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Halliburton woes cause jitters in North Dakota

Mon, 2015-04-20 13:01

Scott Nyberg comes from a Halliburton family. His dad works for the oilfield services provider in North Dakota’s oil patch. So does Nyberg.

And his brother did, too, until recently.  

“It's unnerving. Made you a little nervous if you were next,” Nyberg says.

Halliburton, one of the nation's biggest oilfield services providers, took a hit in the first quarter of the year. Its profits dropped $643 million, thanks in part to a massive decline in oil prices, which has slowed demand for Halliburton's drilling services. Halliburton has responded to the slowdown by cutting 9,000 workers, some in North Dakota, the nation’s second largest oil producer.

Nyberg says Halliburton’s investment in his training soothes some of his fears of a layoff. The firm is sending him from his base in Williston, North Dakota. to Texas, where he’ll spend several months completing a training program. And unlike his brother, Nyberg has a mechanical engineering degree. He hopes that will help him stick around through the company's cost-cutting.

“There's still work to be had, and those who can endure and make those cuts and not just go belly up, will make it through,” he says. “And as bad as it is, when it turns around, there will be a mad rush of people to come back.”

But for now, the oilfield slowdown is spooking some workers, like Kevin Groener. He made a stop in Williston during a job scouting trip and quickly caught wind of layoffs around town. So he won't bring his girlfriend Billy Joe out for a look. They both need work.

“It's hard when you come out to an area like this and say, ‘Oh it's all going to be great and fine,’ ” he says. “I don't think I could grab Billy Joe here and make it great and fine.”

Why health stocks are doing so well

Mon, 2015-04-20 13:00

It’s a great time to own health stocks. In fact, over the past five years, the sector has outperformed most other industries.

via Morningstar

What’s driving the surge? Wunderlich Securities analyst Art Hogan says it’s easy as saying "ACA."

“Whether you are running a hospital, a doctor practice, a pharmaceutical company, there is more access to your product,” he says of the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to Obamacare, more than 11 million people are newly insured, which means a raft of new customers.

“Therefore, profitability in the healthcare sector is going to go with that,” says Hogan.

The health care law is just one source of success. Biotech firms are on fire, with saying those companies are up 18 percent this year, more than doubling the total sector. Bloomberg Intelligence Healthcare analyst Asthika Goonewardene says firms are developing innovative products.

“We are going through a phase where the science is very, very good. I don’t want to say you are guaranteed clinical success, but your chance of clinical success are really high,” he says.

Goonewardene points to Gilead’s highly effective hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi, which has generated more than $10 billion in revenue. A drug that helps patients, no doubt, but at $1,000 a pill, it’s expensive. It’s an issue that dogs big biotech blockbuster drugs.

“The question that comes to mind is, 'Okay, you are having all these great drugs come out. Who is going to pay for them?'”

That’s the big risk with these hot biotech firms. As a rule, Goonewardene says pricing questions send stock prices fluttering. And as companies likely deliver more powerful drugs, these questions will only intensify.

Google will prioritize mobile-friendly sites

Mon, 2015-04-20 13:00

Google is making a big change to its mobile search algorithm Tuesday. It will start giving priority to websites that it classifies as mobile-friendly, ones that have been designed specifically to work on smaller smart phone screens. This could have a huge impact on businesses that don't have mobile friendly sites. They will now appear lower on search rankings. 

And it’s not just small businesses that haven't adapted. Large companies including Nintendo, Versace and Kroger all have sites that Google has classified as not being mobile-friendly. 

Google announced the changes in late February to give websites time to redesign. Its announcement warned that this change “will have a significant impact on our search results.”

Cirque du Soleil sells to private equity groups

Mon, 2015-04-20 11:01

This week's mergers and acquisitions news involves a former fire breather, acrobats, contortionists and a group of high-flying private equity firms.

Cirque du Soleil, the no-animals, highly stylized performance troupes with shows around the world will be sold for $1.5 billion Canadian, a little over $1.2 billion U.S.

That's a long way from its origins. 

Founder Guy Laliberte, "was a fire-breather and a busker who played an accordion," says New York Times reporter Ian Austen, who reported on the sale Monday. "It started as a kind of hippie commune with pay-as-you-want shows."

A grant from the provincial government of Quebec helped launch the company into its much wider renown and success. Fast-forward a few decades, and there's still a lot of local pride tied up in the company's success. 

"Quebec is a pretty small place and [Laliberte] is literally one of six billionaires who live in the province, so it's hyper, hyper sensitive. Plus, they're a big employer in Quebec," Austen says. 

The company is privately held and keeps its financials close to the vest, but it insists it's profitable, despite financial hurdles that were exacerbated in 2008. 

"[Laliberte] had kind of pulled back to literally go off into space in a Soyuz capsule," Austen says. "For the first time in their history, 25 years at that point, they had shows that fizzled out."

Laliberte returned in 2012 and began implementing aggressive cost controls. Four hundred employees were laid off, and shows that weren't working out were cut. The phenomenon that started as a ragtag group of street performers had grown unchecked since its founding in 1985. It was time for financial discipline and focus. 

Rather than gut the company further, Cirque du Soleil hopes the infusion of cash and influence from private equity will pull back the curtain on the biggest market it's yet to tap: China.

"What this is ultimately about," Austen says, "is to find a successful way into the Chinese market to take advantage of the growing middle class there."

Another wave of migrants drown in the Mediterranean

Mon, 2015-04-20 11:00

Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants enter Europe by sea from the South — and thousands from those groups drown as they attempt to make the voyage from places like Libya, Mali and Egypt.

At least 700 people are believed to have drowned after a boat was shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sunday.

"It’s a problem that’s been building for years, and the numbers have continued to rise," says Chris Morris, with the BBC. "They’re not all political refugees, many of them are economic migrants."

Most people attempting the journey are trying to escape the violence and poverty in their native countries and find better job opportunities.

"London, in particular, is a magnet because it’s Europe’s genuinely international city," Morris says. "It’s a place where many people from many countries have friends, or relatives, or somebody from the village who has said, 'if you manage to get here, I’ll get you a place where you can kip on the floor and my cousin will give you a job at his bakery.'"

This disaster has prompted much criticism over the European Union’s response to the dangers migrants face crossing the Mediterranean. There's no final count yet of exactly how many people drowned in yesterday's sinking of that migrant ship.

What is clear, however, is that people will risk their lives to get out of where they are. 

For streaming sites, playlists still need human touch

Mon, 2015-04-20 09:41

About half a dozen people circle a large conference room in Google’s New York office, reviewing a series of color-coded spreadsheets projected a wall behind them.

“Let’s jump into some stations,” says Peter Asbill, who oversees editorial for Google Play Music after the company acquired his music start-up, Songza, last summer.

“These are all of the playlists that we have, all of the stations, within working-out experience right now,” Asbill says.

There are currently 86 different “work-out” playlists, each one made and revised by human beings. The process is reminiscent of the days of when music fans might have carefully crafted a mixed cassette tape or CD for a friend or crush. In today’s digital music world an increasing number of music streaming sites want listeners to outsource those playlist-making responsibilities to them, competing for the ever-increasing time consumers spend with earbuds in their ears.

But perhaps surprisingly in this digital age, even when playlists go corporate, human beings are still key to their success.

For Asbill, the key difference between yesterday and today’s process is data. The group focuses on their “Performance-Enhancing Pop” playlist. Data collected from users shows that the playlist gets selected frequently, but its “satisfaction score, a proprietary score that’s a mix of skips and thumbs up, thumbs down, and listening time,” is just okay.

The worst preforming song on the playlist is "Honey," by Mariah Carey, which the group decides is likely too slow compared with others on the list. A Kenny Loggins song also isn’t preforming well. While its tempo is faster, the team thinks it’s stylistically out of place with other, more popular songs, like Lady Gaga’s "Just Dance."

In the end, the consenus is that Kenny and Mariah should probably be cut from this mix, along with Britney Spears, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” which the group thinks should moved to their “Sexy Sweaty Workout” list.

But why is this human touch necessary in 2015? Why not take this data and let machines and algorithms do this work? Google Play Music does use algorithms when people want to pick an artist or song and have site suggest similar music, but Asbill says playlists made by humans can be creative, funny, or unique to a specific situation, activity or feeling.

“It always requires further investigation,” he says. “If it’s a new song, is it too early so that not enough people know about it and like it yet and will it do better over time? Is it a song that’s a great song, it’s just on the wrong playlist, or have we given the playlist the wrong title so that we’re not setting up people’s expectations for what they hear on the other end?”

Pandora, an early entry into music streaming, also relies people for its music curation, but in a very different way from Google. Both sites use algorithms to create a playlists based off a song or artist the listener chooses. However unlike Google, which has machines analyze those songs, Pandora uses people.

“It really takes a human,” says Steve Hogan, Pandora’s music operations manager. “For example, a human can listen to a song and pick out there’s a trumpet, there’s an acoustic bass. This is something the human ear can do in a fraction of a second.”

A team of roughly 30 people, most of them active musicians, analyze 10,000 songs a month, tagging 200 to 400 traits for each song, answering questions like, "how much does the electric guitar dominate this song?"

“That would be on a five-point scale,” Hogan explains. “Beyond that, we want to know, 'how much distortion effect is on that guitar on a five-point scale? What is that guitar doing, how much of it is strummed rhythm guitar?'”

The algorithms then draw on those descriptions and tags to build playlists of similar songs for listeners. In other words, machines offer scale for Pandora, but it’s humans who bring the quality. 

A start-up is creating t-shirt tycoons

Mon, 2015-04-20 09:31
$5 million

That's how much one small store on Chicago's south side sold in lottery tickets last year. Lucky Mart used to be a convenience store, but after selling a ticket that won big, the shop rebranded and now sells lottery tickets almost exclusively. At the time our reporter visited the store, officials came by with a plaque naming Lucky Mart the top-grossing location for the Illinois state lottery.

7 million

That's how many shirts TeeSpring sold last year, raking in about $100 million, Bloomberg reported. The start-up is a platform for designing, buying and selling t-shirts, taking care of production, shipping, customer service and the like. The site makes more than half of its sales through targeted ads on social media, and its birthed a group of t-shirt entrepreneurs, some of whom make more than $1 million with their designs. 

7,072,000 tons

That's how much electronic waste the U.S. generated last year, much of it from large appliances, according to a new report from United Nations University. The U.S. outstrips other countries' e-waste, the BBC reported, leaving thousands of tons of valuable recyclable materials like copper in landfills.

90 percent off

That's the hook for one of airline JetBlue's many "flash sales," wherein a business offers deep discounts for a very short time. Marketplace Weekend looked into how companies leverage these eye-popping deals — which often run at a loss — for publicity, and how consumers can best take advantage of them before time runs out.

PODCAST: Basketball heads to Cuba

Mon, 2015-04-20 03:00

Today, China used a central tenet of banking to bring new vigor to the economy there. More on that. And later this week, the International Basketball Federation and the NBA are holding a development camp in Havana. We'll talk about what is considered the first big foray into Cuba by big name sports. Plus, as we've been hearing this morning, just two dozen bodies have been recovered after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants bound for Europe sank off of Libya on Saturday. Estimates of the number of those aboard range from 700 to perhaps 1,000 people. We talk to Mattheo de Bellis, who focuses on Europe for the human rights group Amnesty International.

PODCAST: Basketball heads to Cuba

Mon, 2015-04-20 03:00

Today, China used a central tenet of banking to bring new vigor to the economy there. More on that. And later this week, the International Basketball Federation and the NBA are holding a development camp in Havana. We'll talk about what is considered the first big foray into Cuba by big name sports. Plus, as we've been hearing this morning, just two dozen bodies have been recovered after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants bound for Europe sank off of Libya on Saturday. Estimates of the number of those aboard range from 700 to perhaps 1,000 people. We talk to Mattheo de Bellis, who focuses on Europe for the human rights group Amnesty International.

PODCAST: Basketball heads to Cuba

Mon, 2015-04-20 03:00

Today, China used a central tenet of banking to bring new vigor to the economy there. More on that. And later this week, the International Basketball Federation and the NBA are holding a development camp in Havana. We'll talk about what is considered the first big foray into Cuba by big name sports. Plus, as we've been hearing this morning, just two dozen bodies have been recovered after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants bound for Europe sank off of Libya on Saturday. Estimates of the number of those aboard range from 700 to perhaps 1,000 people. We talk to Mattheo de Bellis, who focuses on Europe for the human rights group Amnesty International.

Hasbro's new princesses, and growth strategy

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:14

Hasbro has long been known for brands like Nerf and G.I. Joe.  But last year it snatched a contract from the hands of rival Mattel: the Disney princess contract.

Jaime Katz, an analyst for Morningstar who tracks Hasbro, says that contract is worth around $300 million per year. And of course, it includes the famous princess sisters Elsa and Anna from the hit film Frozen.

But licensing isn't the only growth strategy for Hasbro. It still sends reps to game inventor shows and develops relationships with the people whose ideas become hit card games, according to Mary Couzens, founder and CEO of the Chicago Toy and Game Group. 

Click the media player above to hear more.

This store sold $5 million in lottery tickets last year

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:00

Years ago, under another name, the shop at 2900 West 87th Street, on Chicago’s South Side, was a convenience store, which happened to sell lottery tickets. Then, Mr. Chan Park took over and turned it into Lucky Mart— a kind of Lottery Tickets ‘R’ Us. Park sold more than $5 million worth of tickets last year. 

Lucky Mart's tellers sit behind thick glass at the ticket windows. There are still Honey Buns and chips on the shelves, but nobody buys any—at least, not in the hour-and-change I spend here. The ticket machines, however, never stop ringing and buzzing.

Chan Park came to the U.S. from South Korea in 2001 and bought a laundromat. A few years later, he took over this store. 

However, with three big discount supermarkets right nearby, he knew he needed to reinvent the business. "I thought, I don’t have any competitive power for that kind of grocery," he says.

Not for groceries. But he knew the store had sold a $28 million lottery ticket, and that seemed worth building on. He re-branded as Lucky Mart. Park says he believes there’s something lucky about the location.

He doesn’t mention it, but the location has another advantage: This is a primarily African-American neighborhood. Research shows African-Americans play the lottery a lot more than other groups.

About ten minutes into our conversation, we’re interrupted by a visit from Park's sales rep from the Illinois lottery accompanied by three regional officials.

They say they had no idea a reporter was coming. They're here for what's become an annual ritual: Awarding Park a plaque commemorating his success as the operator of the state lottery's top-grossing location. 

The officials agree that the store’s focus— and location — explain that success.

Also, customer service — in particular a clerk named Becky Reidy, who has been selling lottery tickets here since before Mr. Park took over.

Frank Taylor, the Chicago area’s sales director, calls her the best he’s ever seen. "She’s super with the players," he says. "She knows all of our games, she knows all of our promotions. And she’s, like, really into the lottery."

To Reidy, I admit: I’ve never played the lottery.

"Don’t start," she says. "Bad habit!" 

She smiles— and laughs, a little nervously —but she seems to mean it. She says she doesn’t play anymore.

I ask her if she feels a little funny about selling it.

"Oh sure," she says. "I know the economy sucks. Money could go elsewhere."

One economist found that, when people buy lottery tickets, they’re often using money they would have spent on household necessities—like food.

"I could never work in a casino," Reidy says.

But here’s the thing: Casinos are arguably less of a rip-off than the lottery. 

In Illinois, and around the country, about 60 percent of what lottery customers spend on tickets comes back as prize money. At slot machines, where casinos make the most money, it’s often more like 90 percent.

Insurance companies get FAA approval to use drones

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:00

More drones could be coming to a neighborhood near you, and they’ll be from your insurance company.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved several insurers to use drones to assess property damage.

Soon our blue skies might be dotted with hundreds of little drones.

Sound like science fiction? It’s not.

“In light of the proposed new regulations from the FAA that came out a few weeks ago, there [are] going to be a lot more commercial agencies using drones for all kinds of things from insurance assessments to agriculture to fire rescue,” says Matt Sloane, president of Atlanta Drone Consultants.

Part of that, Sloane says, is because they’re so useful.

“What drones really offer is the ability to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on, so that doesn’t help in every industry,” he says. "But certainly for things like insurance assessments where you fly something like this just a hundred feet over, over a damage scene to do an assessment, you really get a different view of what’s going on.”

During natural disasters helicopters are typically used to assess damage, but they can cost $1,000 an hour and put people’s lives in jeopardy, Sloane said.

That’s why insurance companies like State Farm are so interested in drones.

The insurer was the first to get FAA approval to use unmanned aircrafts for damage assessment.

"If we can send a drone to look over at our customer’s house and determine, 'Okay they have significant damage there,'” says Justin Tomczak, the Georgia spokesperson for State Farm. “That information could be relayed to their agent  and we can call [our client] and say I noticed your house has significant damage, we’re cutting you a check right now to cover your immediate expenses that you may have.”

If you’re worried about all those little devices recording you, Matt Sloane says you might just have to get used it.

“Although I will say most of them don’t have cameras with the ability to zoom so it’s not going to be a sort of satellite situation from a 1,000 feet you could zoom in and see every little detail,” says Sloane. “You really need to get a lot closer with a drone to be able to see a detailed image.”

The FAA currently has a public comment period open to address concerns; it ends on April 24.

Good times are rolling at investment banks

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:00

Investment firm Morgan Stanley on Monday became the last of the major banks to report earnings, and it was more good news for investment banking. The firm beat forecasts. Net revenue was up 10.3 percent. 

Last week, other major U.S. banks also reported mostly good news and, in almost all cases, profits were boosted by the firms' investment banking businesses — the very same businesses that came under increased scrutiny and regulation after the 2008 financial crisis, and that were the subject of tighter regulations. 

"After the crisis, a false narrative developed" about investment banking, says Charles Calomiris of Columbia Business School. Banks that engage is investment activity are not necessarily taking big risks with money. "There's a wide variety of activities that actually have very little risk, that are fee for service, that actually add a lot to the stability of the banking system," Calomiris says.

Those services include facilitating stock trades, advising corporations and wealth management. Fees for such services are playing a big role in bank profits now, and the timing has to do with soaring stock prices, according to Lawrence White, an economics professor at New York University.

"The stock market has been doing well lately, and the volume, the pace of mergers and acquisitions has been increasing," which in turn increases banks' revenues from fees, says White. 

But, White cautions, big banks are under increased regulatory scrutiny because there is still risk involved in their dual practices of investment banking and traditional banking, especially if the current good times come to an end and banks looks for riskier ways to bring in profits. 


Why NBA is first U.S. pro league to go to Cuba

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:00

The NBA and the International Basketball Federation are playing host to a basketball development camp in Havana this week.

That propels the NBA into sports history: it will be the first American sports league to visit Cuba since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations. Cuban Basketball Federation President Ruperto Herrera was quoted in an NBA press release as saying, “This is a great day for Cuban basketball and our federation.” It’s also pretty savvy on the NBA’s part.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Celebrity gossip comes to Instagram

Mon, 2015-04-20 02:00

Traditional celebrity gossip—be it in print, on television, or written about online—deals in the real world goings-on of celebrity life. But a popular Instagram account is garnering attention for looking at the social media lives of those in the entertainment industry. The Shade Room, as it’s known, focuses on how well-known personalities interact in forums like Twitter and Instagram. 

“It’s very much kind of an intra-instagram kind of network,” says Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for The New York Times, who recently wrote about The Shade Room, calling it Instagram’s very own “TMZ.”

“You’re going to see lot of things very specific to social media,” says Wortham. “It tends to focus on when Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are having a back and forth on instagram. It captures that and posts it. It aggregates all of that it in one space.”

Wortham met and interviewed the founder of The Shade Room, a 24-year-0ld woman named Angie, who wants to be known only by her first name.

Given the popularity of her ‘Insta-blog,’ why is she so secretive?

“She knows that the appeal of Shade Room is that it kind of has this sort of Oz-like omnipotence,” says Wortham. “To show the wizard behind the curtain would remove some of  the mystique and the mystery.”

It’s smart decision on her part, adds Wortham, because the mystery keeps things more fun and interesting.

Angie runs the blog with the help of a handful of employees. The Shade Room started out on Instagram, but since then it has launched a regular blog. It also has accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and advertises on all of these platforms.  

Could this turn into a breaking news site for celebrity news?  “I think down the line absolutely it could be a place where people break news or want to make announcements or talk about an album release or a new concert tour,” says Wortham. “I dont think thats’ out of her reach at all.”


Weekly Wrap: Inflation, Greece and IPOs

Fri, 2015-04-17 16:58

Joining Kai to talk about the week's business and economic news are Fortune Magazine's Leigh Gallagher and John Carney from the Wall Street Journal. The big topics this week: inflation at the retail level and consumer sentiment, Greece's debt problems and the eurozone, and Etsy's and Party City's stock market debuts. 


German luxury carmakers make a mass-market push

Fri, 2015-04-17 13:13

The German luxury carmakers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi are reporting record levels of global sales after the first quarter of 2015.

The news marks a bit of a turning point for an industry that was founded on notions of exclusivity.

As entry-level prices drop, more and more car buyers can hope to buy a piece of fine German engineering, but the move does come with a few risks.

It used to be the case that owning a luxury car was something to aspire to. These days, luxury carmakers are even targeting millenials buying their first car.

“They're more concerned about keeping you in the fold and making sure that there is something there for each of your life stages,” Huge Marketing Director Megan Malli says. “That's really where they're headed with respect to the marketplace.” 

Lower starting prices and a broader range of models may translate into higher sales, but it also risks diluting the brand’s cache.

They are now competing against the Hondas and the Fords of the world, and frankly, often those other vehicles can really beat them on options and pricing,” Malli says.

That’s where marketing strategy comes in to play. If would-be buyers still believe that BMW equates with say, “performance,” then being more mass-market is actually a good thing.  

"They really preserve their brand messaging, even if they produce cars that are less expensive," says NYU Stern School Professor Thomaï Serdari. She also notes that the German's mass-market strategy won’t work for every luxury car brand.

"Cadillac is a brand that had a lot of cache a few years ago, but also it was associated with people of a specific type and background, perhaps much much older," says Serdari.

In recent years Cadillac has had little to tout besides its high end Escalade SUV. In order to become relevant again, Serdari believes the brand needs to cut back its offerings, and go upmarket to firmly re-establish itself on the high end of luxury, a place BMW, Audi and Mercedes already occupy.

"Then perhaps they can reverse their strategy and start targeting the mass market with less expensive models."

"Jeopardy!" tried to sponsor a mustache

Fri, 2015-04-17 13:00

Remember that giant hack at Sony from late last year? Well, Wikileaks published the whole stack of leaked documents this week.

Buried in there was one from "Jeopardy!" executive producer Harry Friedman, who was looking to grow revenue, I guess.

Here's what he wrote:

After 13 years , Alex Trebek has grown back his mustache. We have a plan to take advantage of the seemingly never-ending interest in his upper lip, and monetize the interest that will be generated when he shaves it off again. So, yes, we're looking for someone .....Gillette, Dollar Shave Club, Harry's , Schick, be the Official Razor of Alex Trebek's Mustache.

Never did go anywhere, which is kind of a pity.

Why markets freaked when Bloomberg crashed

Fri, 2015-04-17 11:00

Service from the financial data giant Bloomberg cut out Friday morning, just as trading got underway in London, staying out of commission for more than two hours. Bloomberg terminals — which cost $20,000 a year — are a lifeline for workers in the financial industry. Trading in some markets nearly stopped, and the U.K. government actually postponed the sale of a series of bonds.  

In addition to an array of market data and news, many traders use Bloomberg's built-in chat system as a kind of virtual trading pit.

"That messaging system has become a critical lifeline for many people in the industry," says Douglas B. Taylor, a consultant to financial-data companies, including Bloomberg and competitors like Thompson Reuters.

The "network effect" — the fact that so many traders already use Bloomberg this way — is one reason the company has outgrown those competitors, and why it is likely to remain dominant, according to Matt Turck, a partner at First Mark, a venture capital firm.

For traders who use Bloomberg's chat system this way, an outage would be like trying to organize 20 people to go out to dinner, and finding that your phone has stopped working. 

"It’s like being shut out of the rest of the world," Turck says. "Suddenly, there’s no information coming in, and you have nobody to call."  

So during the outage today, a lot of traders just sat around. Some sought solace on Twitter:

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