Pete Meegan had every intention of going back to college, but then he got a summer job in the Chicago trading pits and fell in love with the "roar" of the floor, the excitement of "4,000 people yelling, 'Buy! Buy! Buy!'" That roar will likely go silent today as most futures pits in Chicago and New York—where frenzied buying and selling once helped set prices on cattle, gold, and dozens of commodities—are to close for good. The computer, which is faster, cheaper, and not as noisy as humans, has taken over. What's also disappearing is a culture of brazen bets and kids just out of high school getting a shot at making it big. The pits were ruthless, but they were also a proving ground where education and connections counted for nothing next to drive and, occasionally, muscle. "If people came to your spot, you shoved them out of it," says a broker who's been in the pits since 1981.
Since at least 1870, when the first octagonal pits were installed in Chicago, traders have been reading the "tone" of the crowd to sense where prices might be heading. The pits that are closing deal in futures, but not all futures pits are going: In its February closings announcement, the exchanges' owner said the pits where Standard and Poor's 500 stock futures and options on futures are traded will remain open. Floor trading of stocks on the NYSE, owned by a different company, won't end, either. One 40-year veteran marvels at how computers allow him to find global prices for gold and currencies, no matter the time. But he isn't a complete fan. "It's very cold ... strictly numbers," he says. Another broker puts it more bleakly: "It's kind of a slow death for people. Maybe I am holding on to something that needs to go." (Read more trading stories.)