Chaos and stress all around him, N.Y. trader digs in

SOLDIER IN THE CURRENCY WARS

September 19, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Last Sunday afternoon, as Edward Neminski's short weekend was coming to a close, he clicked on his palm-sized cordless currency-listing machine and received a shock: After weeks of being battered, the dollar was climbing rapidly on the Australian currency markets.

The 29-year-old currency trader made a phone call to Australia, where it was already Monday morning, and learned that something big was afoot. The German central bank was planning to cut interest rates for the first time in five years, making the mark less attractive and boosting the value of the dollar. The markets were going haywire.

"All of a sudden you had a herd trying to get through the keyhole of the gate," said Mr. Neminski, an assistant vice president in Nomura Securities International Inc.'s New York office. "The phones were going crazy. At least AT&T was happy."

All the traders who were loaded up with marks, Mr. Neminski said, were frantically trying to sell. Whether it was early Monday morning in Asia, Sunday afternoon in New York or late Sunday night in London, currency traders were called into action to start a week of buying and selling that would lead to a virtual collapse in the European Monetary System.

The week put traders like Mr. Neminski in the world's spotlight. As central banks in Europe began to adjust their interest rates or devalue their currencies, Mr. Neminski and others in the world's trading pits smelled blood and began to unload these currencies, forcing their values down even further.

The situation was especially dramatic in Britain, where traders were unimpressed by the government's efforts to prop up the pound. They continued to dump the sterling in favor of the stronger and more attractive mark. British officials were forced to confront an ugly choice: jack up interest rates even higher to make the pound more attractive, or capitulate and let the pound float outside the monetary system.

They tried the former but eventually backed down and chose the latter, thus abandoning one of the pillars of European integration. Officials also heaped blame on the speculators who forced their hands, a charge that Mr. Neminski cannot accept.

"We have a job like anyone else," said the New Jersey native, seated before more than a half-dozen computer terminals that provide a constant stream of currency fluctuations and technical information. "It's nothing glamorous, although some people do get caught up in it."

Becoming "caught up" usually means working incredibly long hours, incessantly phoning around the world and endlessly pulling out the tiny currency-listing machine, which looks like a beeper but displays the current vital statistics of the world's currency markets.

With two phones on his desk and two speakers connected to the trading floor barking out a continual litany of prices for the yen and mark, Mr. Neminski shared a bit of his day with a visitor yesterday to help shed light on at least one of the forces shaping the global economy.

Smartly dressed in a gray suit and tailored shirt, Mr. Neminski seemed the opposite of that image of screaming and waving that is associated with the trading floor. Modest and congenial, he softly shied away from discussing his salary or the money he makes for his firm.

But the strenuous nature of his job was made somewhat apparent when asked whether his wife, who is expecting their first child, likes his occupation. "She's gotten used to it," he said.

Part of the job stress stems from the currency market's global nature. Some market somewhere is always open. And, though traders in one market turn over their important orders to a trusted friend in another market before they go home at night, there is never any substitute for following events firsthand. Traders who hadn't bothered to call in last Sunday afternoon, for example, and had heavy investments in the mark, could easily have been burned for several million dollars.

Currency markets are volatile because they are the least regulated of the major markets and require relatively little capital to get going. Traders can control multibillion-dollar positions with only a few phone calls and a few hundred million in capital. Debt-to-cash levels of up to 6-to-1 are common in currency markets.

This allows more players to influence a country's currency and was one reason why Europe had instituted its monetary system. But the volatility also gives companies -- and traders -- great opportunities to earn money. Four of the six highest-paid people on Wall Street last year were traders, some of them bringing in hundreds of millions in profits by betting correctly on how a currency moved.

Mr. Neminski is hardly the Hollywood high-roller. Nomura is a relatively small player in currency trading, usually buying and selling a small fraction of the market volume of $650 billion.

But like other traders, Mr. Neminski puts in 10- to 12-hour days and is on call all the time. It is one reason why most of his colleagues are under 30. After a few years, burnout takes its toll, and traders move on to less stressful jobs.

This weekend, however, will force him to consult his tiny machine quite often. The leading industrial nations will meet in Washington, and the French are due to vote on the future of European unity.

By 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, when the French results will be in, Mr. Neminski figures to be planning his phone calls to Australia.

"The question now is how the market reacts to the vote," he said. "One thing's for sure: It's going to be a busy time for us."

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