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The Public Eye Chat With...Anthony Mason

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It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News Business Correspondent Anthony Mason. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: You were on the floor last week during the tense period for stocks. What was the atmosphere like there?

Anthony Mason: Well, I think the real question as it started was is it just a one-day thing, or is it going to be something more serious. And obviously, it became apparent pretty quickly. The last couple of corrections the market's had were…drastic one-day downdrafts, and all of a sudden it seemed like everything was all right. And the real question this time was, is this just one bad day, or is it the beginning of quite a few bad days.

There was really worry on the floor. There was real worry that there was a significant drop, that first day, and that it didn't recover by the close. There was real trepidation. And as we now know, with good reason.

Brian Montopoli: When you're trying to characterize that for people, especially early on, do you just go by what you're feeling from the traders? Presumably, you have to look at it with a little bit of a grain of salt, because I assume panic is not uncommon on the trading floor.

Anthony Mason: I tend to go to the guys who have been there the longest, who have seen the most of these. Because they're the ones who don't use words like "panic" very easily. Because it's very easy to look at a 250 point drop or a 300 point drop and go, "oh, wow." Although these days, percentage-wise, that's not nearly as big as it was even five years ago.

But I tend to go to them first and say, "How bad is it?" It looks bad, but what's it based on? And when somebody like Art Cashin at UBS, whose been on the floor for like 40 years, tell me he thinks this was a mild heart-attack, I pay attention. That's when I go, "OK, if Art Cashin thinks it's a mild heart attack, there's something here."

Brian Montopoli: Do you worry when you're covering it about contributing to further problems by talking about it in the media and casting it as a significant thing? Do you worry about the repercussions of your coverage?

Anthony Mason: Well, in our case I don't, because – if I worked at CNBC, or a market-oriented station, I might. But we're essentially doing one two-minute piece in the course of a 22-minute newscast. I want to be really careful not to make it seem better or worse than it is. But it's hard to turn away from a 250 point drop, you know what I mean?

Brian Montopoli: Was there a swarm of reporters there that weren't normally there [last week]?

Anthony Mason: Actually, not the first couple of days when I was there. I was surprised. But, you know, it wasn't crazy. If you're looking back at the go-go days of the late '90s, that's over. You don't see that anymore in terms of the sort of press coverage.

One thing about this market right now is there aren't nearly as many what you call "retail investors" in it. Who are watching it as closely as they were in the late '90s. The real movement tends to be coming from mutual funds and even hedge funds.

Brian Montopoli: So you're saying there aren't as many day traders…?

Anthony Mason: Exactly. People still – about half of Americans still have money in the market one way or another. And for many of them, that means through their retirement fund. But they're not actively trading stocks, many of them.

Brian Montopoli: So, and I hate to ask you to prognosticate, but do you think you're going to be doing a lot more of these types of reports in the coming months?

Anthony Mason: If I knew the answer to that, Brian, I wouldn't be doing this job. (Laughs.) My personal feeling is the market will find a place to even out sometime relatively soon. And that's not to say there won't be volatility. There always is.

I never try to predict the market – you just don't know. This is by far the most significant volatility we've had in quite a while. The real question, at least as far as the US economy is concerned, is the housing situation and whether it deepens. And if it does deepen, the economy could have some real bumps ahead.

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