When Charles Berry started his career as a bonds trader in 1993, he used to draw "point and figure" charts on pieces of paper. He checked his old charts recently to remind himself how calm markets were in those days. Back then, it took three months for a price to move 200 ticks -- the measure traders use to show changes in futures or currency markets. Now the market moves 400 ticks in a week.
"Things are getting fast now," said Berry, 45, a trader at Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg. "It's not easy for me. I have to take more risk to satisfy the sales (department), but I always tell them, 'When I make you happy, my problems begin.'"
It's not just speed. As markets around the world plunged this week, longtime traders said the break-neck pace of information, relentless series of crises and regular political interventions over the past few years have made markets more volatile and more difficult to predict.
It has also created a permanent sense of instability. With every day bringing a new emergency -- the past few weeks alone have seen European bank stress tests, a second debt deal to save Greece, Washington's debt ceiling showdown, and Japanese central bank intervention in the forex markets -- even big events no longer seem so dramatic.
In some trading rooms in the run up to the August 2 deadline for Washington to raise America's debt ceiling -- remember that? -- there was "almost a shrug of the shoulders," said a London-based forex trader at an American bank.
"We are not making light of it," the forex trader remarked, speaking as Washington debated. "The impact this could have on financial markets in general is huge. When the U.S. sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold and all that. But there is not the same buzz of anticipation in the FX market the way there was during the currency specific sterling crisis (in 1992). The atmosphere in the dealing room is different."
PUNCH DRUNK FROM BAD NEWS
The trader, who worked in a clearing bank in London in 1992 when Britain's currency crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, said that one reason for the changed atmospherics is simple: since the late-1990s, foreign exchange trading floors have swapped the clamor of open outcry dealing rooms for screen-based trading platforms and sedate offices.
"We often joke that there is more noise in a library," he said. "It is much more sedate."
With the traders in those offices jaded by four years of financial and economic crisis, it's little wonder if moments such as the U.S. debt ceiling deadlock can feel far less dramatic than they might have 20 years ago.
"It is not that people do not care but because the floors are quiet there is less adrenaline flowing. And people do think 'What, another crisis?' Two weeks ago we had the bank stress tests, before that was the Greek vote. They are important events but because there are so many of them they are losing their strength of impact. If you sit back, it's obviously very important -- that the U.S. would default is unthinkable.
"But even when this is out of the way the whole thing with Greece, Ireland and Portugal will raise its ugly head again. There's a sense we have been through a lot of this before, especially in recent times. The market is a bit punch drunk from all the bad news."
And it's getting harder to escape that news.
"In the past, I could shut the door of my office and leave all work behind and enjoy the weekend," said bonds trader Berry. But "especially (in) the last, three, four, five, six weeks you close the door, you go home, turn on your personal computer, switch on the TV and whatever ... (financial) service you have and look at how the US market is moving, how Eurex is doing and you just can't calm down anymore. Nowadays you can't leave work at the office."
Berry said that if he could "I would take the screen and throw it out the window. You just keep asking 'Oh, no! What's going on? What's going on?' You don't know what to do. It feels like gambling, it is just black or red, like in the casino. Sometimes you're pissed off at your own decisions, sometimes you're pissed off at the market movement.
"Sometimes hope can be very expensive. You're still hoping that the market will change and you ignore all the signs. It can disturb your clear view."
There have been other changes in the past two decades. The London-based forex trader who now works at an American bank said the partying of the 1980s and '90s has eased.
"Back then if you looked at the traders in all the dealing rooms, I reckon the average spot forex trader was aged between 25 and 30. They were very much the yuppie generation. They were single or just married. Their lifestyles would have been very, very flash."
The excesses of those times, he said, "have wound right down, especially post-credit crunch when people are very wary of being seen behaving like that.
"People from then are still around now but aged between 45 and 50, they have got nearly grown-up families, they might go out to dinner once a week. There are a lot of the same people around but they are not leading such racy lifestyles."
DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE FUTURE
Traders love a trend. But many say they are finding it increasingly difficult to predict which way markets will go.
With the dollar, euro, pound and yen all dragged down by debt problems, traders joke about the "battle of the ugly currencies."
In particular, those who trade the euro against the US dollar now have to weigh up a debt crisis in Europe and a debt crisis in the United States, with the additional complication that central banks in Asia and the Middle East are constantly looking to diversify their massive dollar holdings, mainly into euros.
One forex trader told Reuters that his bank has a bearish stance on the euro and believes the U.S. debt ceiling talks were "a bit of a sideshow from what's going on in the euro zone."
But anyone who has tried to short the euro, has "got stung many times" by central banks buying the euro. The only way to deal with this problem, he said, is to stop trading the euro-dollar. "You trade other crosses."
Bonds trader Berry said that when markets go wild, colleagues start tapping their desks nervously with their fingers and sometimes hit them with their fists and keep saying "no, no, no."
But those gestures rarely help them release stress or calm down. And nobody can go for a walk because they can't afford to leave the desk anymore. Berry drinks more coke and goes to the gym. "Otherwise I would go crazy."
When he leaves work, friends ask him whether they should start buying gold or silver. "Everybody in Germany is aware of the crisis and talks a lot about it," he said. "I just say, 'Spend your money and don't worry about the future'. I'm not happy to give advice to friends."