- In 1998, I worked on the biggest bond-trading floor on Wall Street.
- I recount my most chaotic day, and how Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan responded.
- Now, the current Fed chairman is acting exactly like Greenspan did in 1998.
On Thursday, I tuned into Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony to the House Committee on Financial Services.
He said that “uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook.”
Powell’s comments gave me a bout of déjà vu.
In 1998, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s rate cuts in response to overseas events in the late ’90s ignited stock market fireworks, which culminated in the spectacular dot-com bubble and bust.
After I heard Powell’s testimony, I checked my iPhone to make sure it wasn’t a Motorola StarTAC flip phone and that the year wasn’t 1998.
Summer on Wall Street
In August 1998, I was just starting my second year as a clerk on the mortgage bond trading desk at Salomon Brothers, the biggest bond-trading floor on Wall Street.
Saving Private Ryan and Godzilla were the top hits at the box office, and Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” was the song of the summer.
As a desk clerk, my daily responsibilities included verifying trades with bond brokers, managing our desk’s Treasury hedges and updating the daily profit or loss.
While these might sound like simple tasks, time was always of the essence.
Bond traders are notoriously devoid of patience, and a small mistake such as a keystroke error or missed trade could cost the desk millions of dollars.
It was the most stressful situation imaginable without anyone’s life being at risk.
Money Never Sleeps
Late one night, my boss called me on my Motorola StarTAC flip phone. I needed to be in by 5 a.m. the next morning, and he was sending a car to pick me up at 4 a.m.
My neighbor, who was up early walking his dog, gave me a quizzical look as I sleepily slipped into the plush leather seats of the Lincoln Town Car.
When I arrived on the trading floor in the predawn hours, the scene was already chaotic.
A year earlier, the Asian financial crisis ripped through the currency markets in Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, sending their currencies down over 90%.
This financial contagion was now spreading to larger countries in Europe and Asia. Russia was on the verge of default, and its government was calling for President Boris Yeltsin’s resignation.
Half of the Salomon bond traders had stayed and traded through the night. At 5 a.m., they were still hoarsely barking phone orders at brokers.
Money never sleeps, especially during financial panics.
Things were only going to get worse that day.
A Market Turning Point
The financial markets sank around the world — including the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which dropped 512 points, or 6.4%. As investors sold stocks, they moved into safe assets such as U.S. government bonds.
All hell broke loose on our trading floor.
Global investors flooded into the U.S. bond market, causing the U.S. 30-year Treasury to skyrocket a full five points that day. This was unheard of for a market that typically moves in 1/32 increments.
I don’t think I had lunch that day, as the trade tickets piled up on my desk. There was a level of sustained chaos that I recognized later in my career as the visceral experience of a market turning point.
The day ended with a roomful of traders and salespeople totally exasperated, wondering how (or if) this panic would continue.
The Fed was quick to move. In response to overseas turmoil, Alan Greenspan enacted what would later be known as the “Greenspan put.” He cut rates by 50 points within three weeks.
At the time, the Fed’s lowering of rates was controversial, as the U.S. economy was strong. The unemployment rate was already at a low 4.5%, and gross domestic product was expected to grow by over 4%.
Those are not your typical macro backdrops for rate cuts.
The Fed Is Cutting Rates Again
The market loved the Fed’s new dovish posture. The Dow rallied back from its losses and closed the year up 16%.
The Nasdaq Composite Index, led by growth tech stocks that respond positively to low rates, fared even better. It rallied 39.63% in 1998, closing over 2,000 for the first time ever. It then continued to add an incredible 85.59% return the following year.
In these pages, I’ve noted for the past six months that the Fed has done a 180-degree pirouette from raising to cutting rates. On Thursday, current Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony fully confirmed this notion.
Even though unemployment is at a historically low 3.7%…
Even though monthly payrolls are averaging gains over 200,000…
Even though the economy is likely to grow 3% this year…
The Fed is cutting rates.
And that sets us up for a repeat of 1998 to 1999, when investors went from the fear of losing money to the fear of missing out on the rally. Back then, growth stocks (namely everything tech) grossly outperformed everything else.
This time is no different.
The Rally Has Just Begun
Twenty years later, I’m dusting off my “Nasdaq 5,000” hat. We are about to see an encore performance of 1998 to 1999, as investors and the Fed are “gettin’ jiggy wit it.”
I might even go see the Godzilla remake to remind myself that prehistoric sea monsters can still be awakened to cause mass destruction of everything man creates.
Editor, Automatic Fortunes