Trading Races

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Trading Races 1203

THE NEW YORKERS WEAR BLACK, AND THEY ARE impatient. Here on the exposed summit of Bald Mountain, they crane their necks in search of stragglers. Nobody wants to be rude—at least not blatantly rude—but as the minutes pass, the financiers check their watches with increasing frequency and stomp their feet with diminishing discretion. A gathering wind blows the clouds on the horizon ever closer, threatening to obscure that mostprecious of January commodities: sunshine. Finally, from somewhere deep inside the herd, a voice cries out: "Chamonix Rules! As one, the group pushes off, hellbent for the distant sunlit ridge above Deer Valley's Empire Canyon. As for the stragglers? Well, they know the rules.

The rules—the Chamonix Rules—may be the first thing you need to understand about Interbourse, an annual ski week that brings together traders, brokers and other assorted security-slingers representing 21 stock exchanges from Europe and North America. At its core, Interbourse is the perfect reflection of what, in this age of global markets, has become an increasingly international industry. It draws on the American spirit of competition, the French penchant for sophistication, the Swiss compulsion for perfect planning, the Dutch mastery of partying and the British knack for a jolly good time, all within the civilized framework of a decidedly European tradition—the ski week. Interbourse is also an apt expression of the sink-or-swim culture that dominates trading desks around the world. In this, its 35th year, the event has attracted roughly 500 high-adrenaline finance types to an otherwise placid corner of Utah. They're here at Deer Valley to ski, to party and to compete against one another. But they're not here to hold anybody's hand. The Chamonix Rules—shorthand for the no-waiting, no-whining philosophy that informally governs the group—are invoked often and enforced without mercy. Scott Brooks, an independent New York Stock Exchange broker, explains: "It's like in life. You have to be able to take care of yourself.

I first heard about Interbourse more than a decade ago, from fervent followers who spread tales of epic parties and even more epic skiing in places like St. Moritz, Val d'Isere, Cortina and Aspen. A video clip I'd seen showed revelers actually swinging from the rafters of a French chalet. As a former World Cup racer, for whom ski racing was always an all-business proposition, it had never occurred to me to take part, but this year, with the New York Stock Exchange hosting in Park City, Utah,a little rafter-swinging seemed like just the cure for a frigid New England winter. Under the guise of reportorial curiosity, and with a promise to take a few runs for the home team, I managed to wangle an invite.

Every Interbourse week opens with a tour and black-tie reception at the host exchange. After negotiating a metal detector and a brace of shoe-sniffing dogs, I stand on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the largest auction market in the world. When it's open, instant decisions and raw instinct rule. The floor is a microcosm of New York—energetic, fast-paced,in your face. Brokers, who trade on behalf of their clients, and specialists, who regulate the markets by taking their own positions, experience huge financial and emotional swings, all ina day's work. Consequently, as one former specialist puts it,"If it's happening in the next five minutes, it's on their mind.If not, forget about it. This is a group of people who live in thepresent and have a great time doing it.

Tonight, though, the atmosphere is not of cold, hard business, but of warm welcome. Chris Quick, Keith Hochstin and Al Smith, organizers of this year's event, circulate among the guests, who smile and sip martinis amid the idle posts on the trading floor. From there, the party adjourns upstairs to the Stock Exchange Lunch Club, temporarily dressed up—or rather, down—to resemble a ski chalet.

TWO DAYS LATER, THE GROUP RECONVENES ADeer Valley's swishy Stein Eriksen Lodge, where a Super Bowl party kicks off the festivities in earnest. The gold standard of mountain luxury, Stein's has transformed itself from intimate enclave to party central. A rumble emanates from the high-ceilinged conference room, where guests reacquaint over several buffets and, of course, bars. A crowd of Europeans stands outside to smoke; the Americans watch intently as the Raiders go down in flames on the Jumbotron; the French eye the buffalo wings with deep suspicion. It's an odd scene, and it makes me wonder: Whose idea was all of this, anyway?

For historical perspective, I arrange to branch off the next morning for some runs with the mostly retired representatives of the original American Interbourse contingent. In addition to Brooks, they include Wright "Lefty Lewis, Davis "Buck Margold and Bill "Moose Morton. As their nicknames suggest, they're a fraternity of sorts. And if Wall Street is their alma mater, Interbourse is Homecoming. Lefty is the ringleader. Gray-haired, with big smiling round eyes that make you want to smile back, he is, at 70, recovered from double knee-replacement surgery and, he says, fully race-ready. He and Buck used to organize the event; now they guard it like protective parents. They offer me an Interbourse primer as we cruise Deer Valley's steep groomers.

The Interbourse started in the late '60s, when a Frenchbroker, Roger LeGuay, invited the ski clubs of the Munich and Brussels exchanges to a ski weekend and race in France. The British and Italians soon joined, and the event grew steadily but quietly over the years, remaining a strictly European phenomenon. The New York contingent caught wind of the event and put together a team for the first time in 1983. They have not missed an event since, a record that owes itself in great part to the Chamonix Rules. Swinging his rebuilt knees nonchalantly from the chair, Lefty recalls the provenance of the rules—one of the group's first trips together—if not the details of their creation. "They basically say, We'll get you there, we'll get your ski pass, and we'll find you a room. After that, don't complain and don't ask the group leader for anything. It's no wonder that only self-sufficient types become regulars.

By the time we gather for lunch on the sundeck of DeerValley's Empire Canyon Lodge, the storm clouds have arrived and snow begins to swirl down lightly. I'm standing next to organizers Hochstin and Quick, who are hatching a plan: "If it snows eight inches, we're out the door at 8 to Alta. Indeed, the prevailing emphasis here is on action. After lunch, waves of orange-jacketed Swiss zip around, royal blue and bright yellow Brits gather to consult a trail sign, and a pack of black-clad Germans whiz by me, clipping the "slow sign. A pod of white jackets from Amsterdam hunts for an outside table and beer. Everyone here is thoroughly into being right here, perhaps even more so than in the old days, considering the changes in the trading business. Many trading floors have been replaced by electronic systems, so the camaraderie and physical proximity that used to be intrinsic to the job have themselves become rare commodities."We no longer have 'seats,' explains a Geneva broker. "We have electronic access numbers.

Accordingly, the week is an endless parade of activities, each day starting with skiing and ending with a theme party. As ever, disco night is pivotal, a midweek must for bonding. At Park City's cavernous Harry O's, the party is slated to begin at 7 p.m. There's a line out the door by 7:05, shameless lip synching by 8 and a chorus of "We are fa-mi-ly!by 9. As much as it hurts to admit it, disco is the great equalizer.

Each Interbourse bears the accent of its host country, be thata Paul Bocuse dinner in Megeve, a Viennese ball in Austria or haggis at the British-hosted Robert Burns night. This Interbourse reflects Park City's Olympic afterglow by celebrating activity. Dinner at Olympic Park is preceded by a youth ski-jumping demonstration, a Deer Valley ski day includes front-row views of the World Freestyle Championships, and the final black-tie awards dinner kicks off with a trampoline gymnastics show.

The main event, though—the bonding crescendo of the week—is always the official race. There are actually two races: the Friends race, open to any Interbourse participant, and the official race, ostensibly reserved for actual members of thevarious exchanges, though certain European teams have been known to slip in a ringer or two.

UP AT THE START OF THE FRIENDS RACE ON Wednesday, it's crowded, but the mood is loose. The bright, clear day and gentle slope make this the perfect opportunity to settle scores and fulfill personal challenges. The Alberta contingent gathers at the start. Team captain Mike Irwin, a former Crazy Canuck with the Canadian national team, is now a retail broker for Raymond James in Calgary. He administers his only real coaching advice from a flask in the starting gate.

Until now, I've been strictly an observer at Interbourse—a welcome guest but not an insider. But Buck Margold knows my racing background and sees an opportunity to stuff it to the Euros at least once. Buck really, vocally, wants me to race.And I really, silently, do not want to race. Taking advantage of a registration snafu, I lay low until the race is almost done. As the masses in the starting area clear, Buck's head of perfectly groomed white hair pops up above the crowd. He spots me—sans bib—and springs to action. Minutes later a bib literally falls out of the sky, thrown from the chairlift by team captain Chris Quick. Busted. I stand in the start, the last racer, figuring I'll just take it easy, and take a swig from the Canadians' flask. I have nothing to prove. But then I have a vision of my last portfolio statement. This might be my only chance all year to beat the market. I give it everything I have. I win. After all, being a former Olympian ought to come in handy every once in a while.

What seemed a harmless appeasement becomes my true access to the event. The New Yorkers are psyched; the Swiss, who until then were far more interested in training than conversation, warm right up; and everyone treats me as if I were an old friend who just arrived a little late. The true nature of Interbourse, the reason people come back year after year, finally snaps into focus. Everyone brings something to the table. You're either a player and totally in, or you're not and you're totally out. There's no room for spectators. In my case, skiing is my currency. When I use it for all it's worth, I'm speaking their language: success.

FRIDAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE EVENT, AND THE day of the official race. The start sits on the steepest section of CB's, Park City's Olympic race hill. Looking straight down the pitch is as comforting as looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Here, the trading mentality—the ability to block out whatever is not an immediate concern—is a blessing. Riding up before the race, Jukka Lehtonen, a 40-something alternative investments broker from Helsinki, seems unconcerned about the trials to come. We pass above an attractive woman in the finish area who smiles and waves enthusiastically. At the top of the course he's greeted by a contingent of conspiratorial laughs from an international mix of high-fiving friends. He could be the perfect testimonial for the ski week.

By start time, the sun has softened the south-facing race course into a benign slush. With a handful of exceptions, finishing the challenging minute-plus run without coughing up a lung or breaking a leg is victory enough to celebrate. At the end of the day, Wolfgang Maier (no relation to Hermann), a former Europa Cup racer who now sells European bonds, walks away with his fourth consecutive win. Maier's Frankfurt team also triumphs, with Geneva finishing second and Zurich third. The Canadians, stone sober, take fourth, while the NYSE finishes is preceded by a youth ski-jumping demonstration, a Deer Valley ski day includes front-row views of the World Freestyle Championships, and the final black-tie awards dinner kicks off with a trampoline gymnastics show.

The main event, though—the bonding crescendo of the week—is always the official race. There are actually two races: the Friends race, open to any Interbourse participant, and the official race, ostensibly reserved for actual members of thevarious exchanges, though certain European teams have been known to slip in a ringer or two.

UP AT THE START OF THE FRIENDS RACE ON Wednesday, it's crowded, but the mood is loose. The bright, clear day and gentle slope make this the perfect opportunity to settle scores and fulfill personal challenges. The Alberta contingent gathers at the start. Team captain Mike Irwin, a former Crazy Canuck with the Canadian national team, is now a retail broker for Raymond James in Calgary. He administers his only real coaching advice from a flask in the starting gate.

Until now, I've been strictly an observer at Interbourse—a welcome guest but not an insider. But Buck Margold knows my racing background and sees an opportunity to stuff it to the Euros at least once. Buck really, vocally, wants me to race.And I really, silently, do not want to race. Taking advantage of a registration snafu, I lay low until the race is almost done. As the masses in the starting area clear, Buck's head of perfectly groomed white hair pops up above the crowd. He spots me—sans bib—and springs to action. Minutes later a bib literally falls out of the sky, thrown from the chairlift by team captain Chris Quick. Busted. I stand in the start, the last racer, figuring I'll just take it easy, and take a swig from the Canadians' flask. I have nothing to prove. But then I have a vision of my last portfolio statement. This might be my only chance all year to beat the market. I give it everything I have. I win. After all, being a former Olympian ought to come in handy every once in a while.

What seemed a harmless appeasement becomes my true access to the event. The New Yorkers are psyched; the Swiss, who until then were far more interested in training than conversation, warm right up; and everyone treats me as if I were an old friend who just arrived a little late. The true nature of Interbourse, the reason people come back year after year, finally snaps into focus. Everyone brings something to the table. You're either a player and totally in, or you're not and you're totally out. There's no room for spectators. In my case, skiing is my currency. When I use it for all it's worth, I'm speaking their language: success.

FRIDAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE EVENT, AND THE day of the official race. The start sits on the steepest section of CB's, Park City's Olympic race hill. Looking straight down the pitch is as comforting as looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Here, the trading mentality—the ability to block out whatever is not an immediate concern—is a blessing. Riding up before the race, Jukka Lehtonen, a 40-something alternative investments broker from Helsinki, seems unconcerned about the trials to come. We pass above an attractive woman in the finish area who smiles and waves enthusiastically. At the top of the course he's greeted by a contingent of conspiratorial laughs from an international mix of high-fiving friends. He could be the perfect testimonial for the ski week.

By start time, the sun has softened the south-facing race course into a benign slush. With a handful of exceptions, finishing the challenging minute-plus run without coughing up a lung or breaking a leg is victory enough to celebrate. At the end of the day, Wolfgang Maier (no relation to Hermann), a former Europa Cup racer who now sells European bonds, walks away with his fourth consecutive win. Maier's Frankfurt team also triumphs, with Geneva finishing second and Zurich third. The Canadians, stone sober, take fourth, while the NYSE finishes a modest 14th. All soak up hot sun and cold beer at the finish.

At the awards banquet that night, impatience has given way to a collective desire to linger, to make the glow of good skiing and good friends last as long as possible. The speeches are brief, funny and to the point, but the highlight is a preview of the next planned event given by Zermatt's director of tourism. He tantalizes us with a video, then assures us that the sponsors are in place, the plan is set, and the event will be nothing less than perfect. Around midnight, I force myself out the door, past a line of tour buses awaiting their early-morning airportpassengers. It strikes me that sleeping in the bus might not be a bad plan. After all, these buses won't be waiting for stragglers. Chamonix Rules. shes a modest 14th. All soak up hot sun and cold beer at the finish.

At the awards banquet that night, impatience has given way to a collective desire to linger, to make the glow of good skiing and good friends last as long as possible. The speeches are brief, funny and to the point, but the highlight is a preview of the next planned event given by Zermatt's director of tourism. He tantalizes us with a video, then assures us that the sponsors are in place, the plan is set, and the event will be nothing less than perfect. Around midnight, I force myself out the door, past a line of tour buses awaiting their early-morning airportpassengers. It strikes me that sleeping in the bus might not be a bad plan. After all, these buses won't be waiting for stragglers. Chamonix Rules.

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