STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, Citigroup operates in financial markets all over the globe, as does the next group we will talk to, currency traders. For these traders, tiny changes in the dollar can mean huge gains or loses. And over the last couple of months, the dollar and other currencies have moved so much that these traders aren't getting much rest. That's what KPLU reporter Chana Joffe-Walt discovered when she went to Wells Fargo headquarters in San Francisco.
(Soundbite of yawning)
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: It is inhumanely early.
(Soundbite of elevator)
JOFFE-WALT: What time do you get here?
Mr. SIMON FAUST (Currency Trader, Wells Fargo): I get here around 5 AM Pacific.
JOFFE-WALT: And this is the good shift. Simon Faust(ph) is the boss of Wells Fargo currency trading floor. He chose this shift because he likes to catch a little bit of London, a little bit of Asia. Seriously, he says things like that. Real casual. He's casual about a lot of things, like here, and this is crazy, listen to this.
Mr. FAUST: You know, I just bought a million pounds here. And I mean, I, you know, I think all trade...
JOFFE-WALT: You just did with that those few clicks right now?
Mr. FAUST: Yeah. I mean this is one click and you can trade.
JOFFE-WALT: And you just bought a million pounds.
Mr. FAUST: That's how fast you can trade, you just put a price action in, hit your level and you're done.
JOFFE-WALT: You're a currency trader? Here's what you do. You sit and watch the pound or, say, the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar, all day long every second. One second it's trading at 1.2346, next is 1.2347. You wait for the exact right moment to sell or buy. It's like a bet. You think the Canadian dollar will go up in the next three seconds, you buy a bunch within the next two seconds.
Take Max Kaufman(ph). He's sitting here in the row of traders. He's got eight computer screens in front of him. Jumping numbers, charts, graph, it's an ADDer's nightmare. And he is waiting to get in on the Canadian dollar. While he is taking in eight screens worth of information, he is also chatting online with his buddies at other banks.
Mr. MAX KAUFMAN (Currency Trader): I am hearing that there is going to be a right-hand side dollar Canada fix today on the Bank of England close.
JOFFE-WALT: What does that mean?
Mr. KAUFMAN: So what that means is that there is going to be a lot of buyers at 8 o'clock our time, which is in about three more, ah - two more minutes. And I just bought at 1.19 and it's already trading 1.1930.
JOFFE-WALT: Meaning, in those ten seconds, the Canadian dollar went up 0.0011 against the American dollar, and Max made some money for the bank. Large banks, governments, companies, speculators do this everyday, every second, all across the world. More than $3 trillion are traded on the foreign exchange market daily. This is a world where Americans in polo shirts know and care about the Maldovan leu, a world where dollars perform and a world that, for these guys, never stops. Out to the movies, at grandma's for Thanksgiving, they're tapping away at their little handheld currency reader thing, just checking. How's it look out there today for the yen, for the Zimbabwean dollar? And when they say out there, they really mean here. They are talking about a real place, our real world. And just like you and me, these guys depend on the world being somewhat sturdy, predictable.
But Simon Faust says last month, for currency traders, that world disappeared.
Mr. FAUST: From 2003 to 2006, the Great British pounds strengthened 28 percent against the dollar. In two weeks last month, it lost 23 percent of its value.
JOFFE-WALT: So what used to take three years, now takes two weeks?
Mr. FAUST: That's what we have seen, yes.
JOFFE-WALT: Investors are freaked, and moving their money around like crazy. And since investors have money everywhere, all over our real world, that drives our real currencies berserk. The Australian dollar is a roller coaster, the yen can't shoot up fast enough, and the Mexican peso - it lost eight percent of its value in one day. This all makes it impossible to price imports and exports, incredibly hard for employers to pay international staff. But for these guys, these trading currency guys, it's an opportunity, an incredible opportunity to make lots of money and an opportunity to lose like never before. Simon Faust says when it's like this, you just have to adjust. He says he expects they'll be surfing the tsunami for the foreseeable future. I ask him what the future means to a currency trader. His reply? At least a week. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.
INSKEEP: From currencies to credit default swaps, it's all explained on our Planet Money podcast and blog at npr.org/money.