The stories have reached mythic proportions: twentysomethings driving Mercedes, buying million-dollar homes filled with antiques, and daring to retire before they reach 30. The secret to their success: buying and selling stocks faster than you can read this sentence.
But this is high-risk trading, and Wall Street's canyons are not filled with gold for everyone.
The disturbing workplace shooting last week by a distraught stock trader in Atlanta - one of the deadliest in US history - is raising new questions about how the booming financial-services industry deals with the upheavals of Wall Street.
While authorities say the shooter was clearly disturbed and the motives behind his rampage, in which nine people were killed at two office sites, aren't known for sure, they believe his massive losses in the stock market may have triggered the violent outburst. In the wake of the incident, experts expect several American workplace trends to accelerate:
*An increase in physical security - including more metal detectors and armed security guards in office suites.
*More employee counseling and training, such as courses on how to deal with customer anger and workplace arguments and fights.
*Customer screening to prevent potentially violent problems from ever taking place. This includes ways of determining if a client can withstand the pain of losing money.
From metal detectors to in-house shrinks, this is one of the darker sides to the boom on Wall Street. While many people have made money by investing over the long term, authorities say the appeal of the "big score," of walking away with millions, has attracted a growing number of Americans in the market boom of the 1990s - many of whom can't handle the pressure or the losses.
Although it's rare for the result to be violence, it's not unheard of: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 28 homicides in the financial-services sector in 1997 - down from 41 the previous year.
"As a society, we keep being thrown face to face with this issue of violence in our public spaces - whether it's schools or the workplace," says John Challenger, head of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas in Chicago. "This one is especially remarkable because it ties into the new phenomenon of day trading and its emotional ups and downs."
Day trading, the buying and selling of stocks in seconds or minutes, has suddenly become the occupation du jour. Last year, there were about 2,000 day traders. Today, the Electronic Traders Association estimates there are between 4,000 and 5,000.
"The lure and the appeal is that it seems so easy and the lights shine so brightly because there is no certification process," says author Robert Koppel. "You can play against the market pros. It's as if professional sports were open to all competitors as if middle-aged guys think they can play on the same court as the Chicago Bulls."
In the past, it wasn't economic to trade stocks over such a short period. But after the stock market crash of 1987, the exchanges decided to make it easier for small investors to get in and out. Plus, technology reduced transaction costs. "It's very exciting - like a video game," says Robert Bottalio, a member of the NASDAQ Economic Advisory Board.
This attracted Chris Farrell, who in his mid-20s, makes about 100 stock trades per day. On a good month he makes $15,000. He knows some traders who make $100,000 per month - and can lose $25,000 per day. "You are going to feel emotional highs when things are going your way and anxiety when they are not," says Mr. Farrell.
The downs can be considerable, and the risky environment "can kind of magnify emotions," says Paul Irvine, assistant professor of finance at Emory University in Atlanta.
That is apparently what happened to Mark Barton, who had tried day trading at the All-Tech Investment Group in Buckhead, Ga. According to published reports, he lost about $150,000 and was asked to put up additional margin - a form of collateral. Last Wednesday his check for $50,000 bounced. Shortly afterwards he went on his killing spree.
Steve Kaufer, cofounder of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Palm Springs, Calif., believes there is a potential for similar incidents in the financial industry because of the propensity for "copy-cat incidents."
The prospect for additional violence prompted All-Tech to add guards to its offices in Montvale, N.J. On Friday in Atlanta, cars entering Piedmont Center, one of the buildings where the attack occurred, had to pass through checkpoints before being allowed to enter the building. But not far away, another building has no plans to stiffen security.
Additional violence would not surprise Lynne McClure, who has been consulting on the subject for 20 years. She says companies need to pay better attention to "high risk behaviors," such as people who act on emotion.
James Graves, a workplace consultant, says it's important for companies to realize that those who commit these kind of crimes are not normal people who suddenly snap - but people who have had psychological or emotional troubles for some time.
Ironically, on Thursday NASDAQ's board approved a rule requiring firms that promote day trading to determine whether that type of trading is suitable for customers. Such screening will be difficult, says author Ari Kiev. He says companies will have to watch new traders carefully to see if they are good risk managers: "Trading in the best circumstances is perilous."
*Neil Irwin contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society