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Time for an exchange of ideas.

Like many Americans, I was devastated when news got out that the American Stock Exchange was up for sale. From a traditionalist's perspective, it was the worst news since Rockefeller Center was taken over by a Japanese buyer years ago. The very idea that the venerable exchange, once known as "The Curb," had reached such a low point that it was seeking a merger with another exchange, or even an outright sale to a private firm, was most distressing.

For many years, the American Stock Exchange has suffered from an image problem. By this I mean that it doesn't really have an image. Long playing the role of the San Diego Padres to the New York Stock Exchange's Yankees, Amex in recent times has been forced into an even more humiliating tertiary position, playing the Portland Trailblazers to Nasdaq's Los Angeles Lakers. (The NASD currently owns Amex.) Unlike the NYSE, which has a great nickname ("The Big Board"), and Nasdaq, which has an equally riveting sobriquet ("The Market for the Next Hundred Years"), Amex is just plain old Amex. It sounds an awful lot like a famous credit card, not a prestigious institution marinated in tradition.

One of Amex's biggest problems, image-wise, is that no (me actually knows what it does or why it exists. Once stowing as a launching pad for fledgling companies, Amex got its thunder stolen by upstart Nasdaq, and now has an almost vestigial function, serving as a market for options and a large number of exchange-traded funds. Amex is so far down in the financial services depth chart that most people do not know that it has recently been the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. There has also been controversy over its president's exit package, worth $22 million. Yet the public remains largely oblivious to all this. While $22 million is hardly chicken feed, it pales by comparison with NYSE's furloughed chief Richard Grasso, whose Croesian compensation package--$187.5 million--led to his sudden departure. Even when Amex gets a black eye, it doesn't get a big enough black eye for anyone to really take notice.

By the time this article is published, Amex may already be gobbled up in a merger with the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange or even Pakistan's Lahore Exchange. But on the odd chance that it's still kicking, here are a few suggestions for sprucing up its image:

Get a motto. Something along the lines of "The Friendly Skies of United" or "You Deserve a Break Today." One possibility is: "We're Number Three--So We Try Harder." Another is: "The Closer You Look, the Better We'll Feel." Yet another: "Amex: This is Not Your Father's Stock Exchange."

Get a new headquarters. Nothing gets more attention than one of these loopy, swoops Frank Gehry monuments that have been springing up all over. The message? If you start to look like a real stock exchange, investors might start treating you like one.

Get Warren Buffett involved. This guy can fix anything. And the press loves him. Also, he'll work cheap, because he's already loaded.

Give away a few seats to celebrities. Seat prices have dropped precipitously in the past three years, and that terrifies investors. What this exchange needs is a few high-profile members. Bring in Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Madonna. Get the public jazzed. Stop being so darned mysterious.

Merge with Wal-Mart. These guys are great at bringing low-priced merchandise to cow towns across the fruited plains. Moving your operations to rural Arkansas would send a very positive message to investors that Amex is the stock exchange for the little guy.

Get your message out. Whether you rent a fleet of blimps or hire William Shatner as your official spokesman, do something to help the American public understand exactly what it is you do and why you should continue to exist. Frankly, a lot of us are confused.

If you're going to have a scandal, have a big one. Try hiring Dick Grasso to be your new CEO, and pay him even more money than he was making at the Big Board.

Obviously, that last one was a joke. Nobody has that kind of money.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans.
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Title Annotation:selling of the American Stock Exchange
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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