December 20, 2019 / 7:08 PM / 2 months ago

Breakingviews - Review: Bloomberg primer goes beyond hagiography

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The telephone’s caller ID made clear the boss was on the line. “It’s Mike,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of the firm that carried his name and paid my salary. “You say stocks are mixed, but I have the Dow Jones down 40 points. That’s not mixed.”

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks about his gun policy agenda in Aurora, Colorado, U.S. December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

One response could’ve been to argue that while the Dow was indeed down, it was due to one or two large components in the average — and that the S&P 500 Index, a better measure of the equity market anyway, was flat to up. The other was to explain that when the story was filed to the bank of editors charged with publishing the stocks report, the Dow was closer to “unch” (Wall Street for unchanged) than down.

But even for someone who’d just joined Bloomberg LP back in 1993, it was widely understood that’s not how the place worked. There would be no pushing back. The anecdote imparted two important lessons. First, Mike Bloomberg cares deeply about the product bearing his name. And two, he doesn’t much care for traditional boundaries. He bypassed the editorial chain of command completely to lodge his complaint with the young writer whose byline appeared on the story.

Judging by Eleanor Randolph’s “The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg,” many people have similar yarns to tell about their interactions with the Wall Street information tycoon. Not entirely unlike the man he wants to unseat as U.S. president, Donald Trump, Bloomberg is used to getting his way, even if it means abandoning norms. Look no further than his unconventional plan to win the Democratic nomination by bypassing the first four states to hold primaries, heading straight for Super Tuesday in March, when multiple states each pick their favorite in a single day.

Trump and Bloomberg may share some similarities in their views about process. But the differences in what they’ve achieved over seven decades are more noteworthy. The far richer Bloomberg’s more recent reversal of his decision not to run for the Oval Office has given relevancy to Randolph’s biography. Had Bloomberg stuck to simply writing checks — a skill in which he’s particularly adept — “The Many Lives” might’ve just sat on the bookshelves of a few political junkies and friends of Mike.

Even without this last unfolding chapter, the book captures its subject: He’s a profane technocrat with healthy self-regard who solves problems that often benefit the public good. Bloomberg’s rivals will find little to aid their opposition research teams. It’s more a chronological catalog of Bloomberg’s achievements as entrepreneur, mayor of America’s biggest city, and a leading philanthropist than a critical takedown of the man, who assisted Randolph in the reporting process.

Bloomberg’s successes suggest a man who was not only in the right place at the right time but understood how to profit from challenges that might have wilted others. When the Johns Hopkins- and Harvard-educated son of a dairy bookkeeper was relegated to the back office at Salomon Brothers, for instance, he became an expert on how computers would transform Wall Street trading. Later, when fired by Salomon with a $10 million payout, he recruited former colleagues from the firm and started the company that would eventually become Bloomberg LP, today worth some $60 billion and a competitor to Breakingviews parent Thomson Reuters.

His prescience for how information technology could transform price discovery of fixed-income and other financial assets came at the start of a three-decade bull run in the bond market. Later, when he hired a Wall Street Journal reporter who had written glowingly about Bloomberg and his terminal, he entered the news business and rode the 1990s stock-market rally to new heights.

His turn to politics also came at a difficult moment, as New York was reeling from Sept. 11. A Republican at the time, he rode the coattails of his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani to City Hall. Once there, his political affiliation – he later shifted to independent and now to Democrat - was of little consequence as Bloomberg focused on reforms that altered the physical landscape, and physique, of the city.

Much of Randolph’s book focuses on Bloomberg’s historic run as mayor. His wins included a smoking ban later copied by big cities everywhere, and which extended the life expectancy of New Yorkers; a massive expansion of bike lanes; a war on unhealthy trans fats; and the creation of a world-class technical satellite of Cornell University. Bloomberg also created the first effective political opposition to the National Rifle Association by uniting mayors who deal with the daily horrors of gun violence.

On the losses side, Bloomberg failed to win a bid for the Olympics or to introduce congestion pricing, though he sowed the seeds for an introduction after he left office. He didn’t significantly reduce homelessness and poverty rates. More troubling was his police department’s policy to “stop and frisk” individuals suspected of carrying firearms. Though the homicide rate decreased, critics including his successor considered it a violation of civil liberties. It’s a mark on his record that will likely hamper his bid for African-American votes in the presidential contest.

The global financial crisis of 2008 gave Bloomberg the impetus for a third term as mayor. After all, he could argue, who better to confront the once-in-a-generation hit to the most important industry to the city than a creature of Wall Street? As it was for Fiorello La Guardia and Ed Koch, Bloomberg’s third term was arguably less impactful than the previous two, but Randolph makes a case that work done after 2008 helped to reduce the city’s dependence on finance longer term.

After leaving City Hall, Bloomberg’s philanthropic efforts, as told by Randolph, particularly on progressive issues including climate change and gun violence, have given him wider name recognition beyond the five boroughs and a network of grassroots support that will aid his run for the White House. But as a recent controversial edict from his news organization — to limit its coverage of Bloomberg’s Democratic opponents, but not of Trump — suggests, he’s still more or less the same guy complaining about the stock market story a quarter century ago.

Breakingviews

Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.


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