In numerous cartoons and whatnot, you see a rich businessman shouting "BUY!" or "SELL!" into a telephone. Sometimes, it's just that, and sometimes, they may shout the slightly more specific: "SELL MOVIES!" or "BUY BEANS!"

I assume that the person on the other end is some kind of "personal stock broker", which somehow perform the actual buying/selling for them, on their command. I further assume that such a person can only be had if you are already rich and can afford for basically an expensive personal assistant.

In reality, is this how rich people do (or used to) perform stock market transactions? Do they not say:


? Do they really just say "BUY!" or "SELL!", or even "BUY GENERIC THING!" or "SELL GENERIC THING!"?

Have they agreed in advance on some kind of standardized sum of money for each buy/sell, such as $1,000 or maybe $10,000 or even $100,000? And are the "generic terms" code words that the stock broker knows very well what they mean? Or does the rich business person really just give such vague "hints" to the person actually performing the transactions?

And, prior to the Internet and stuff, how did those people actually make/"solidify" the sell/buy transactions?

  • It's of course BS, like so much in movies. No relation to reality, but that's how Hollywood dramatizes it to the public.
    – Aganju
    Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 17:19

3 Answers 3


For about 100 years or so, stock quotes (symbol, price, volume) were transmitted by telegraph. Many traders of that era were tape readers, often sitting in the office of their broker before phones were in wide usage. This was replaced by electronic communication networks (ECNs) circa 1980.

Until about 10 years or so ago, 'open outcry' was the method for communicating orders in trading pits. It involved hand signals and/or verbal statements. Floor runners were often used in the transfer of buy or sell orders (by phone to the floor of the exchange) from the brokerage firm to the floor traders. A classic example of open outcry is the trading of orange juice futures in the Eddie Murphy movie "Trading Places." Good cast and a movie worth watching.

For stock trading, in the days before the internet, people used telephones to trade. This was problematic in several ways. First, you had to wait for a broker and on busy market days, you had to wait, wait, wait. An extreme example was the crash of 1987 when the entire system overloaded. You were lucky to even get through to your broker that day. As an aside, I had half a dozen or so covered calls written on Bear Stearns that expired in-the-money on Friday, the last trading day before the crash. It took my full service broker Paine Webber over a week to determine if I had been assigned as expected or not.

With the advent of touch tone phones, retail traders could use it with brokers who offered automated quotes systems. For example, on your phone's keypad, the number 2 has the letters A, B, and C. If I wanted to get a quote for a stock with the symbol ABC I would press 2-1 (A), 2-2 (B), 2-3 (C) with the 2nd number of each pair representing letter's position on that key. Tedious, to say the least.

To the specifics of your question. People yell all the time, for many reasons, in person or on the phone. It's not a farfetched movie scene for a person losing money in the market or fervently desiring to make a stock purchase to be yelling at his broker over the phone.

Pre-internet, if you had a brokerage account, everyone had a broker, either personal or when discount brokers arose, a random stockbroker at your brokerage firm. You didn't have to be rich.

FWIW, rich people tend to utilize money managers who either directly trade the account for them or offers investment ideas to the account holder. However, nothing stops them from calling their broker to effect trades.

You young-uns have no idea what a pleasure it is to trade in the information age :->)

  • I like your post (+1). But the question isn’t “Did people use a phone?”, and it isn’t “Did people yell?”. It’s “Did (or do) people place orders by simply saying “Buy” or “Sell” and not specifying a specific stock and amount?”
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 3:05
  • 3
    @BenMiller-RememberMonica it's a reasonable answer to a slightly more reasonable version of the question. An answer that said "no, of course not, ESP isn't real" would literally answer the exact question, but it wouldn't be as good as this one.
    – hobbs
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 4:18
  • @hobbs I agree.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 6:50
  • @Ben Miller - Remember Monica - I gave it my best shot so I leave it to you to write an answer that addresses any aspect of the OP's question that I failed to address. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 5:17

During the 2010 flash crash, a broken algo started to sell at ridiculously low prices the whole portfolio of an investment group. After a short period of confusion, other participants realised there's cheap money right there, so they started to buy anything and everything. A trader recollected that day as "Everyone was screaming BUY BUY BUY".

Some news or market events affect many or all stocks the same way. Lehman Brothers' collapse, Brexit, a Fed Stimulus package, a successful vaccine - all of these will make seasoned investors buy or sell as much as possible. Maybe they would have more specific preferences, but if you have lots of money, you have to spread them across as many stocks as possible - because a single stock will not have enough volume.

You also have to be quick on the phone. You will have seconds (microseconds these days) to buy cheap stocks, until the seller realizes the new value of their stocks and puts prices up.

Similarly for SELL calls - they mean sell as much of the current portfolio because the prices will drop soon.

Of course doing that in a movie helps reinforcing an artistic effect: the person is rich, they have access to information that others don't or are so "important" that they juggle world events and casual conversations at the same time.

As for "Buy beans" - that's specific enough. It means buy bean commodities. The broker will have to make some choices, as to when the commodity is to be delivered or such, but if he or she knows that you want to resell, it doesn't matter.

It's also possible that a businessman/rich person does not talk to a broker or trader on the phone but to their portfolio manager. They would already have a lot of context already - how much cash is available, what stocks are in the portfolio, what are your investment preferences, etc. A PM doesn't need too much context to understand you. They would need to translate that into a specific order to a broker.

Also, in ye olden days, some brokers were specialized in a particular commodity - e.g. iron ore or corn. So just picking up a particular phone line was a way to select the stock.

In summary, while this is not a good description of day to day trading, it's not a completely fake scenario either. It's picking a dramatic and rare moment for an investor, but that's what movies do all the time.

  • Do you have sources for these?
    – ave
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 12:45
  • 1
    <<Jim Cramer, the former hedge fund trader and the host of “Mad Money,” seemed to calm the conversation a bit by basically saying, “Buy, buy, buy.”>> nytimes.com/2010/05/07/business/07markets.html
    – Sam
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 14:46
  • @Sam Great answer! Just a small note, there seems to be a common misconception about the 2010 flash crash which I have expanded on in my answer here. This is not related directly to your answer, but it is an interesting story to know the facts on nonetheless. Not a broken algorithm, rather an intentionally executed plan by one man and his company.
    – Flats
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 19:45

To give an instruction to a broker this is the minimum information required: Side: Buy or Sell Security: e.g. Apple, Tesla, etc Type of Order: e.g. Limit Price: an amount (or market) Quantity: Number of shares Time in Force: e.g. good for the day, good till cancelled or something else Algo: optional, an algorithm to use to execute the trade

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