Crowding Around the Quotron

Most veteran stock market investors and industry participants still vividly remember the unsettling drama of the "Friday the 13th" mini-crash of October 13, 1989. What I recall about that date, which occurred very early in my Wall Street career, was the communal manner in which the S&P 500's 6.1% sell-off was experienced by brokerage firm employees. 

Internet data feeds have since enabled both professional and individual investors to obtain real-time, or near-real-time, stock price updates and news at their desktops or on their tablet or mobile devices. However, in the late-1980's, when I worked in Goldman Sachs' equity research department, analysts had to share a Quotron terminal located in a hallway or other common area.

During its heyday in the 70's and 80's, Quotron dominated Wall Street's financial data services landscape. However, by the waning years of the Reagan Administration, the firm had begun to cede market share to other data providers, such as Automated Data Processing (NYSE: ADP).1 Citigroup (NYSE: C) acquired Quotron, Inc. in 1986, then agreed to sell it to the predecessor of Thomson Reuters Corporation (NYSE: TRI) in 1994.2 Quotron was eventually folded into Reuters Plus.

Back in the pre-Internet 1980's, major market events were often punctuated by the scene of a group of analysts huddled around a single Quotron terminal, taking turns at jotting down stock prices or news details. That scenario is etched in my memory as a sharp counterpoint to today's largely solitary experience of analyzing news and market data at one's desk.

As recently as the 1990's, shared workplace experiences often involved quick exchanges of conversation in front of coffee dispensers or copy machines. Both inside and outside the securities industry, small clusters of office workers could be found in such settings, chatting about the previous evening's memorable one-liners from Seinfeld.

Perhaps it's fair to characterize the Quotron as Wall Street's older-generation equivalent of the workplace water cooler. The "heavy lifting" of security analysis -- spreadsheet-building and report-writing -- is a largely insular undertaking. Joining a group of analysts crowded around a Quotron and comparing thoughts about stock price moves could be an invigorating break from office-bound isolation.

Brokerage firms still schedule department meetings and encourage cross-sector research. However, as securities workers have grown more technologically self-reliant, they've lost opportunities for impromptu office-place gatherings and ad hoc shop talk. Those encounters were a serendipitous consequence of the need to locate a scarce supply of expensive data terminals in shared office locations. 

Some readers might remember Rob Schneider's early-1990's Saturday Night Live recurring character, Richard (aka the Richmeister, the Copy Room Guy). He was the loquacious geek who, sitting at his desk in the copy room, would annoy coworkers by addressing them with a series of silly nicknames while they were "making copies" at a Xerox machine. That piece of sketch comedy would seem a little off-key in today's workplace culture. Large office equipment has, in many cases, been displaced by desktop scanners and copiers.

A recent artcile in closes with a concluding paragraph that might serve as a fitting epitaph for the Quotron terminal: "Technology marches forward, and the Quotron would eventually be replaced by personal computers and today’s mobile applications .... Not only did the Quotron change life for brokers and traders, but it also led a push for faster, more efficient systems that helped give rise to the modern computer."3

1 "A VOLATILE MARKET; Quotron's Error on Dow Adds to Jitters," The New York Times, October 17, 1989.

2 Saul Hansell, "Citicorp Passes Off Quotron, Predicts Big Quarterly Profit," The New York Times, January 14, 1994.

3 J. Rex Olson, "The Development of the Quotron Device," The Tech Scoop, April 13, 2013.