Brokers' role in financing Uncle Sam's big deficits
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It was a gutsy decision, as it later turned out, because the Merrill Lynch optimism was not universally shared. The government on this particular day received bids for $6.2 billion of securities. It accepts only the highest bids. Sometimes the percentage of bids made but not accepted is greater. At any rate, the auction received mixed reviews. When Merrill Lynch found out at 5 p.m. that night that its bids had been accepted, the Dow Jones tape called the auction ''disappointing.'' But, the next day, the New York Times called it a ''fair auction.''Skip to next paragraph
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Before submitting its bid, Merrill Lynch goes through a complex effort to determine what its posture should be on any given day. Starting at 7:30 a.m., key Merrill Lynch traders report for work. They read the papers, and as Michael Kamins, vice-president and senior long-bond trader, says, they ''think through'' what they are going to do that day. They also begin phoning customers and other brokers and dealers to get a feel for the markets.
At 8:25 a.m., the entire trading and sales staff gather in a conference room. Mr. Napoli asks the traders and technicians for their opinions on the markets they follow. In all, about 20 people comment about everything from the latest statements by Paul Volcker to the minute differences in yields between different securities.
Mr. Napoli wraps up the meeting by noting that his intuitive feeling about the day was that ''a lot of people are afraid of making a bet.'' Translation: Selling the long-term government securities was going to be tough.
The effort to sell the bonds had begun about two weeks earlier. A major portion of the company's 200 institutional-account executives began to canvass their accounts to see how much interest there would be in the bonds. Since the long-term bonds would be the first such offering by the government since November of 1982, no one knew how much interest there would be. And in that period, there had been a fair amount of profit taking in other long-term bonds, so no one knew how much would be reinvested.
At 9 a.m. trading in the bond markets begins in earnest. The opening is critical, says Mr. Napoli, since it sets the tone for the day. On this particular day, the bond markets open without any significant change.
At this point at Merrill Lynch, the focus turns to Mr. Kamins, the senior long-term government-bond trader. He has been hired by the big broker, says Mr. Napoli, because he is highly disciplined, not allowing his emotions to influence his trading, and he is very good at executing transactions. On this day, he and his partner, William Plotch, will trade $1.8 billion in securities between them. Surrounded by traders shouting across the open room, they routinely make trades of up to $100 million.
Mr. Kamins, who seems to have a nickname for everyone, keeps Mr. Napoli appraised of the drift of the market. Finally, right before the auction, Mr. Napoli makes his move. He tells Mr. Kamins to ''soften up'' the markets. ''I don't want other dealers to jump in front of me,'' he says. And, with a grin on his face, Mr. Kamins, acting like Han Solo in ''Star Wars'' starts ''blasting'' other dealer's bids (Merrill Lynch fills other bond dealers' bids, hoping to drive down the price). It gets lively. And then, at 1:26 p.m., Merrill Lynch makes its own bid for the bonds.
It will take the company a week to know if it made a good buy. During that time it will be selling the government securities it bought for its own account.
The market traded in a narrow range last week, reflecting uncertainties about the future direction of interest rates. For the week, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 1,077.91, up 13.16 points.