five customers.
I got talking to the manager. He asked me what he could do for me and I told him nothing; that a fellow could make much more money at the track on account of the odds and the freedom to bet your whole roll and stand to win thousands in minutes instead of piking for chicken feed in stocks and having to wait days, perhaps. He began to tell me how much safer the stock-market game was, and how much some of their customers made-you'd have sworn it was a regular broker who actually bought and sold your stocks on the Exchange-and how if a man only traded heavy he could make enough to satisfy anybody. He must have thought I was headed for some pool room and he wanted a whack at my roll before the ponies nibbled it away, for he said I ought to hurry up as the market closed at twelve o'clock on Saturdays. That would leave me free to devote the entire afternoon to other pursuits. I might have a bigger roll to carry to the track with toe-if I picked the right stocks.
I looked as if I didn't believe him, and he kept on buzzing me. I was watching the clock. At n 115 I said, "All right," and I began to give him selling orders in various stocks. I put up two thousand dollars in cash, and he was very glad to get it. He told me he thought I'd make a lot of money and hoped I'd come in often.
It happened just as I figured. The traders hammered the stocks in which they figured they would uncover the most stops, and, sure enough, prices slid off. I closed out my trades just before the rally of the last five minutes on the usual traders' covering.
"You've got to let me pay off the little fellows," he said. "I'll give you back what you put up, and anything that's left. Wait till I cash the other tickets." So I waited while he paid off the other winners. Oh, I knew my money was safe. Teller wouldn't welsh with the office doing such a good business. And if he did, what else could I do better than to take all he had then and there? I got my own two thousand dollars and about eight hundred dollars besides, which was all he had in the office. I told him I'd be there Monday morning. He swore the money would be waiting for me.
I got to Hoboken a little before twelve on Monday. I saw a fellow talking to the manager that I had seen in the St. Louis office the day Teller told me to go back to Dolan. I knew at once that the manager had telegraphed to the home office and they'd sent up one of their men to investigate the story. Crooks don't trust anybody.
"Well, don't come any more. Keep away!" he snarled at me. The private policeman in gray came over, casual-like. St. Louis shook his fist at the manager and yelled: "You ought to've known better, you poor boob, than to let this guy get into you. He's Livermore. You had your orders."
"Look here, old boy," he said, all fussed up, "do us a favor. Be reasonable! You know we can't stand this every day. The old man's going to hit the ceiling when he hears who it was. Have a heart, Livermore!"
"I don't want any of this high-and-mighty business the next time I come," I said, and left him talking to the manager at the rate of a million a minute. I'd got some money out of them for the way they treated me in St. Louis. There wasn't any sense in my getting hot or trying to close them up. I went back to Fullerton's office and told McDevitt what had happened. Then I told him that if it was agreeable to him I'd like to have him go to Teller's place and begin trading in twenty or thirty share lots, to get them used to him. Then, the moment I saw a good chance to clean up big, I'd telephone him and he could plunge.
I gave McDevitt a thousand dollars and he went to Hoboken and did as I told him. He got to be one of the regulars. Then one day when I thought I saw a break impending I slipped Mac the word and he sold all they'd let him. I cleared twenty-eight hundred dollars that day, after giving Mac his rake-off and paying expenses, and I suspect Mac put down a little bet of his own besides. Less than a month after that, Teller closed his Hoboken branch. The police got busy. And, anyhow, it didn't pay, though I only traded there twice. We ran into a crazy bull market when stocks didn't react enough to wipe out even the one-point margins, and, of course, all the customers were bulls and winning and pyramiding. No end of bucket shops busted all over the country.
Their game has changed. Trading in the old-fashioned bucket shop had some decided advantages over speculating in a reputable broker's office. For one thing, the automatic closing out of your trade when the margin reached the exhaustion point was the best kind of stop-loss order. You couldn't get stung for more than you had put up, and there was no danger of rotten execution of orders, and so on. In New York the shops never were as liberal with their patrons as I've heard they were in the West. Here they used to limit the possible profit on certain stocks of the football order to two points. Sugar and Tennessee Coal and Iron were among these. No matter if they moved ten points in ten minutes you could only make two on one ticket. They figured that otherwise the customer was getting too big odds; he stood to lose one dollar and to make ten. And then there were times when all the shops, including the biggest, refused to take orders on certain stocks. In 1900, on the day before Election Day, when it was a foregone conclusion that McKinley would win, not a shop in the land let its customers buy stocks. The election odds were 3 to i on McKinley. By buying stocks on Monday you stood to make from three to six points or more. A man could bet on Bryan and buy stocks and make sure money. The bucket shops refused orders that day.
If it hadn't been for their refusing to take my business I never would have stopped trading in them. And then I never would have learned that there was much more to the game of stock speculation than to play for fluctuations of a few points.
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