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The Dark Side of Day Trading


By Elaine Cassel

On July 27, 1999, 44-year-old Mark Barton went on a killing rampage in Atlanta, Georgia. Within a two-day period, he killed his 27-year-old wife, his two children from a former marriage, and nine office workers before he shot and killed himself with law enforcement officers in pursuit. What led this church-going Sunday School teacher and devoted father to vent his rage on his family, his colleagues, and himself?

Workplace spree killings often follow a typical pattern. The perpetrator may have just lost his (most are men) job, have been recently disciplined or demoted, or be in a dispute with supervisors. Most workplace killers are either killed by law enforcement officers or kill themselves. Many criminologists believe that they are on a suicide mission and intend to kill themselves if police don't kill them first.

Barton's spree has spawned media attention to the psychological dynamics at work in day trading. Day traders are aggressive stock investors who buy and sell stocks within hours, or minutes, making money on market fluctuations. Day trading firms provide the day traders with cubicles and computers from which to work, as well as access to direct trading on the stock exchanges, for which the firms take a fee for each trade. In addition, these firms lend traders the money to make their trade. When traders reach their limits, as Barton had, many borrow from their credit cards or take out home equity loans. Barton had arrangements with two trading firms where he killed colleagues and staff members. Glued to their computer terminals, day traders' eyes scan the screen for fluctuations in price that can make them rich. Isolated in their cubicles, they are a click away from fortune—or disaster.

There is a dark side to day trading. Psychologists note that it combines two current American passions—computer technology and amassing wealth in the stock market. Some day traders talk about the thrill of high stakes trading much as pathological gamblers do. But not many people quit their "day" jobs to become full-time blackjack players. Some commentators have suggested that it is easier to beat the house at blackjack (a feat in itself) than it is to "win" at day trading. As many as 70 percent of traders not only lose their initial investment, but end up deeply in debt. Some say that day trading is their "drug of choice." A "trip" takes them to awesome highs as they become momentarily rich, but drops them into the depths of panic when they lose. Whichever analogy you use, day trading is a high-stress, high-stakes environment, where even the most stable person could crack. One of the firms where Barton worked employs a psychologist on the training staff to educate traders about the cognitive and emotional processes involved in making and losing such huge sums of money.

On the day when Barton began his killing rampage, he was "down" $105,000, trading on volatile Internet stocks. But this was not his only problem. His suicide note left clues of another kind—deep depression, increasing anxiety, family dysfunction, and paranoia that his colleagues were out to ruin him.

An only child, Barton's father was in the Air Force and his mother a church secretary. He was a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist in high school, and got a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of South Carolina. Neighbors recall him as not being especially friendly, but not unfriendly either, and many commented on his seeming devotion to his children. A church-going man, he taught Sunday School and was a Boy Scout leader. Criminologists and psychologists have plenty to occupy them as they try to reconcile these images with those of the man who destroyed his wife and children, several colleagues, and himself.

Sources:
Dugan, I.J., Nakashima, E., & Fisher, M. (1999, July 31). Day trading: A risky, stressful business. The Washington Post, pp. A1, 9.

Goldstein, A., Pressley, S.A.,, & Rosin, H. (1999, July 31). Killer wrote of fear, hopelessness. The Washington Post, pp. A1, 8.

Harmon, A. (1999, August 1). "Casino mentality" linked to day trading's stress. The New York Times, Week in Review, p. 12.

Morgenson, G. (1999, August 1). Day trading's underbelly. The New York Times, Money and Business, p. 1.

Sloan, A. (1999, August 3). Day traders' plight illustrates some basic rules of investing. The Washington Post, p. E3.


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