EARL GASKINS has good reason for following the stock market with special care, not only because of Friday's market plunge. As a portfolio manager with Provident Capital Management, Inc., Mr. Gaskins manages seven accounts with a cumulative value of about $350 million - about a tenth of the Philadelphia-based company's $3.5 billion in holdings. Gaskins is also an African-American - a relative rarity in professional positions on Wall Street. He is the type of careful analyst one might expect to meet in any active investment house.
Gaskins was reticent, until prodded somewhat, to talk about blacks on Wall Street. Blacks probably represent 1 percent or less of all dealers, brokers, analysts and other professionals in the nation's securities industry. Women have increasingly filled key posts in Wall Street, such as on trading desks.
But blacks are far less visible.
Gaskins is an expert on airline and energy stocks. Regarding airlines, Gaskins believes that company profits probably peaked in the second quarter of this year and the industry will face slower, but steady, growth in the future.
Regarding energy, Gaskins thinks near-term oil prices will probably hold - they're now at about $20 a barrel for West Texas Intermediate - although he sees the possibility of prices as low as $17 to $15 a barrel down the road, if all major producers, including such Middle East players as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, ``maximize their output.''
Definitive statistics for racial numbers on Wall Street are hard to come by. A decade or so ago, blacks and other racial or ethnic minority groups were almost impossible to find, with perhaps one major exception, says Richard Clarke, president of Richard Clarke Associates, a New York executive-search firm.
``Blacks could be found in the bond departments of investment houses,'' Mr. Clarke says with a laugh. The reason? ``Because of the proliferation of black mayors around the US, and the need for the investment firms to capture some of the municipal-bond business.'' But blacks and Asians, according to Clarke, were seldom hired for key trading positions or for analysts desks. Nor does Clarke believe that situation has changed much.
``Wall Street is comprised of countless remnants of old school ties, the right clubs, and the shores of Long Island Sound,'' he says, which does not exactly add up to a major employment opportunity for members of minority groups. Is Clarke being asked by investment houses to find qualified minorities? ``I'm not being asked at all,'' he says.
Still, the perception among blacks working in investment houses is that the employment picture is improving. ``Look, the whole industry has been under siege in recent years,'' says a black money manager with a major Wall Street house. ``It's certainly better for blacks now relative to where we were a decade or so ago.''
``We're now placing about 4 or 5 of our students on Wall Street each year,'' adds Philip Fanara Jr., chairman of the department of finance and insurance at Howard University in Washington.
``Wall Street still has a long way to go, but the situation is definitely better.''
That said, Mr. Fanara believes that both the commercial banking and insurance industries ``have been far more aggressive in seeking out minorities.'' He notes that Howard places more than 100 interns in those two fields each summer, with few, if any, younger blacks placed in financial houses.
What Gaskins finds so particularly challenging, in his own case, is that he has to live in two different worlds, each having its own distinct vocabulary and interests. His black friends, Gaskins says, ``don't understand at all what I do.'' But many of his white associates, he says, have little concept of the struggles of inner cities.
With degrees from Yale University (a BA in political science) and Temple University (a doctor of jurisprudence), Gaskins took a somewhat circuitous career route - going from Provident National Bank to the city of Philadelphia, where for five years he served as director of the Office of Community Development. But Gaskins, in his understated way, says he felt constrained by the endless red tape and bureaucracy surrounding government service.
Working once again in the private sector, Gaskins has become a firm believer in what he calls ``cross-pollinization.'' That is, he believes that blacks need to better prepare themselves for work in finance and business, while whites need to better understand the day-to-day struggles of families who live within big cities, including the challenge of finding affordable housing and gaining access to jobs.
But Gaskins is no ``cause''-oriented person. Right now, he says, his primary responsibility is staying on top of such fast-changing industries as airlines and energy. That's more than enough ``cause,'' he says, to keep anyone busy.