May I apologise for the hiatus in correspondence last week — the result of an injury to the little finger on my left hand, sustained playing footy a few nights earlier.
You may not think dislocating and breaking digitus quintus is the biggest misfortune that can befall a post-modern stockbroker in the Mifidian era but you would be mistaken in downplaying the discomfort and inconvenience.
I was emergency splinted with a metallic contraption at least twice the dimensions of the offending pinky and spent a week feeling like Abu Hamza every time I confronted the keyboard.
My approach to typing is the ‘hunt and peck’ variety, which involves using two index fingers and occasionally using a thumb to depress the space bar. The oversized splint meant every time my left hand came within several feet of my seat, it banged umpteen keys simultaneously and so my habitual, torturous pace of composition was halved to approximately one word (with one accompanying typo) a minute. I was rendered less dexterous than Stephen Hawking, more helpless than blind John Milton bereft of his amanuensis and less productive than Shakespeare without a candle.
The broken finger, dislocated knuckle and ruptured ligaments respectively emblematise my heart, my reality and my dreams but it’s the metaphorical grip about which I’m most concerned. I’ve been clinging on to a job in the City for almost three decades and, now I can’t grab anything properly, I’m wondering if this foretells the final relinquishing of my flimsy tenure in this business.
The ravishing nurse who tended to me at St Barts minor injuries clinic, (I’m better known in the deep trauma unit generally) looked me in the eye and clasped my inflamed little pinkie. I thought for a moment she was going to start “This little piggy goes to market… ” but she just strapped it up securely.
Unable to communicate, then, via the written word and reluctant to pick up the phone because I’m becoming ever so slightly millennial — using it only as a last resort — how was I supposed to interact with the marketplace? This is where Alexa comes in.
I read this week that JP Morgan is set to introduce voice-activated technology into the dealing room as a means of answering the phone, inputting bargains, sending out research, pricing and executing trades and helping customers with their enquiries — which, funnily enough, are all things I can’t be arsed doing, slumped at my desk as I am, alternating between sexual reverie and fantasies of nemetic violence.
Artificial Intelligence has always been with us on the trading floor. I’m talking about affected omniscience, or pretending to know what you’re talking about or the sales-traderly art of cutting and pasting stuff and passing it off as your own.
The prospect of transferring the responsibility for this shameless image cultivation fills me with dread because all it does is free up more time that must now be somehow occupied. There are very few people in the City right now who are short of time if I cast a casual glance around my colleagues, who are either scrolling listlessly through the lurid images on the Daily Mail website or hunched over and thumbing through lurid images on their mobile phones. Time-saving devices merely generate longer intervals in between the few moments of what passes for diversion on the opening and closing of the market.
Alexa could prove to be very useful to some people in eliminating mistakes but it won’t help me. That’s not because The Edict of Pained Trader Infallibility has been invoked or I’m so meticulous in my attention to detail that I never commit errors; it’s because I have so little business, each tiny transaction assumes paramount importance and receives undue consideration.
Gentle reader: I now have fewer clients than Snow White had dwarves and they’re all called Grumpy. If I were to make a cock-up now it would not be owing to frenzied activity but more likely because I became so divorced from the cut and thrust of stocks and shares that I missed my order altogether.
Years ago, back when one traded by candlelight on the stock exchange floor, I could have done with Alexa.
On the graduate training programme at Salomon Brothers in 1989 I recall a grizzled trading veteran taught us the rudiments of trading. “The most common mistake on the dealing floor,” he maintained, “is getting buy and sell the wrong way round.”
How we scoffed! But only a couple of years later, when my career as a proprietary trader was already looking misguided and short-dated, I found myself with myriad loss-making positions in a variety of stocks and disparate currencies, many of them the unwitting result of having got buy and sell the wrong way round in the first place. In some ways, I wish we’d had algorithmic trading models when I was punting big time because it would have given me one more excuse to blame technology for misinterpreting my intentions. I might have lasted another fortnight.
One would have thought that if one demonstrated zero natural aptitude for trading and called most things the wrong way, then inadvertently reversing those trades and ending up with an unwanted position would prove a natural hedge, but it never seemed to work out that way.
If Alexa is going to make it on the trading floor, then she will be forced to develop the hide of a rhino. Just being a robot won’t protect her from the subtle discrimination, blatant sexism or outright misogyny of most trading floors. I’ll flirt with Alexa, though, that’s for sure. If she is devoid of a personality, then we’ll be made for each other.
Clearly there will have to be modifications for Alexa’s extreme responsiveness because, if she starts transmitting everything she hears, there will be diplomatic incidents.
It is often said the difference between the buy and the sell side could be condensed into the preparedness of the former to shout, “F*** you!”, before slamming down the phone while the latter would have to replace the handset first. After yet another contumelious rebuff from one of my seven dwarves, I can imagine myself growling some guttural, Anglo-Saxon oath of violence and disrespect and then a few seconds later hearing Alexa making the outgoing call that ends my so-called career.
On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel, the City could be creating a Frankenstein’s Monster of its own. In the book, the creature floated away on an iceberg, never to be seen again. That was before global warming, obviously.