/ 24 July 2006

Money honey

When Maria Bartiromo started getting e-mails from someone calling himself Joey Ramone in 1998, she did what most people would do — she ignored them, assuming she had attracted the unwanted attention of a weirdo.

Ramone, the legendary figure of New York punk, had after all recorded the likes of Cretin Hop, Teenage Lobotomy and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue and here he apparently was asking for investment advice. After a while though, curiosity got the better of her and Bartiromo, arguably the most recognisable business journalist in the United States, replied. ‘Sure enough it was him and we developed this friendship. And he was attuned to the markets. He really understood his own investment portfolio. Joey Ramone was a fantastic investor.”

She later found out just how much Ramone really was in her spell. This song was on Ramone’s final album, released after his death from lymphoma in 2001. The first verse pretty much sums it up:

What’s happening on Wall Street

What’s happening at the stock exchange

I want to know

What’s happening on Squawk Box

What’s happening with my stocks

I want to know

I watch you on the TV every single day

Those eyes make everything OK

I watch her every day

I watch her every night

She’s really out of sight

Maria Bartiromo

Maria Bartiromo

Maria Bartiromo

Maria and Sophia

For a decade US viewers could watch Bartiromo amid the tumult on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, straining her voice to be heard as she delivered reports to camera for the business news channel CNBC, her 1,6m frame often jostled by burly traders. With the US gripped by the dotcom boom, the channel briefly overtook CNN in the ratings. Bartiromo developed a cult-like following and attained celebrity status. She recently appeared as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show and was dubbed the ‘money honey” by New York tabloids swooning over her looks, a moniker that has stuck.

Bartiromo also has uncommon access and an unusual power to move markets.

The chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, admitted recently that he had gaffed by telling her over dinner that the markets had misinterpreted some of his comments. As she relayed his thoughts on air, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 70 points, causing a stir in Washington and teaching the new Fed chairman a lesson in dealing with the press.

She has columns in Business Week and Readers Digest, anchors the Closing Bell on CNBC (which can be seen on CNBC Europe weekdays at 8pm), hosts the Wall Street Journal report that appears on 200 American channels, has published a bestseller on investing and has her own syndicated radio show across the US.

I meet her after she finishes a stint as a guest on the morning show of the European CNBC channel. It is easy to see how Bartiromo (38) wins over her interviewees and perhaps prompts the likes of Bernanke into indiscretions. She is charming and attentive, her voice softer than her TV persona’s. She bats away the inevitable money honey question with good grace. ‘I’m happy to have gotten noticed,” she says. ‘Everybody asks me as if it’s like this thing I am supposed to get so upset about but I think it’s terrific frankly. It’s just something the tabloids came up with. No one really calls me that. I mean ‘hello money honey’. Of course not.”

Bartiromo was raised in Brooklyn, where her father ran a restaurant. She majored in journalism at New York University and minored in economics. She began her career at CNN as a writer and producer on business news, where she worked for the presenter Lou Dobbs, and moved to CNBC as a reporter five years later.

Her big break came when CNBC persuaded the New York Stock Exchange to allow a journalist on to the trading floor for the first time. Dick Grasso, who ran the exchange, was keen to demystify the stock market at a time when increasing numbers of ordinary Americans were investing. Still, not everyone was supportive.

‘There were a lot of people down there who just didn’t want me there. I was a woman. I was a reporter — I had no place in the stock exchange.”

She finally had enough of the early starts in 2004 — she was doing three shows a day — but by then Bartiromo had become a fixture. She was asked to ring the closing bell that marks the end of the trading day, an honour usually reserved for chief executives whose companies are listed on the exchange.

Bartiromo has witnessed first-hand some of the most extraordinary events in corporate history: the dotcom boom and the subsequent bust. As the tide went out, so frauds were uncovered at the likes of Enron and WorldCom.

CNBC had made celebrities of now discredited analysts who had trumpeted worthless Internet stocks and had rare access to the likes of Enron’s Kenneth Lay and WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers. The financial press at large could be accused of complicity in the ‘irrational exuberance” of the late 1990s; neither did it cover itself in glory by digging out the scandals waiting to be unearthed. Still, in the US, CNBC bore the brunt of the backlash and its ratings dropped away. Today the channel is markedly more sober and its audience smaller.

‘Sure, I think we could have been more sceptical as financial journalists but I also question whether it would have mattered to investors because I do believe we were in this moment in time when people were measuring success very differently,” Bartiromo says. ‘We were looking at how many clicks there were on a website. In retrospect, of course, earnings and revenue and management is what matters.”

A CNBC interview with Ebbers denying that his company was in trouble just months before WorldCom filed for the biggest ever bankruptcy was used by prosecutors in his trial. ‘We said, ‘look is there anything fraudulent going on at this company’ and he said ‘absolutely not’.” Does it annoy her that she was lied to on air? ‘It wasn’t a personal thing. They were doing what they do.”

Bartiromo has, she says, interviewed pretty much every chief executive she would want to at least once. As well as her other jobs, she has set up her own production company. She wants to move into more in-depth projects, producing documentaries on issues such as global warming — ‘I want to look long term and do stories about things that people care about.”

Just don’t suggest that the business pages can be a little dull. ‘I think that business news is incredibly sexy actually,” she says. ‘There were times when there was some speculation that I wanted to go and work with Regis and Kelly [US daytime TV hosts] but I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know if I could and talk about cooking and movies. I love this stuff, I really do.” —