The School of Hard Knocks

Instead of treated, we get tricked.... Instead of kisses, we get kicked…”

— Annie 

“I got my start in the school of hard knocks…” Shah Gilani says wistfully on this week’s Wiggin Session.

We were discussing his experience at the open-cry amphitheater—“the pits,” colloquially—on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange in Chicago.

Fresh out of UCLA, Shah had the good fortune of having dinner with a “muckety-muck” of Wall Street. He’d flown to Manhattan the night before to start at a firm the following Monday. By the end of the night, one of the “better-known fellows” offered him a job at an upstart hedge fund in Chicago.

Shah: “Why would I want to go to Chicago when I have an opportunity here in New York – the epicenter of finance?”

The boss replied: “Because Chicago is where the gunslingers are.”

He leaned in and continued: “That’s where all of the great markets are happening—in Chicago, now. It’s really just getting going. We’ve established a hedge fund there, we’ve got quite a bit of capital there, and I’m offering you a position. I don’t know if you’ll like it. You don’t know if you’ll like it. I’m only going to pay you $175 a week. You can’t live on that, but that’s not my problem. That’s the offer.”

He started at the fund as a clerk. This was the early 80s.

“I think I went to my first Grateful Dead concert in 1982,” I muttered.

“I’d been to many Grateful Dead concerts by then,” Shah laughed in response.

“I think you were in a different mind space at the time.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Mr. Gilani said.

With the rise of the so-called “Chicago School” out of the University of Chicago and the popularization of its free-market “trickle-down” principles by President Reagan and the Iron Lady Thatcher, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), often called “the Merc,” became an international hub for futures contracts trading.

In 1972, the CME introduced the first financial futures market, offering contracts on seven foreign currencies. Shah found himself shouting over heads, slinging commodities, foreign exchange, interest rates, and stock indexes.

By 2017, agricultural contracts were offered on products like wheat, corn, soybeans, and lean hogs. In metals, the CME trades precious metals, base metals, and ferrous metals.

“That’s where I got my start, the school of hard knocks… It was a tough trading market, and it was probably a great benefit to me starting out in a very tough trading environment, learning how to navigate the market, and trade—profitably, I might add— in a very difficult market.”

It was interesting to hear first-hand about the tumultuous exchange from someone who was there when I was still ogling from afar my first soon-to-be not-girlfriend.

Alas, the past is the past. Things have changed since Shah worked the exchange. Namely, hundreds of firms have fled the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for more golden shores in Miami.

Most notably, Ken Griffin of Citadel Securities moved his firm to Miami, buying 5 mansions on Fisher Island just south of South Beach. His bulk purchase drove real estate prices to the nosebleeds. Fisher Island is now the most expensive neighborhood in the United States. Only then did Griffin follow up with a 25-acre beachfront estate for himself in Palm Beach—on which he reportedly spent $450 million.

It’s a shame really. Chicago has become a media whipping boy for decaying urban infrastructure and gun violence rather than a bastion of “gunslingers” on the trading floor.

Gone are the days… the money is moving elsewhere.

Shah and I jammed about this new, revitalized organization of finance and what it could mean to you in this week’s Session. You can listen in or find the transcript here.

Follow your own bliss,

Addison Wiggin

The Wiggin Sessions

P.S. The Merc is still the only market for trading derivatives on the weather. The first weather-based financial instruments were launched 1999. You can trade futures on rainfall, snowfall, hurricanes, and temperature. You can even trade what havoc you expect Tropical Storm Hilary to wreak on Palm Springs this week.

This article was originally published on The Wiggin Sessions.

About the Author

Addison Wiggin is an American writer, publisher, and filmmaker. He has been covering the financial markets, the economy and politics for three decades. An acclaimed New York Times best-selling author, his books include: The Demise of the Dollar, just released in its 3rd Edition covering the dollar from the "bailouts to the pandemic and beyond. Mr. Wiggin is also the co-author, with Bill Bonner, of the best-sellers Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt. He wrote The Little Book of the Shrinking Dollar in the Wiley Little Book series. Addison is also the writer and executive producer of the documentary I.O.U.S.A., an exposé on the national debt, shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2008. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his family. Addison started his latest project, The Wiggin Sessions, powered by The Essential Investor, in March 2020. He films from a homegrown studio in his basement.

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