The ka-chunk, ka-chunk of punch clocks echoed across the silent trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, as a tiny group of traders gathered at the soybean oil pit for a ritual as routine as the seasons -- the U.S. government's monthly crop report.
But now, for one last time, these traders were allowed a luxury that some had taken for granted: time.
On Thursday, likely for the final time, farmers, brokers and dealers had a precious two hours to consider the implications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest outlook on grain supply and demand before the melee of futures trading commenced.
Inundated with scores of data points -- from U.S. soybean yields to Chinese imports -- traders say those two hours can help preserve a client's fortune, or avoid a hefty loss.
But that window of time is set to close.
Under pressure from hedge funds and bigger traders who want round-the-clock access to grain markets, the IntercontinentalExchange will launch continuous 22-hour trading of its new grain contracts next Monday, a move that forced CME Group's CBOT to follow suit beginning May 21.
Surrounded by empty trading pits and stacks of call trading cards gathering dust, the handful of floor traders in Chicago contemplated their future in world of real-time data.
"How are you supposed to trade faster than a computer algorithm?" asked independent grains trader Mary Ann Kwiatkowski, as she wandered across the floor Thursday morning.
"THE FLOOR DOESN'T MATTER"
She's not used to the quiet. Just six years ago, a report day like Thursday's would have meant a crush of bodies in the aisles before the news broke, and in the pits afterward.
Current trading hours were designed so that markets would be shut when key reports are released because they can roil futures prices. The top U.S. grain groups on Thursday urged federal regulators to delay the start of 22-hour trading, over fears it will increase volatility and give a competitive advantage to large traders that use high-speed trading systems.
Now, watching the electronic clock looming over the trading floor tick past 7:30 a.m., Kwiatkowski, wearing a khaki trading jacket, joined a group of 19 other veterans to stand and assess the news. In between the chatter, their talk touched on the future.
One man complained about being squeezed out by high-frequency traders, who pay a premium to place their computers alongside those of the exchanges in order to gain faster access to information. Another wondered if the CME cared that traders wouldn't have time to read future USDA reports - let alone try to figure out what the data means.