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How the Stock Market Swallowed New York

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But then, reading comprehension isn't really the point of the Morgan Stanley zipper, and the new Times Square isn't really about tourists. It's about giving business the feeling of entertainment, and creating a central, tangible locus for the new, borderless capitalism. Sure, there are old-fashioned plays and musicals down there on Broadway, but the real drama is in those numbers overhead, and multinational titans of the info-industrial age, companies like Disney, Viacom, and Warner Bros., dominate the landscape. In a world where there's little inherent value anymore in a thing itself, and the cultural sensibility reduces questions to who's a winner and who's a loser -- what did the movie gross? Did the president's speech play, or didn't it? -- then the stock market becomes prime theater.

"The new Times Square," says New School semiotician Marshall Blonsky, "is an agora of global business. If you're going to have a new-money economy, you have to have a center; there has to be a place to go and dream about it, and an image that these companies can film and broadcast. It's about the imaginary -- people worldwide have to be able to form an image out of this new globo-business."

Certainly the getting and spending of money, the doing of deals, has been a central element of New York life from the moment Peter Minuit bought out the Manhattan Indians. And Wall Street has been a defining presence in the city's mythology for nearly as long. But the stock market was only one, albeit powerful, guest at the cocktail party; now it is the loudest voice. Carl McCall, the state comptroller, recently detailed the city's extraordinary economic dependency on Wall Street. But McCall didn't try to quantify New York's growing spiritual dependency on the market. What does it mean to a city's soul when the rise and fall of the Dow occupies so much space in the civic heart?

It's the Friday before the long Labor Day weekend. The Dow rocketed down 512 points on Monday and wobbled for the next four days. Dr. Kin Tsoi is on his way to visit a friend whose office is next to Grand Central, but first he pops into a Charles Schwab branch across East 42nd Street to check stock quotes. "A lot of money will be made on Tuesday, when the real traders are back from vacation," Tsoi says coolly. "I've already plotted out what I'm going to do."

One of the things that marks this moment in New York life is the lack of investor panic, despite the six-week Dow roller coaster. Personal-finance best-sellers have pounded an investing orthodoxy into New Yorkers' brains, and whenever the market lurches, people mouth its slogans with cultish repetition: We're in it for the long term. Dips are great buying opportunities. The fundamentals haven't changed.

Tsoi is typical: He's sure his theory of the market is right, and that he's got the stomach to ride out any turbulence. Tsoi, the son of acupuncturists, grew up in a mainland China where private profit was far from encouraged. Today he manages hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments for his parents' retirement portfolio, and swears by a ten-day average he's developed, mixed with judicious purchases of index options. For the past seven years, Tsoi, 32, a research fellow in oncology at NYU, has spent at least twenty minutes a day studying the market, downloading software to help with his calculations, charting the trends. "If the ten-day average of prices is down, I'm out of the market," Tsoi says. "All the psychology, all the pricing is built into the graph rating. Nothing else matters. You don't make a lot of money, but you make good money. I don't believe 'experts.' They're a bunch of liars. You have to do the homework by yourself and make your own decisions."

The city's younger investors, who are at the core of the new market mentality, are fascinatingly, breathtakingly confident -- not that the boom will last forever, but that they'll have the knowledge and endurance to stay with it, and profit, when it falls.

One reason the city's mood feels so intertwined with Wall Street's is that this generation of twentysomethings has an unprecedented mix of computer fluency and market sophistication. Todd Rosenberg, 29, doesn't work on Wall Street, but he has nevertheless made the market his own. "In the tech stocks, like CNET and EarthLink," Rosenberg says, "people like me, who are using the programs every day, have more insight into what's working than Wall Street does -- we're using the programs before Wall Street knows about these companies. Instead of reading reports about income growth from quarter to quarter, we're judging them by the quality of the program. It creates a level of excitement. It's the same as Warren Buffett's philosophy: He only buys things he knows, uses, and likes."

In fact, the stock market, formerly the epitome of Establishment power, now can serve as a badge of youthful rebellion. Rosenberg, an account executive at barnesandnoble.com, tried consulting the traditional authority figures. "I asked my uncle Stanley, who's a broker, about Amazon and Yahoo," he says. "He didn't know them, and all he could find out was that they had a lot of debt. Well, I was at Yahoo every day, everyone I know is using Yahoo every day, so I bought it when it was at 38 a year ago." Yahoo stock now hovers around $115 per share.

Mention the word recession to Rosenberg and he gives it a brief, reflexive nod. "Yeah, eventually the stock market is going to come down," he says, "but that'll just be a good time to buy. It's just the pattern -- the market drops, but then there are huge gains. It'll always come back. It's kinda cool."

It isn't exactly money-changers in the temple, but it is a bit disorienting to sit in St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue and listen to people worship Peter Lynch, George Soros, and Warren Buffett.

This is the monthly meeting of the MVP Club, one of the hundreds of investors' clubs that have sprung up around the city in the past decade. The fourteen members of MVP range from an architect in his mid-forties to a retired chemical engineer in his mid-seventies, but they've all become ravenous students of the stock market. Their portfolio, spread among riskier high-tech stocks like Dallas Semiconductor and steady performers like Home Depot, has grown by 12 percent this year, while the S&P 500 has gone nearly flat. In the past five years, MVP's stocks have tripled in value.

The club follows the principles of the National Association of Investors Corporation, a nationwide network of small investors. "You could say we've been brainwashed," says Anita Hunter, a public-relations executive who gives her age as "mature." "You can't pick up anything these days without reading 'Sit tight; that's how you make money.' It's the people who are in the market without a philosophy who are nervous and talking all the time."


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