At a Glance
- Lee Stern began his trading career in 1947
- At 90, he trades grains, gold, crude oil and bonds
Had the employment office at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) in Chicago not been next to the student lounge, Lee Stern may never have gotten into trading.
He noticed a sign in the employment office advertising positions for runners at the Chicago Board of Trade, down the street. In 1947, when Stern was 20 and just out of the Air Corp, he was hired by Merrill Lynch as a runner. The job paid $25 a week, a good supplement to the $100 a month he was receiving for going to school on the GI Bill. He eventually became a CBOT member on Nov. 7, 1949.
Sixty-eight years later, he continues to trade and operate a trading firm, making Stern the longest -serving member of the CBOT.
After taking a course about commodities at the CBOT, and enjoying the action in the pits, Stern decided he wanted to pursue a career trading.
“It seemed to be an important business,” Stern says now.
A Start in Soybeans and Spread Trading
Memberships at the Board of Trade were $2,250 in the late 1940s. He purchased the seat with a little help from his father and a loan from his mother, who was a buyer at a major Chicago department store.
At the time, new members needed someone to sponsor them with a $10,000 guarantee. The floor manager from Merrill Lynch, Howard Hinman and Larry “Stubby” Sachs, each agreed to sponsor him. With their backing, Stern decided to broker his own account, but needed to trade through a company. A few other traders recommended he talk to John G. McCarthy, a former CBOT president, who owned a clearing firm.
“I told him I only had $500 to trade. He said, ‘son, if you had more, you may lose it’,” Stern said.
Stern started out in the soybean pit, which had recently started trading in 1949. He said he was a small trader, scalping odd lots, which were 1,000 bushels in size, eventually moving up to round lots, which were 5,000 bushels.
He found his niche in spread trading. While helping to manage orders for Herman Gordon, head broker for Merrill Lynch, Stern handled an unfinished spread order.
“The market got a little wild and I filled the order,” he says. “When I filled the order, I gave it back to Herman who said, ‘that’ s not the market, how did you get that done?’ I told him the market was out of line a little bit and I was able to do the spread. With that I realized there was an opportunity to trade spreads in the market with very little risk.”
Stern spoke with the Futures Industry Association about his career in 2015.
McCarthy and Stern became close associates, and eventually Stern took over McCarthy’s firm in 1967, establishing Lee B. Stern & Co., becoming a clearing member in 1971.
Success with his firm allowed him to invest in another love – sports. In 1974, Stern founded the Sting, Chicago’s professional soccer franchise, naming it after the popular Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie. For the next 14 years, he was an ambassador for the sport, and the team went on to win two North American Soccer League Championships. In 1976 Stern also became a minority owner and director of the Chicago White Sox.
Futures markets were good to Stern, although such a long career does not come without its own trials.
The biggest one known is what Stern calls “the bond fiasco” in 1992. On Oct. 22 that year, two exchange members, one of who was a new customer of Stern, were illegally trading Treasury bonds and options. The scam cost the firm $8.5 million, and its membership on the exchange was temporarily suspended. The company covered the loss, taking a substantial financial hit. Its membership was reinstated, but Stern decided to no longer be a clearing member.
The incident weighed on him. “I was pretty down in the dumps,” he says, but action by Chicago Mercantile Exchange executives Jack Sandner and Leo Melamed lifted his spirits at an awards ceremony celebrating 25-year members. Sandner and Melamed applauded Stern’s decision to cover the loss, rather than file for bankruptcy. “I always remembered how wonderful the CME Group was to me,” Stern says.
Stern and his company bounced back the next year, essentially starting over. As it turned out, 1993 was his best year ever trading soybeans, but not because he believed he had to make the money back. “I learned a long time ago, once you lose money, you don’t make it back. You make new money.”
Stern’s family became active in futures markets too. Sons Jeffrey, Danny and Kenny, and daughter January, also worked as traders.
Today, Stern operates LBS Limited Partnership, a small futures company. On a typical day, he is trading on his home computer, and coming to the office around 11 a.m., leaving at 2:30 p.m. He trades the grain markets, bonds, gold and crude oil. He has witnessed the evolution of trading from pits to screen. “Oddly enough I had no problems converting from the floor to the computer,” Stern says. “A lot of my contemporaries had a very hard time with it and got out of the business. I trade more today than I did in the pits.”
With 68 years of trading under his belt, Stern could have easily retired decades ago. Why does he still trade?
“As long as I’m alive I’ll be trading. I will be 91 in December, so if I’m going to live to 100, I need to stay active.”