Blast from the Dot-Com Past – May 3, 2005

They are having an IPO at the dot-com where I am freelancing. The investment banker wheels in a computer cart and positions it beside the conference room, across from the elevator where it opens onto the lobby. I can see it from the desk where I am working, editing a wedding registry that describes household items. Crystal champagne flutes. Fine china with a herringbone pattern.

I will never buy these things, will never be fascinated by weddings. I am fascinated by the stock market, though, this out-of-control system that strikes like a tornado of wealth creation, seemingly at random, leaving one household untouched while the one next door gets a big hit. When the banker walks away, I wander over to look at the screen. It is a real-time Nasdaq display, showing pre-trading buying and selling. The market is not open yet, and the office is quiet.

Activity starts soon. Employees gather around the screen. Each of them has been given 1,000 shares and carte blanche to buy or sell. At 9:30, the markets open, but the stock has not started changing hands. Tension builds. Is something wrong? Or is something really right, are orders for the stock pouring in, will there be a big pop?

About half an hour later, the yelling starts. I stop working and creep toward the door of the conference room, watching the commotion.

No one is working. They are glued to the monitor, six deep, peering over each other’s shoulders and watching the numbers climb. $10 per share; $12; now $16 and how did that happen?–all the way up to $20.

“No whammies! No whammies!” cries an enthusiastic programmer, before rushing to his desk to sell his shares and make a quick $10,000. In an effort to encourage the freelancers to work, the managing editor closes the door of our room, muting the sound and shutting us out of the excitement.

Lots of people make money that day. There is a catered lunch, with champagne and cheeses and sandwiches and chips. By the time I go home, the stock has settled back down to $12. A mood of optimism still pervades the office. I wonder how many millions the founders have made. I wonder what it would be like to have participated, instead of looking in from the outside. I imagine a new car, a trip to Europe, a diversified investment in other stocks that could turn my small windfall into a large one. I walk into the elevator and out into the cold November night.

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