Ringing the Market Bell on a Bad Day

Are smiles and applause appropriate when millions of dollars are lost?

ByABC News
November 21, 2008, 3:52 PM

Nov. 24, 2008— -- While investors have anguished over their stock market losses, a group of smiling faces have appeared almost every day at the New York Stock Exchange to mark the start and close of trading.

Each morning and afternoon a new group of company executives, nonprofit organizations, sports stars or supermodels gets the chance to ring the bell that starts and ends trading on the floor.

For the participants, it's an honor and a rare chance to witness a world foreign to most. But in today's turbulent markets -- the most severe decline since the Great Depression -- the honored guests' role can become a bit precarious.

Take Thursday afternoon. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 444.99 points, or 5.6 percent. By all accounts, it was a dismal day for investors.

But at precisely 4 p.m., Rennie Roberts and a dozen other leaders of the YWCA of New York City, were smiling and fiercely applauding as they rang the closing bell.

"We all hoped it would be a nicer day for America, but there's nothing we really could do about it. We were delighted to have the opportunity to be there and celebrate the YW," said Roberts, CEO of the nonprofit women's organization.

Roberts acknowledges it was a bit awkward to celebrate her group's 150th anniversary at the same time that the market tanked, but said it was a great honor to be there and that "we were clapping for the YW."

"The stock exchange is as old as the YW and it was nice to have this two historic organizations coming together," she said. "It was sort of like flying the Concorde. It's not something you get to do often in your lifetime. It had a lot of meaning to all of us."

The actual bell dates back to the mid-1880s, but for decades was simply rung by employees of the stock exchange, according to Rich Adamonis, senior vice president of communications for the exchange.

But then, in the mid-1990s, the ringing of the bell became more prominent. At first, companies listed on the exchange would ring it to celebrate an anniversary or to welcome in a new CEO. Companies would also ring the bell on days when they first listed their stock as a publicly traded company.