How Mike Bloomberg made his billions: a computer system you’ve probably never seen

Michael Bloomberg is very rich. And not just billionaire rich — he’s one of the richest people in the world, clocking in at more than $50 billion. How he got there: a computer system most people have never heard of, let alone seen.

Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP, a private, multibillion-dollar firm he launched in 1981. Today, the company does a lot of things — it deals in data, in technology, and in media — but it came to prominence because of the Bloomberg Terminal, a computer software system for the financial industry that basically puts all the relevant information, capabilities, and people in the same place.

It still looks like it’s straight out of the ’80s — it’s got a black background, lots of neon text, early days computing-style block letters, and a funny-looking keyboard — and it isn’t the easiest system to navigate, but it’s established a grip on Wall Street that competitors haven’t really been able to shake. Subscriptions cost between $20,000 and $24,000 annually, and right now, there are more than 325,000 subscribers signed up.

Basically, it’s still the place a lot of traders, analysts, and executives prefer to do their work. And because so many of the movers and shakers are already there, if you want to be the next big thing in finance, you want to be there, too. You’re not going to win the Super Bowl if you aren’t even playing in the right stadium.

“When [Bloomberg] was building the company, he was a little bit like Elon Musk in that he might be bold or boisterous or arrogant in some ways about what he said about he products, he was always telling people it was the best. But he generally delivered, and he continually improved his product for the last 30 years,” said Douglas B. Taylor, managing director of data research and consulting firm Burton-Taylor International Consulting and who spent years working for Bloomberg’s primary competitor, Reuters. “It looks the same, but it actually does more, and it has evolved with the markets and its needs.”

Bloomberg LP brought in about $10 billion in revenue in 2018, and Taylor estimates that three-quarters of that is still terminal-based.

Two monitors showing the Bloomberg Terminal screen.
You’ve actually probably seen the Bloomberg terminal in the background of pictures and movies about Wall Street — you might just not have realized it.
Thomas Yau/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

The terminal hosts mountains of data and research on companies, financial instruments, and exchanges from all over the world, and it can be used to do financial calculations, make trades, compare potential investments, and perform analyses. Users can use it to track oil tankers as they move around the world, see where there are wildfires, and decipher supply chains. The functions are prompted by certain codes — so for looking up a stock, it’s EQUITY, and for News, it’s N.

It also has news, instant messages, and chat rooms, many of which are anonymous, where users can talk about financial issues. Like with any message board, they can go pretty far off-topic. One credit research analyst told me the chat rooms are “fucking cesspools” that are often jokes about weight-lifting and complaints about female presidential candidates. But she conceded that “once in a blue moon” they’re useful — someone had shared passwords for a financial presentation she needed to get a look at for her job.

There’s also a Friday quiz competition run through the terminal, and there are restaurant recommendations (the function is DINE), fantasy brackets for major sporting events, such as the World Cup, and a Craigslist-like marketplace (the function is POSH). Bloomberg hosts profile pages on people in finance, and there’s an MVP command to look at the ones that get the most views. One trader told me that it can get interesting to look at when a scandal bubbles up, but when nothing’s going on, it’s usually “hot salespeople.”

The juxtapositions are emblematic of the terminal itself: it’s a space for serious business, but it’s also got a social element to it. And it’s made Bloomberg the billions of dollars he’s now using to fund his 2020 presidential run. He stepped away from the company in 2001 to run for New York City mayor but returned to lead it in 2014. Now, for his White House bid, he has stepped aside again.

Michael Bloomberg turned a $10 million payout into a $10 billion company

Prior to launching his own company, Bloomberg was a general partner at investment bank Salomon Brothers. But after the firm was acquired, he was laid off in 1981 — with a handsome $10 million severance package. He used a portion of that money to launch a company called Innovative Market Systems, which would eventually become the eponymous firm he still owns now.

In 2015, Harry McCracken at Fast Company ran through the full history of the terminal, starting when 20 units of its first iteration, a product called Market Master, was sold to Merrill Lynch in late 1982. He points out that even though Bloomberg launched his company during a recession, it was also a moment when trading was becoming technologized.

Bloomberg was the “new kid on the block” in some ways, especially when compared to Reuters, a legacy player in the financial industry and the founding father of the market data business, Taylor explained. Initially, Bloomberg focused on the fixed income market and a very specific set of needs, and he built it out over time. “He began to add tools that would widen his audience a bit. He was good at selling it, and he’s very good at bringing on new customers,” Taylor said.

Bloomberg’s company grew at a faster pace than Reuters, but it still lagged behind it until 2007, when it briefly overtook it as the largest market data firm in the world, but then it was again surpassed after Thomson and Reuters merged. (For the purposes of the graphic below, we combined Thomson’s and Reuters’ pre-2008 revenue.) But in 2012, Bloomberg took the lead again, and it’s maintained it ever since. According to data from Burton-Taylor International Consulting, Bloomberg LP had $9.9 billion in revenue in 2018 from its financial information services; Thomson Reuters, now Refinitiv, had $6.7 billion.

The terminal — a software officially named Bloomberg Professional — is still a major part of Bloomberg’s overall business — Taylor estimates it’s around 75 percent. And it’s no longer the little box it once was, though it’s design still has remnants of its earlier versions.

Over time, the company has diversified into data feed services, news, and other non-terminal products. But the terminal still remains core to the company. One example: after Bloomberg launched a news services division in 1990, and for years, editors and reporters would be asked to relay information for data input on the people they spoke to in order to fill out the profiles, including their contact information, company title, and if they could, birthdates, education, and marital status. It’s unclear whether the practice continues.

Bloomberg LP employs about 20,000 people and has dozens of locations around the world. The terminal process up to 10 billion market data messages, 800 million email exchanges, and 20 million instant messages each day and hosts 3.3 million profiles.

There are a lot of competitors to Bloomberg, but none have been able to overtake it

There’s no one reason that Bloomberg and, specifically, the terminal have persisted over time but rather multiple factors. For one thing, it’s generally a good tool for financial markets, and there aren’t competitors that are significantly better. But beyond that, it persists because it’s popular. Because there are so many people on the terminal, it keeps people there so they can get prices, order and execute trades, and send messages. And while the terminal can be hard to learn — it’s not very intuitive — once they pick it up, a lot of people don’t want to learn a new tool and run the risk of making a mistake. Making an error with a keystroke or function could cost valuable seconds and millions of dollars. The terminal is sticky.

That’s not to say the people who use the Bloomberg terminal wouldn’t like an alternative, especially given its price. A subscription runs you $24,000 a year, and once you get to two or more, it drops to $20,000. In 2016, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon reportedly weighed axing his firm’s subscription and instead signing a deal with Thomson Reuters, estimating it would save between $18 and $36 million a year. A spokesperson for JPMorgan declined to comment on whether the bank ever made the switch. Moreover, in the event of a Bloomberg outage, having no alternatives is obviously not ideal.

There’s also a discomfort about just how much information and data Bloomberg has through the terminals. In 2013, Bloomberg News reporters were caught using the terminal to get subscribers’ information and monitor when they logged in and what they were using it for. Bloomberg admitted that it was commonplace for reporters to have access to “limited client information,” apologized, and said it had changed its system.

Would-be Bloomberg Terminal killers have popped up over the years, but none have succeeded. Refinitiv, the legacy Reuters market data operation that’s now owned by the Blackstone Group and Thomson Reuters, is the closest competitor to Bloomberg, and there are plenty of others in the mix, but in terms of revenue, they’re nowhere near what the top two are doing. Terminal subscriptions have held relatively stead in recent years — they shrank slightly in in 2016 and have grown slightly in 2017 and 2018, according to Burton-Taylor. But basically, the terminal is holding steady.

Bloomberg is now focused on his presidential bid and isn’t involved in the day-to-day at his company, though he still owns it. His news operation has a policy of not investigating him, including his White House run, and therefore isn’t investigating other Democratic candidates either. As for the terminal: the Financial Times found it was promoting Bloomberg’s campaign for a while by directing users to his 2020 campaign website when they input the word MIKE. Once the publication flagged it, it stopped.