Biz & Tech // Business

Turmoil on Wall Street means confusion in S.F. Financial District

The world, which was supposed to end on Wednesday, didn’t.

At least not in the Financial District of San Francisco, where the stock market continued to do what it does best, which is confuse people. The average investor had no idea what was happening. That put him in league with all the experts.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” said Phillip McCarthy, who was sitting on the steps of the old Pacific Coast Stock Exchange on Pine Street.

McCarthy, an editor at an advertising agency, said a college professor once told him that stocks have only “perceived value” and now, he said, that perception was all making sense and it only cost him a small fortune to find out.

It had something to do with China, with panic and with the way most worldly things go down after going up.

“But I couldn’t tell you how the hell all that works,” McCarthy said.

The building he was sitting in front of is no longer a stock exchange but a $205-a-month gym, a price point as much in need of a correction as anything in his portfolio.

On Monday, the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 588.47 points. On Tuesday morning, it un-plummeted by 441 points. Then, in the afternoon, it coughed back those 441 points and went back to plummeting. The total Tuesday plummet was more than 200 points. On Wednesday, there was more un-plummeting, and this time it stayed un-plummeted.

By the end of Wednesday, the average was either up 619.07 points, compared with Tuesday night, or down 705.18 points, compared with Friday morning. Stay the course, advised the brokers, whatever the course was.

During the few moments McCarthy was chatting with a Chronicle reporter, the market went up by 0.1 percent and McCarthy made perhaps $100. Also on the front steps was investor Gabriel Marcial, who had spent the morning inside the old stock exchange lifting kettlebells. He said he was “not overly concerned” and that, even if he was, there was nothing to be done about it.

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong,” he said. “Not if you believe in the underlying strength of the economy. The stock market goes down. Of course I mind, but if you’re worried all the time about losing money over the course of a day, you shouldn’t invest in it.”

Pedestrians walk past an electronic message board on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 which indicates a rebound in stock market trading following Monday's deep slide.
Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Inside the gym, Jennifer Hyde was turning out smoothies at the juice bar. If there was panic, it did not prevent gym customers from buying $12 smoothies. She said she has been on the job for just a month and the juice bar has not yet offered her a retirement plan with a chance to invest in the stocks that used to be traded in the building where she was, at the moment, loading a blender with pineapple and banana chunks.

Over the past week she had lost nothing, unlike all the financial types on the treadmills. She felt pretty good about that.

“I didn’t even know this building used to be a stock exchange,” she said. “I thought it was a courthouse. It sure looks like a courthouse.”

All week, nobody has known anything. At the Fidelity brokerage house, the man behind the counter said he couldn’t say why the huge electronic sign over his head was displaying such wild swings.

“Who knows?” he said. Under the brokerage’s rules, he was forbidden from giving his name even though he had said nothing. That was by no means the most difficult thing to understand about finance.

Phillip McCarthy sits on the steps of the old Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. Stock prices showed an early rise when the markets opened for trading.
Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Standing in front of the brokerage on Market Street was Margaret Wong-Chan, a tech worker at a bank, who occasionally glanced through the window at the electronic sign with all its green arrows pointing upward.

“The market was inflated to begin with,” she said. “This week is a reality check. It’s a wake-up call. It’s a hiccup.”

The hiccuping, she said, was particularly hard on her mother, who did not understand why she had lost so much money this week since she had done nothing.

“My mother couldn’t sleep. I told her to take a chill pill. There’s nothing you can do. All she lost was what she had made. She still had what she started out with.”

It was true, Wong-Chan said, that she herself had lost on paper perhaps the cost of a new car. But, she said, the car had never really existed. It was all on paper. It was a potential car.

“I didn’t really lose anything because I never had it,” she said.

Standing nearby on the Montgomery Street sidewalk and holding a cardboard sign was Anthony Reed. The sign asked people to “stop and take a second to help.” No one did.

Pedestrians walk past an electronic message screen on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, Calif. indicating an early rise in trading when the stock markets opened on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.
Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Reed said he was not between jobs. He had been standing on street corners for many years. It was steady work, he said.

Then a passerby slipped Reed a dollar. Reed said his bottom line had just gone up by a large amount, although it was lagging the overall market.

“Money doesn’t make me who I am,” Reed said. “All the time I see people come out of these buildings. They work on the 35th floor someplace. And they’re always frowning. They’re mad. Nothing is going right for them. And I work out here all day, and maybe I make $10. And if someone gives me a $5 bill, I’m happy. It doesn’t take much.”

Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: