The Truth, Mainly - 03/25/1996

Wallstreet Panic Snopes breaks the stock market code
by Leon Satterfield

"We figured if we named him Wallstreet Panic it might make him get rich like the folks that run that Wallstreet panic."—Eck Snopes on the naming of his son in William Faulkner's The Hamlet.

Wallstreet Panic Snopes—W.P. Snopes as he called himself—wanted to be as rich as his Uncle Flem Snopes who owned most of Yoknapatawpha County. Given his name, W.P. figured the stock market was his game.

Uncle Flem had always told him to buy low, sell high, and tell the truth when it was convenient. W.P. figured all he needed to complete his education was Dick Armey's dictum that "The market is rational and the government is dumb." After all, wasn't Prof. Armey now House Majority Leader in the government?

W.P. set out to discover the rationality of the market. He took great interest on Friday, Mar. 8, 1996, when the Dow plunged 171 points, the third biggest fall in history. He heard a PBS analyst say the market was schizophrenic and hypochondriac, but that didn't sound rational, so he studied financial pages, looking for rational causes. All he saw was that 705,000 new jobs had been created in February.

All weekend, W.P. thought and thought and thought.

And on Monday, Mar. 11, the Dow went up 110 points—the third biggest rise in history. W.P. thought and thought and thought. And at 2:47 a.m. on Tuesday, he sat bolt upright in bed and smacked himself on the forehead. He had just discovered the rationality of the market.

It contradicted everything he'd learned: that Wall Street is Main Street, that what's good for investers is good for America, that all boats rise when the market goes up.

Instead, he discovered this: good news makes the market crash; bad news makes the market boom. The Friday crash was caused by the good news of 705,000 new jobs; the Monday boom was caused by the bad news of the Friday crash.

W.P. watched throughout spring and summer as his theory proved itself. When floods ruined agriculture, the Dow shot up. When tobacco companies promised to never again buy a congressman or mislead the public, the Dow fell.

When Congress passed Rep. Armey's bill lowering the minimum wage to 89 cents, the Dow rose. When the President vetoed the bill, the Dow fell.

With the help of Uncle Flem, W.P. made a plan. He studied with the most disreputable computer hackers until he learned to breach the security of the Associated Press system. His fictitious little AP items began showing up even in the NY Times.

By spring of '97, he was ready to move. Just before midnight on the third Thursday of April, he broke into the AP file and inserted the following:

"A new miracle drug that cures every disease known to mankind will be on drugstore counters Monday morning. Utopiate will sell for $1.98 per 50 doses and has only one undesirable side effect, euphoria."

The story made the Friday morning papers, and sure enough by the end of the trading day, the Dow had dropped 213 points. Five minutes before the closing bell, W.P. called a broker with a modest buy order.

When the broker asked what he should buy, W.P said "Stocks." Sunday evening he was back at his computer dispatching an AP story that researchers had discovered one other undesirable side effect of Utopiate: Anyone ingesting it died after 15.9 seconds of euphoria.

On Monday, the Dow shot up 218 points on the strength of that news, and just before trade ended for the day, W.P. sold everything he'd bought on Friday—and for a very tidy profit indeed.

That's the way it worked every weekend—the signing of a universal peace treaty followed by plans to wipe out the last rain forest in Brazil; the Dodgers moving back to Brooklyn, followed by the story that Bobby Thompson's grandson was moving inexorably through the minors toward the National League. Always. W.P. bought low when the news he'd made up was good, and sold high when it was bad.

He became the richest man in America. Then he overreached.

His last Thursday night AP dispatch reported that the Second Coming was at hand, that the Kingdom of Heaven on earth would be established in Meade County, Kansas just as soon as God got Her immigration papers in order. The resulting Friday plunge made the '29 crash look like a kindergarten valentine exchange. W.P. spent his entire fortune buying blue chips for a song.

Sunday night, his AP dispatch reported that the nuclear accident had melted both polar ice caps and that rising sea levels would inundate everything east of Akron and west of Reno by 11:38 a.m. Monday.

In the jubilant buying frenzy on Monday morning, four traders were hospitalized and the Dow went over 10,000. Then at 11:02 of the surviving traders noticed the carpet beneath his feet on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange was still dry. Two minutes later, the AP's new Hacker-Tracker program finally went on line and authorities broke into W. P.'s office.

He was sentenced to 240 hours of community service. Naturally, moral reform set in and spoiled his taste for further stock manipulation.

So Wallstreet Panic Snopes went back to Yoknapatawpha County to inhabit the the kinder, gentler—and more rational—world of Faulkner's fiction.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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