NEW YORK -- For almost 130 years, a seat on the New York Stock Exchange has been one of the great status symbols in American capitalism. It ushered the owner into an elite club of Wall Street moguls, from J.P. Morgan Jr. to Charles M. Schwab, who had the exclusive right to buy and sell the nation's blue-chip stocks.
Like everything else in the stock market, the 1,366 seats can be bought and sold, and their price was a reliable barometer of the nation's wealth long before the Dow Jones industrial average was created in 1896. In every bull market, the price of a seat soared -- until now.
Since August, when dot-com financier Thomas Weisel paid a record $2.65 million, the price of a seat has fallen 36 percent, while the market, though volatile, has maintained its historically high level. The drop reflects a new reality shaped by the democratizing influence of technology: You can have a seat at the table in the stock market without actually owning one.
''Now the club is electronic and anybody can connect and the membership is free,'' said Bruce Weber, an associate professor of information systems at the City University of New York's Baruch College.
Well, not quite anybody. To buy or sell a stock listed on the NYSE, the order ultimately has to go through someone who owns a seat, a firm associated with that person or someone who leases a seat after going through a stringent process. That's true even for stocks traded through a site on the Internet.
Down in the pit, buyers and sellers still stride around, asking for stock-price data and jotting numbers on paper. Their employees, marked by matching jackets, are also allowed on the floor. But information once privy to members is piped instantly around the globe. The Nasdaq Stock Market has spawned its own list of popular stocks. Electronic trading networks are chipping away at the business, and many have lined up to be granted full-fledged stock-market status on their own.
Soon the electronic networks will even be able to trade NYSE stocks. The Big Board, at the urging of federal regulators, is expected soon to put in place new rules that allow trading off the floor, essentially allowing seat owners to be bypassed. Not surprisingly, owning a seat is looking less like a sure thing and more like one of the Big Board's worst-performing assets.
The $2.65 million shelled out last August was an all-time high, but it was based on the bet that the stock exchange was going to go public, selling stock in itself, and that owners of the seats would reap a windfall, perhaps as much as $4 million each. The plan -- which would have allowed seat owners to retain trading rights, but with far less influence on the stock exchange's policies -- sounded so sweet to outsiders that seat prices were bid up in the same sort of frenzy that has pushed up Internet stocks.
''Everybody wanted to get a part of the deal,'' said Robert Murphy, chief executive of the venerable NYSE member Robb Peck McCooey Clearing Corp.
Since then, the plan to restructure the exchange's ownership has been shelved and the electronic competition has only intensified. The last time a seat sold, on April 3, it went for $1.7 million -- not much in a city where stock-market riches have pushed up the price of everything from taxi medallions to opera seats.
''That's barely enough for a small two-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue,'' said Barbara Corcoran, a major real estate broker who has watched real estate prices surge 25 percent since last summer.
For the first 80 years after the New York Stock Exchange was founded, brokers actually sat in their chairs waiting for their stocks to be called. Swamped with business in 1871, the exchange replaced the chairs with booths from which stocks were allowed to trade continuously. Just before the crash of 1929, the price of a seat soared to $625,000. Ten years later, when the Dow Jones industrial average slumped to a post-Depression low of 92.92, a seat was sold for $17,000. Not everyone lost his shirt. Financier Bernard Baruch, who famously unloaded his stocks before the crash after he got a queasy feeling hearing a shoeshine boy discuss the markets, also sold his seat.
For wealthy families of New York, the seats were a legacy to pass on from father to son, a guaranteed annual income for problematic offspring because even if they didn't trade stocks, they could lease their seats to someone who did. ''Oftentimes, a wealthy Wall Street family would buy a seat for a son and launch (him) on a career as a floor broker,'' said Henry Kaufman, a Lehman Brothers director. ''Now, the smart Wall Street savvy families aren't buying seats for their kids because it's not a sure bet for the future.''
These days it's still a good source of income -- leasing a seat can earn the owner $280,000 to $300,000 a year. But a much bigger payoff that would come if NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso revives his plan to take the exchange public has little appeal to longtime owners.
''Going public would diminish dramatically the influence of the broker constituency,'' said Samuel Hayes, a Harvard Business School professor. ''They are loath to give that control up for fear that leadership will take them in direction that will compromise their own revenue stream.''
Joe Mazzella, an exchange member, spoke for many members recently during a lull in trading. ''The seats will be here long after I'm gone,'' he declared emphatically.
But Grasso has persuaded members to allow him to install a new system that routes small shares electronically without the help of a human. And he is said to be talking to several new electronic start-ups about joint ventures.
In a nod to seat owners, meanwhile, Grasso asked for permission from the Securities and Exchange Commission to withdraw from the organization that circulates stock data, a move that would make it much harder for the public to know what was happening on the floor.
Old-timers like to cite the dark days of 1975, when regulators ended fixed commissions for brokers and doubts about the seats' future value drove the average price down to $35,000 from $138,000. The Big Board bounced back from that, and so did the brokers.
Nonetheless, anxiety is discernible about what lies ahead. Brokers themselves are questioning how much of a future their jobs hold in the Internet age. A recent poll by the investment research firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. showed that none would recommend the profession to their children, though they would advise becoming an Internet analyst. And people are wondering less now about the price of a seat than whether they will even exist.
Still, for those who have them, the thrill clearly isn't gone. Paul D. Frankel, a partner in the New York brokerage firm Fagenson, Frankel & Streicher LLC, remembers the rush he got 10 years ago when he bought a seat.
''I joined a piece of history,'' he said, then added hastily, ''I joined a future, too -- not just history.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.