US markets close as Frankenstein's Monstorm heads to NYC

Hurricane Sandy marks first full trading-day lost to weather in over 25 years.

Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit in New York City in just under 15 hours, is likely to throw everything we expected about the upcoming week off-course.

For readers of this blog, the biggest immediate effect is that all equity trading is cancelled for today, and likely for tomorrow as well. The shutdown, announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), follows the NYSE's decision, announced yesterday, to close floor trading for the storm.

The NYSE had hoped to leave digital markets open, but the SEC's decision trumps that and also brings down a further dozen exchanges, including the other major NYC exchange, NASDAQ, but also ones based further afield, all the way to BATS in Kansas.

While the NYSE decision was based largely on the physical safety of traders on the floor, the SEC's mandate seems more built around a desire for fairness and stability. Given the storm will likely shut down most of the east coast for at least part of today, large numbers of traders would be unable to log-on wherever they are. The COO of NYSE confirmed to Bloomberg that:

Operating the market that way didn’t seem to serve the public interest. Why do this? To prove we can? That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

The last time the NYSE closed for a full day due to weather was because of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which says a lot about how bad Sandy is expected to be.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has written about Why Sandy Has Meteorologists Scared in 4 Images (including one animated GIF, obviously); this is Frankenstein's Monstorm, with a massive confluence of adverse factors. Firstly, and most importantly, it's really, really big. The winds are faster, the affected area is larger, and it will likely stick around for a lot longer once it makes landfall.

Beyond that, though, there's the fact that the eye of the storm will be on central New Jersey, meaning that New York City – the most densely populated area in the US – will be getting full-strength hurricane winds; the fact that the same cold winds that will cause it to "pinwheel" on to land will also strengthen it just before it does, hitting coastal areas even harder; and the problem that the "sheltered" New York City coastline will instead funnel the storm surge directly towards populated areas, meaning that for the coast between Queens and the Bronx especially, there is more chance than not that the surge will be greater than six feet.

The effect of the storm is expected to be worse than last summer's Hurricane Irene, which, despite being thought of as a damp squib (pun not intended), still caused nearly $16bn of damage, mostly from flooding. But the comparatively underwhelming nature of Irene has meant that a number of people aren't taking Sandy as seriously as they perhaps ought to, with evacuations (Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of around 375,000 people in the worst-hit parts of the city) reportedly being largely ignored.

As well as the physical and economic damage of the storm, there is one other big effect that Sandy could have: it may mess up the US presidential election. No matter how well-run the response is, there are likely to be some areas still lacking power by the 6th. Contingency plans will be in effect, but if there is any uniformity to the areas affect – if, say, rural counties are more likely to be cut-off than urban – then there is the chance that some swings could be down to the storm.

The chance of it affecting the outcome is slim but the possibility is there. Who knows how the parties, and the public, would take it?

Hurricane Sandy making landfall. Image: WeatherBELL

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.