Longtime New York commodity exchange executive Joe O’Neill passed away on August 4, 2018 at the age of 74. This plain statement tells little of a life lived in the most colorful of times in New York commodity exchange history or a career that included launching the first financial futures (before CME/IMM by 2 years), the creation of the Dollar Index Contract (with the help of Paul Tudor Jones) and being the consultant for the futures trading aspects of the script of the hit movie “Trading Places.”
O’Neill started working in the exchange space in New York in 1970 when there was a Coffee Exchange, a Sugar Exchange and a Cocoa Exchange. Later, there was a Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange.
He worked for the New York Cotton Exchange and later became its CEO. At the Cotton Exchange, they also had Orange Juice and a FINEX division to trade financial products.
When we met, he was working at the New York Board of Trade, which was the then-new name under which the Cotton Exchange and the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchanges had been merged. NYBOT would later be bought by ICE, and that deal brought O’Neill’s exchange employment to an end. In subsequent years, he worked as a consultant in the commodity space.
I met him for the first time at the Swiss Futures & Options Exchange’s annual Bürgenstock Conference in 2004. He was representing NYBOT and I was representing a brand new company I had started to support this newsletter, John J. Lothian & Company, Inc.
Joe and I enjoyed a glass of wine on the steps of the Palace Hotel in Burgenstock. He made plans to sit down later and tell me the story of how financial futures were actually first created, approved, launched and traded in New York, not Chicago.
Joe shared with me the little known story of Murray Borowitz, a trucking executive who approached the New York Produce Exchange about a new contract idea after volume had dried up following the Salad Oil Scandal of the 1960s.
Borowitz suggested contracts on foreign currency. The exchange board liked the idea, hired Borowitz as an executive and changed the name of the exchange to the “International Commerce Exchange.” This was the first ICE in futures trading.
Financial futures in New York traded for a couple of months but ultimately didn’t work. The thing that killed them was delivery of Yen futures. The Yen was the big contract of the day and the Central Bank of Japan would not allow Yen out of the country for this purpose at the time.
Because Borowitz was behind the idea, and was in the trucking business, I gave him the name of “First Mover” of the financial futures. I suggested in my story about Borowitz that Joe should share the title with an honorable mention.
Joe was a part of so much of the history of futures trading in New York. He also told me the story of how a former floor trader at the Cotton Exchange, who had recently started managing money for other people, was looking for a way to short the U.S. Dollar.
Working together, this trader and Joe found the right index and methodology that helped them launch the successful Dollar Index contract that is still traded at ICE today. That trader, by the way, was Paul Tudor Jones, who shared this comment with us following news of O’Neill’s death:
“Joe O’Neill was a clever guy trapped inside one of the nicest personalities that ever graced mankind. When I first floated the idea of the dollar index by him, he was quick to embrace it and immediately saw the possibilities. He did a brilliant job of convincing a lot of old line cotton merchants that this could be a profitable part of our future. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, his keen eye was proven right again.
Most importantly, he was just about the kindest and most optimistic professional I ever met. He always, and I mean always, had something wonderful to say about something. He made rain, sleet, and snow feel like a crisp blue day on a beach somewhere. This is one hole that the Lord can’t fill. God rest Joe.” – PJ
We interviewed Joe about the creation of the Dollar Index as part of a series we were working on in 2013 about the history of financial futures. We wanted this story, a New York story, to be part of the history. And Joe O’Neill, the Irishman with the twinkle in his eyes, was the perfect person to tell it.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”Neal Wolkoff, former COO of NYMEX” link=”” color=”#387825″ class=”” size=”15″] I met Joe in the early 80s. I was a second year lawyer at the start of my career and he was an exchange president. I was ready to be awed, and then I met him and experienced those twinkling eyes, and the mirth lines around his mouth. There was no initiation. I was let in the sanctum as someone who chose an exchange life for his career, and to Joe (and me) the futures exchanges were a calling – a daily blend of drama, high crimes and misdemeanors, and the public good and he loved it. What a gentleman and a truly nice and kind human being.[/perfectpullquote]
As we were putting the gear for the video interview away in the interview space above the then floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, O’Neill started talking about his role in the making of the movie “Trading Places.” As the story got better and better, we got out the lights and camera again and captured Joe on video telling this story.
We published the video some months later to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie.
The producers of “Trading Places” had first approached the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with the idea being that pork belly futures are naturally funny, right? The CME turned them down so they approached other exchanges. Joe O’Neill liked the idea as a way to get the New York Board of Trade some good exposure, but was not sure NYBOT or the Cotton Exchange subsidiary where Orange Juice was traded would see it that way.
Joe brought the idea of using the exchange floor as a backdrop for the movie to the board, had it approved and was hired as the technical assistant for the movie. He had script approval rights about the parts that involved futures trading, thus giving the exchange some surety the futures part of the movie would be technically correct.
This is one of the reasons this popular Hollywood movie is used by teachers and industry professionals around the world to educate people about what futures are and how they work. Joe O’Neill made sure they got the details on futures markets right.
That was the last time I saw Joe O’Neill, but our history brought us back together again.
Out of the blue, I received an email from the grandson of Murray Borowitz. He was doing some research on his grandfather when he came across the story I wrote about Murray. He wanted to know anything I knew about Murray. I put him in contact with Joe, who shared many stories with him. It was a touching and personal part of this newsletter that I will always remember.
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