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When Wall Street was Cool

Conventional wisdom states that the stock market is unlikely to make a significant, sustained upward move until ordinary investors get back into the game. Individual investors, whose collective worth runs into the billions of dollars, are standing on the sidelines waiting for good news about sales and earnings before buying any more stocks, the theory …

Conventional wisdom states that the stock market is unlikely to make a significant, sustained upward move until ordinary investors get back into the game. Individual investors, whose collective worth runs into the billions of dollars, are standing on the sidelines waiting for good news about sales and earnings before buying any more stocks, the theory holds.

A corollary states that many investors are so shell-shocked by the ruin visited on their portfolios in the past two years that they will never return to the market. Ever. Like people who lived through the Great Depression, they have been scarred for life.

Or so the theory goes.

I disagree. I think the main reason investors are staying out of the stock market is because it is no longer fashionable. As Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, the Gap and Sylvester Stallone have learned to their immense sorrow, the American public is capable of turning on a dime, and once the public has decreed that a person or product is no longer “cool,” the smell of death sets in. As former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has also discovered, the American public might forgive a person for being stupid, but it will never forgive someone for being a loser. And when the Nasdaq declines almost 75 percent and fortunes are wiped out overnight, a popular mode of investing goes out of fashion in a hurry.

It was not always thus. In the late ’90s, it was considered “cool” to be a day trader, to speculate on ridiculously overvalued companies and throw money at stocks you knew nothing about. Television was filled with commercials about goofball slackers making fortunes via electronic trading. Greed alone cannot account for the boom of the ’90s; rather, Wall Street attracted enormous sums of money because it was perceived as the place to be.

This is no longer true. So where do we go from here? Obviously, it would be a good thing if American corporations could buck up their sales, pump up their earnings and get their stocks juiced. This alone might propel the Dow back to the 10,000 level. But in order for another bull market to occur, Wall Street is going to need a makeover so it can be seen, once again, as a cool place to be.

How can this transformation be achieved? A lesson from the world of footwear may help. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nike’s Mesozoic Air Force I basketball sneaker-introduced in 1981, when Michael Jordan was still in college-has become the hottest sneaker in the country. A few years back the popular rapper Jay-Z paid $500 for a pair of the hard-to-find sneakers, officially immortalizing them. Since that time, partly because the manufacturer has deliberately limited the supply of the shoes, the Air Force I has acquired a huge mystique among young people. The shoes are even the subject of a rap-music single by the group Nelly. Though pop songs about footwear are not totally unheard off (“Put on Your High-Heel Sneakers,” “The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes”), this is considered an enormous honor.

Wall Street could learn from this experience. By creating a buzz around an individual company, and then deliberately limiting the supply of that stock, Wall Street could create a situation where young investors would be willing to pay exorbitant sums of money to own the company’s shares. By subtly modifying the concept of hipness to embrace owning a fashionable, overpriced stock rather than owning a fashionable, overpriced athletic shoe, Wall Street could attract a whole new generation of investors. The harder it is to find the stock, the higher the price will go. This would encourage other companies to introduce similarly trendy stocks, and before long, the old cachet of Wall Street will return.

This may be an extravagant solution to the market’s long-term problems, but like a lot of people who have seen their portfolios shredded, I’m desperate. I’ll try anything. As a product of the rebellious ’60s I never thought I’d live to see the day when young people thought the stock market was cool. Now I can only hope I live to see them anoint the market cool a second time. Otherwise, my portfolio’s down for the count.

Joe Queenan is CE‘s longest-running columnist.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.