Bloomberg Saga Highlights Clash Between Two Worlds
In an era when Internet ad tracking and social media have heightened consumer awareness of digital privacy, Bloomberg L.P.'s disclosure that certain subscriber data were previously available to its journalists has risked alienating the much more sensitive, tightly regulated world of finance.
It has also raised the question of whether a business aimed at collecting and making sense of complex financial data can mix long term with a corporate culture built on transparency and sometimes ruthless efficiency.
At least one big client, JPMorgan Chase & Co., is having 'serious dialogue' with Bloomberg and 'considering its options, ' said a person familiar with JPMorgan. Bloomberg has said it has been in contact with several hundred of its clients following last week's disclosure but it didn't comment specifically on JPMorgan
Meanwhile, China's central bank, which oversees the world's largest hoard of foreign-exchange reserves, has started looking into potential data confidentiality issues involving Bloomberg, according to people with direct knowledge of the bank.
Privately held Bloomberg is facing scrutiny after disclosing last week that it has restricted its journalists from accessing information about terminal subscribers, including when the subscribers last logged on, when they first subscribed and how often they accessed features like news or the chat function. Starting in its early years and continuing until last month, the company made such functions available to reporters so they could participate in meetings with clients, Bloomberg has said.
The disclosure was prompted by a complaint from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., a big Wall Street client. But it has resulted in an outpouring of media attention and inquiries from government authorities ranging from the U.S. Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which are also Bloomberg clients, to the Bank of Japan.
In a blog post Monday, Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler apologized for 'our error, ' writing that 'our reporters should not have access to any data considered proprietary.' Bloomberg CEO Daniel Doctoroff has also called the practice 'a mistake.'
The episode spotlights how much traders rely on Bloomberg as a source of information. The firm was officially started in 1982 with the goal of centralizing pricing data involving the opaque and chaotic bond market for Wall Street traders. Its emphasis on bringing hard-to-gather information to light was reflected in its corporate culture, which emphasized openness.
From the company's start, founder Michael Bloomberg, now the mayor of New York City, went without a private office and sat among other employees. He stepped back from the day-to-day operations of his company more than a decade ago, but his approach, with its roots in Wall Street trading rooms, remains imprinted in the company's DNA.
'He took that trading-room culture and ethos and brought it to Bloomberg, ' said Michael Driscoll, a longtime Wall Street trader and Bloomberg user who now teaches finance at Adelphi University.
The approach extended to the news operation, which was launched in the late 1980s. Every Bloomberg reporter has a terminal or access to its data platform. Staff calendars and interview notes are typically made available to other reporters -- so that people can see who is meeting with whom on business trips and what some reporters have been working on. When employees enter a Bloomberg building anywhere in the world a notification appears next to their profile, which can be viewed on other employees' terminals.
But while a culture of openness can encourage collaboration in a newsroom, it can also clash with the business of selling services to Wall Street. Aside from the terminals, which cost about $1, 800 a month, Bloomberg charges investors to store emails after the first six months. Financial firms pay Bloomberg 'a pluperfect fortune to store their old emails, ' said Hugh Culverhouse, as investor and former U.S. prosecutor.
There is an understanding that the Bloomberg domain, in which users send instant messages and emails among themselves, is a kind of gated community and one pays a high price to exchange ideas and sensitive financial data. 'The Bloomberg platform is used by people who make large financial decisions, and those decisions are felt to be confidential, ' said Larry Tabb, founder of the research firm Tabb Group.
Mr. Driscoll said painful memories of the financial crisis and regulatory probes into banks have created a sense of 'borderline paranoia' on Wall Street that makes the industry extra sensitive to issues of data security.
Any evidence that Bloomberg misused proprietary client information would risk undermining its role as a premier source of financial data. Still, despite the concerns expressed by big banks and government agencies, it remains unclear whether the recent scrutiny will endanger Bloomberg's terminal sales because of perceptions about the product's competitive strength.
'It's the only game in town, ' Mr. Driscoll said.
The incident also highlights the challenge for Bloomberg, as a services business catering to the financial sector, in also running a news operation. Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said that the digital age has resulted in companies gaining more data about their consumers, raising such questions as 'What are you doing with the information you acquired about me?' He said that 'trust' is the ultimate product for news organizations.'If you are being transparent about who you are, you have to be transparent to readers about what you're doing with their information.'