January 16, 2020 / 5:17 PM / 8 days ago

U.S. Labor Department to remove computers from data 'lockups'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on Thursday announced changes to economic data “lockup” procedures, which would result in the removal of computers from its Washington newsroom effective March 1.

FILE PHOTO: Engines assembled as they make their way through the assembly line at the General Motors (GM) manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, U.S. August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Harrison McClary/File Photo

BLS Commissioner William Beach said the changes were in line with recommendations by the Labor Department’s Inspector General back in 2014, and was intended to keep data secure prior to public release, stay ahead of rapidly changing technology and remove the advantage of media in providing data to high-speed traders.

Media organizations, including Reuters News and Bloomberg News, send reporters to data “lockups” to prepare stories 30 to 60 minutes in advance of release, with the government controlling a communications switch to prevent an inadvertent early release.

“Developments in high-speed algorithmic trading technology now give a notable competitive advantage to market participants who have even a few microseconds head start,” Beach said in a letter to bureau chiefs.

It is, however, unclear whether removing computers from the “lockup” room would stop algo traders from accessing the data quickly. Some media organizations have complained that high-speed traders were getting the data from the government agencies’ websites through a technique called scraping ahead of the time it was released in the lockup.

There was no comment from Reuters News management.

Beach denied suggestions that the changes were aimed at Bloomberg, whose billionaire owner Michael Bloomberg is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in November’s U.S. presidential election.

Federal agencies in the past have altered, or proposed altering, their release of potentially market-moving data in order to prevent the possibility that some investors could get earlier access, and thereby profit by selling or buying stocks, bonds or other securities using that advance knowledge.

Under the Obama administration in 2012 the Labor Department proposed changing the lockup procedures by requiring media outlets to use government-issued computers and not their own. News outlets fought the plan, ultimately successfully.

UNFAIR ADVANTAGE?

In a 2014 report, the Labor Department’s Inspector General said the current “lockups” protocol “unintentionally creates unfair competitive advantage for certain news organizations and their clients.” The Inspector General recommended that the BLS “implement a strategy designed to eliminate any competitive advantage that news organizations present in a lockup and/or their clients may have.”

Under the new changes the Labor Department will still hold “lockups” for data, including the closely watched monthly employment report, consumer and producer inflation data, as well as the weekly jobless claims report.

Reporters will, however, only have a pen and pad to work on. This means that reporters who elect to attend the “lockups” would have to dictate their stories to their offices after the embargo on the data lifts.

The Commerce Department which publishes economic data from its statistical agencies - the Census Bureau and Bureau for Economic Analysis (BEA) - said it would release the reports, including monthly retail sales and quarterly gross domestic product data, under the Labor Department’s new guidelines. The Commerce Department uses the Labor Department’s newsroom.

“BEA and Census Bureau leadership are reviewing the announced changes and are committed to the secure, timely, and equitable release of these important data,” it said in a statement.

The U.S. Federal Reserve also uses similar data “lockup” procedures for the release of major Fed news, including interest rate decisions and the monthly industrial production report. The Fed declined to comment if it plans to make any changes to its existing arrangements.

The Labor Department will follow in the footsteps of the United States Department of Agriculture, which last year removed computers from its data “lockup” newsroom.

Reporting By Lucia Mutikani and Tim Ahmann; Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci

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