Being president of the New York Stock Exchange brings prestige as the face of a symbol of American capitalism.
This week Stacey Cunningham was reminded it can also mean taking tough knocks in full public view, as she found herself caught up in the tensions between the US and China — and under scrutiny over the NYSE’s decision-making.
On New Year’s Day the NYSE said it would delist three Chinese telecom companies to comply with a White House order preventing US investors from holding stakes in companies with alleged ties to the Chinese military.
Days later the exchange reversed its decision, citing further consultation with relevant regulatory authorities. But then, after a call to Ms Cunningham from Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the NYSE backtracked again and proceeded with the delistings.
“I am surprised that the NYSE did not just wait Trump out and ask Biden to rescind the Trump executive order,” said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University.
Former colleagues say the episode is a rare mis-step for someone regarded as having a natural talent for the job.
“I have the highest regard for her,” said Eric Noll, former senior executive of Nasdaq, where Ms Cunningham was a colleague. “When you are working in an exchange one of the key skills is balancing its interests. There are regulatory roles, customer relationships, the people who pay the fees and there’s a public role. Often they’re in conflict with one another. She’s always been very good at figuring out the right path and balance.”
Mr Noll suggested it was rare for exchanges to face sustained political pressure. “There is a fundamental issue: is a US exchange like NYSE a national champion or a global business?”
Exchange operators, index providers and brokers have in recent weeks given investors varied guidance on how they will comply with the Trump administration’s order before it takes effect on Monday. Some, like NYSE, have had to update trader advice multiple times, sowing confusion in financial markets.
“Many companies seem to be facing . . . challenges in making sure they fully understand and comply with the entirety of the order” said Caroline Brown, partner at law firm Crowell & Moring. “The NYSE is not an exception there.”
Ms Cunningham, who declined to comment to the Financial Times, has spoken in the past of lessons learned as a floor trader at the NYSE: take responsibility for mistakes and resolve them quickly. “You own it, you fix it, you move on.”
That practical streak has helped the 46-year-old break new ground in her career. With her appointment in May 2018 she became the first female president to have sole leadership of the storied exchange.
It was also the crowning achievement of someone who has trading in her blood — her father was a broker — and who says she has the NYSE in her heart, having fallen in love with the rhythms of the famous building at 11 Wall Street the moment she stepped on to the floor as an intern in 1994.
Then, the NYSE was the prime venue for listing and trading in America, with a floor populated by testosterone-fuelled men. The lavatory for female exchange members was just a converted telephone box.
Now, its neoclassical facade hides a 21st-century business that competes with banks and other exchanges for every trade in a hyperfast world. But it has lost its number one status — Nasdaq last year retained the position as top US venue to raise money, pulling in $84bn for companies compared with $79bn on NYSE, according to data from Dealogic.
After a degree in engineering, Ms Cunningham worked on the floor as a “specialist” for JJC, later part of Bank of America. A revolution that would sweep away all but a handful of those jobs was coming.
Nasdaq was fast emerging as a rival, led by a handful of Silicon Valley companies that were making rapid leaps in technology. Trading by computer was in its infancy. Frustrated at the NYSE’s slowness to adapt, she left to train as a chef.
After two years off she joined Nasdaq but returned in 2012 to NYSE, where she became chief operating officer in 2015.
Ms Cunningham was last year forced into another unprecedented move when the coronavirus crisis forced the exchange to close its floor for the first time in its 228-year history.
She received some criticism for not acting faster when New York was the centre of the initial US outbreak. The pits in Chicago had closed a week earlier.
It was a decision the former trader took with a heavy heart. “Having the floor open for business and running is an important message,” she said at the time. Many of those working on the floor supported her decisions.
She took particular pride as the NYSE withstood the coronavirus-induced battering from financial markets. On the busiest day in March it seamlessly processed more than 100bn orders and quotes on its systems, almost three times its previous record.
An exchange whose tardiness once forced her away had adapted, just as a trader must shift to changing circumstances.