Monetizing Your Unfair Advantage


In the news today was the announcement that BusinessWire, a press release distribution company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, had decided to stop offering direct access to its press releases to high frequency traders. This follows on the heels of a decision by Thomson Reuters not to sell advance access to market-moving economic data that it publishes. I find myself concerned about these decisions. That’s in part because what these two companies were doing was actually quite different. And as you dive into the details, you start to see issues that a broader range of data publishers may ultimately have to confront.

The Thomson Reuters situation involves two indexes: Consumer Confidence and the ISM Manufacturing Index. These are both major indexes that can and do influence the stock market broadly. In both cases, Thomson Reuters had licensed the rights to publish them. Nobody argues that Thomson-Reuters should have the right to monetize these indexes. But it’s one particular aspect of this monetization that raised concerns. Thomson Reuters openly offered to sell access to these indexes either a few seconds or a few minutes before they were released to the public. That’s more than enough time for computerized trading systems to analyze the news and place buy or sell orders accordingly. And by the way, it’s all legal, and Thomson-Reuters wasn’t hiding any of these arrangements. But is it fair?

The BusinessWire case is even more innocuous. BusinessWire is in the business of pushing our press releases far and wide. To that end it offers direct electronic access to anyone who might benefit from it. Some smart traders figured out how to take that innocent feed, process it, and make buy and sell decisions on it very quickly. BusinessWire was just going about its business. Third parties figured out how to profit from their activities, with no help or encouragement from BusinessWire. And while press releases don’t sound that interesting, keep in mind it’s the way many public companies first announce big events such as acquisitions.

I’m not a lawyer, so there may be nuances to this I am missing, but I understand that public policy recognizes the value of a level playing field when it comes to the stock markets, in part to build confidence. And as an individual investor, providing advance peeks to savvy stock traders doesn’t feel right to me. But as an information professional, my view is why not? The entire B2B information industry largely exists to provide unfair advantage. In fact, I know data publishers who have seriously considered variants of “Your Unfair Advantage” as corporate tag lines.

Given the murkiness of the legal issues, I think it’s fair to conclude that both companies stopped these activities primarily for reputational reasons. And that’s important to think about. These two events are very different, but you’d never know that from a quick scan of the headlines they generate. Our products are complex, sophisticated and nuanced. Typically, they are used by a range of users in a range of ways. You can’t – and shouldn’t – police what users do with your data. But you should put some thought into how you position your data and its uses, especially if there is potential to use your data for stock trading. It’s too easy to get painted as the bad guy even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

The bottom line is that as data becomes more powerful and important, we’re all going to receive more scrutiny. And the complexity of our products works against us in the media. That’s why sensitivity to how we present our data products is going to become increasingly important. And if yours is one of the companies considering a tag line that includes the words “unfair advantage,” may I politely suggest a re-think?

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