Ringing the Market Bell on a Bad Day

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

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.

Soon, nonprofit groups and celebrities were trooping in to the clang the bell. The New York Yankees rang it after winning the World Series, Adamonis said. Heads of state have been given the honor, along with Olympians, supermodels and children from the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Companies have since used the bell as a chance to promote new products, or movie houses to get publicity for their new films. Spider-Man once swung through the exchange for the ceremony.

As the ringing of the bell became an event in the mid-90s, the New York Stock Exchange went so far as to copyright the names The Opening Bell and The Closing Bell.

Spots to ring the bell are booked months in advance, Adamonis said. The NYSE has already booked all slots through mid-January with some companies reserving dates nearly a year out.

Basically, you have no way of knowing if it's going to be an up day or a down day for the markets.

"You can't choose," Adamonis said. "It's the market and I've never run across anybody from the press or the trading community indicate that it's a stigma that anybody do it."

Some companies mollify their clapping a bit when there is a bad day. Other groups who are not as familiar with the market don't always.

Some of the nonprofits, Adamonis said, tend to be generally enthusiastic.

"We don't coach them. Perhaps it's their natural instinct," he said.

Roberts, who actually rang the bell Thursday, said it was "a lovely experience" and was happy with the cheerfulness of her group.

"The YW has, in its 150 years, been through all sorts of ups and downs, in the same way the stock market has. We look at the opportunities going forward and try always to be positive and moving ahead," she said.

One of the YW's board members arranged for the ringing of the bell. For that brief minute, countless pairs of eyes around the world were looking at Roberts and her organization.

"It was very exciting for us. It was a shame it wasn't a better day. We were hoping that we might be able to bring the market up in the end, but our powers didn't go that far," said Roberts.

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