By all accounts, George W Bush put in a vintage performance at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But as guests applauded the President’s description of an encounter with Dick Cheney (“Don’t shoot! I begged him.”), a different plot was unravelling at the CNBC table where Ben Bernanke was deep in conversation with the channel’s anchor, “Money Honey” Maria Bartiromo. Doubtless the new Fed chief got a sympathetic hearing when he confided his disquiet that the markets had mistaken his “more flexible approach” to interest rates for “softness”, says Gerard Baker in The Times. But he had fallen into “a Honey Trap”. Bartiromo went straight to her viewers with his supposedly off-the-record remarks and the Dow dropped 70 points in minutes. It was the first tremor of the quake that would send markets into free-fall a fortnight later.
This episode has only enhanced Bartiromo’s reputation as a woman who can rock markets. Variously described as “the Sophia Loren of financial journalism” and “the face that launched a thousand blips”, she is arguably the most recognised business hack in the world. In the mid-1990s, she became the first journalist to report live from the stock exchange floor, delivering thrice-daily stock reports. Indeed, traders have long since examined every nuance of Bartiromo’s appearance for clues on market direction. Entire websites were devoted to changes in her hairstyle.
“On Wall Street”, noted the British commentator Toby Young in 1997,
“it is a hard-and-fast rule that whenever Bartiromo wears red, the market goes up.”
Still, Bartiromo has had to work hard for her success, says the New York Daily News. The daughter of a Brooklyn restaurateur, she “toiled as a coat-check girl” to finance a degree in journalism and economics from NYU before taking a production job at CNN. After four years behind the scenes, building up contacts and taking elocution lessons, she was ready to go on air. CNN’s veteran financial broadcaster, Lou Dobbs, was having none of it, so in 1993 she jumped ship to CNBC. Bartiromo’s first broadcasts from the NYSE floor were inauspicious: at first, traders “thought she was talking to herself”. When they twigged that a TV reporter – and a woman to boot – had become a regular fixture, she was often deliberately bumped and jostled. Critics charged that her reports were over-rosy. It was said that Money Honey was a creature of the boom: that small investors would not be so receptive to her smiling face when the bubble burst. “I think her career is going to track identically with the trajectory of the market”, said James Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.
It’s clear now that Bartiromo is having the last laugh over “the curmudgeons who shorted her stock”, says the FT. She gets her scoops, but she has also established herself as a commentator of gravitas, “taken very seriously by many top figures”. And there’s little doubt that she hits a unique spot with fans: one of the most ardent was the late Joey Ramone, doyen of the New York punk scene and author of such classics as Teenage Lobotomy. When the Ramones lead singer began emailing her about Intel shares, Bartiromo initially thought it was a hoax, but then “we started having this great friendship about the markets… he was so informed and intelligent”. For Ramone, there was clearly more to it than just markets. When his posthumous solo album was released, it contained a love song entitled “Maria Bartiromo”.
The secret of her success: the “David Frost technique”
Maria Bartiromo’s ability to move markets is well documented, says John Authors in the FT. When a 2001 academic study quantified the effect of her television pronouncements on share prices, it found that when she made a favourable comment about a company during her Midday Call spot, its share price jumped an average of 60 basis points within a minute. Negative comments took as long as 15 minutes to be priced in, but the drop – at an average of 125 basis points – was “even more significant”.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Money Honey show – though not specifically the woman herself, nor the CNBC station – has occasionally been dogged by allegations of sharp practice, says Dominic Rushe in The Sunday Times. Bartiromo credits her success to good old-fashioned “street smarts”. “I’m one of the more connected journalists out there,” she told the National Post, “I talk to a lot of well-plugged-in people”. Nowadays, she also has strong family connections: her husband, Jonathan Steinberg, is a former investment magazine publisher turned fund manager, whilst her father-in-law is the once feared corporate raider Saul Steinberg.
Ultimately, though, Bartiromo’s considerable prowess at collecting scoops might well be down to what we in Britain have come to know as the David Frost technique. Leading names agree to be interviewed, as, unlike the Jeremy Paxman-style interview, they know she is not out to trap her subject. “I’m looking for articulate answers to the issues of the day,” she says. But “Ben Bernanke is the latest to discover that, in communications, less is sometimes more”.