By Karen Freifeld
Jan 9 (Reuters) - BlackRock Inc, the world's largest asset manager, agreed to end its analyst survey program worldwide, as part of an agreement reached Wednesday with the New York Attorney General's office.
The agreement stems from an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman into the early release of Wall Street analyst sentiment to "front-run" the market.
BlackRock agreed to pay $400,000 for the cost of the investigation, but no fine or penalty, and to cooperate in Schneiderman's ongoing industry-wide probe.
At a press conference on Thursday, Schneiderman said the continuing investigation includes looking at the analysts and brokerage firms that participated in the surveys.
He said BlackRock's agreement was a "major step forward" in ensuring a level playing field for all investors.
"We're going to continue to crackdown," Schneiderman said. "This is a growing area of concern because ... sophisticated market participants can gain early access to market-moving information that provides them an unfair advantage over the rest of us."
The Analyst Survey Program operated by BlackRock was believed to be the largest analyst survey in the world, Schneiderman said.
The program asked many of the most prominent analysts at dozens of brokerage firms a series of questions related to the companies they were covering, according to the agreement.
Although the survey was supposedly to quantify the analysts' publicly available insights, Schneiderman found evidence that the program's design allowed it to capture "non-public analyst sentiment that could be used to trade ahead of the market reaction to upcoming analyst reports," the agreements said.
Participating analysts were rewarded with higher ratings in financial industry magazine rankings, Schneiderman found, which helped analysts' name recognition and careers and may have led to monetary gain for the analysts and their firms.
"When analysts would provide answers to questions regarding their views on possible future earnings scenarios, possible M&A activity and other matters, BlackRock was ... trying to learn the sentiment to be expressed in upcoming reports," Schneiderman said.
Analysts and their firms are prohibited from providing select clients with early disclosure of research reports, which can move markets, he said.
The analysts were surveyed on a quarterly or monthly basis, depending on where they were located geographically, and included hundreds of thousands of responses.
The U.S. surveys would ask analysts to answer questions on a scale of 1 through 9, and the responses were averaged, aggregated and converted into quantitative return forecasts.
The program was developed in 2003 by Barclays Global Investors, which BlackRock acquired in 2009.
When it was started, Scientific Active Equities, the quantitative investment group within BGI and now BlackRock, believed it could use the responses to "forecast" analysts' "next estimate revision," the agreement said.
An internal SAE document also revealed the program's success depended in part on a "willingness to really give us advance information."
"We're trying to front-run" recommendations, another internal document said.
The timing of the questionnaires also made them susceptible to obtaining advance information, the agreement said, including "targeted survey waves" just before covered companies' "heavy earnings" seasons.
Brian Beades, a BlackRock spokesman, told Reuters that the language in the internal memos is "totally inconsistent with the standards by which BlackRock does business."
He said the firm discontinued use of the survey "to avoid even the appearance of any impropriety."
BlackRock neither admitted nor denied the attorney general's findings in the agreement.
The attorney general's office said the conduct violated the Martin Act, the state's securities fraud statute, and other state laws.
In July, Thomson Reuters Corp said it would suspend its early release of the widely watched Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment data to a small group of clients in response to a probe by Schneiderman.
The news and information company had an arrangement with the University of Michigan to allow some of its clients to receive the data 2 seconds before its other clients who get the survey five minutes ahead of a wider public release.