Before computers overtook human interaction as the chief way of exchanging futures, the University of Trading showed the ropes to some 6,000 aspiring brokers at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The six-week course taught by active brokers began with an all-day Saturday seminar, which included an experiential mock-trading session on one of the CME's legendarily rowdy S&P pits—appropriately shaped like MMA rings—where survival depended as much on swagger as on financial know-how.
Wearing purple trading jackets, the students were schooled in "open outcry" in preparation for a trading floor so raucous that verbal communication alone wouldn't do. The peculiar sign language (immortalized in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) allowed brokers to buy or sell specific numbers of contracts. The symbol for six is a finger at the chin; two fingers at the chin is seven. Three fingers above your head means 30; wiggle those fingers, and it's 35. Palms in, you're buying; palms out, you're selling. "You can see twice as fast as you hear," an instructor at the University of Trading tells his students in "Pit Trading 101," a documentary that just became available on demand.
Wholly composed of footage from an unmade WTTW pilot by former Channel 11 producer Jamie Ceaser, the short captures one of the Saturday seminars at the Merc back in September 1996. One of the students that day is Jonathan Hoenig, a wide-eyed twentysomething from Glencoe. The market maven would later go on to become a self-styled Gen X Gordon Gekko, parlaying his "Capitalist Pig" radio show (first on Northwestern University's WNUR and then WLUP) into appearances on NPR's "Marketplace" and other financial radio shows and a 1999 book released by HarperCollins, Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing. Hoenig left the Chicago Board of Trade in 1999, started the Loop-based hedge fund Capitalistpig and upped his public profile as a Fox News contributor.
After getting word that Ceaser's tapes were shelved, Hoenig says he was inspired to secure permission to assemble the material into something he could release. "Pit Trading 101" is less a work of documentary filmmaking than a raw-footage relic from an age gone by, but Hoenig sees value in that. "This is like a time capsule," he says, "a unique view into what was a mainstay of Chicago culture for over 160 years, and over the course of just the past 16 or so, has disappeared forever—just like the Pullman porters or elevator operators." James Allen Smith's 1999 feature doc Floored offers a more substantive exploration of the culture of Chicago's chaotic trading pits—and its disappearance.
In 2005, the University of Trading shut down as e-trading became the primary mode of buying and selling futures contracts. The CME made the big electronic switch in 2008. The rise of the machines has made open outcry a dead language.
"When you're yelling, you don't yell from here," advises an instructor in "Pit Trading 101," pointing to his neck. "You'll rip your throat to pieces. Yell from your crotch." The tip now seems quaint; these days, exchanges are quiet as a mouse click.