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Can't sleep? Play the market

Most people look at the recent decision by the National Association of Securities Dealers to allow extended trading hours and ask: Do Americans have a compelling need to buy and sell stocks into the night?

For the answer, just look at the average American. More people are trading stocks today than ever before. Company 401(k) and investment plans offer easily accessible ways to enter the market, and so far most employees have seen dramatic earnings in a bull market. Other amateurs, the so-called day-traders, are making names for themselves, as well.In truth, the decision to extend trading until at least 9 p.m. -- a move that was subsequently postponed for a year or so by the New York Stock Exchange -- is an inevitable change spurred by competition. Some small electronic trading networks, such as Eclipse Trading and Wit Capital, already have planned to begin night trading.

Experts say as many as 40 percent of the trades ordered from online brokerages already are entered after the market closes. The demand, apparently, exists.

Still, this move toward the business of business consuming every waking hour is a bit troubling. A stock market that is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. sends a subtle message. The creation and accumulation of wealth has its place, but it also has its limits. Traders pursue dollars until the bell rings each afternoon, then retire to their homes, families, hobbies and other pursuits. They are supposed to have lives away from the trading floor.

When the markets remain open until 9 or 10 p.m., even people who live thousands of miles from Wall Street will return from their full-time jobs and be tempted to continue conducting business into the night.

Of course, this already happens to some degree. And many people have lost a proper sense of balance in their lives.

Some observers think trading would be so light during the evening hours that the change hardly would be noticed. But work tends to fill the time allotted, and just wait until the next crisis hits and a bear market continues frantically into the night.

The market has operated under strict daytime rules for 207 years now. Perhaps change is inevitable in a nation that has become used to good economic times. But the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the American people, should tread slowly down this new, all-consuming road.