By John McCrank
NEW YORK (Reuters) - CME Group Inc, the world's biggest exchange operator by market value, is looking to the lucrative business of selling data to boost revenue, spawn new financial products, and change the way many futures contracts trade.
But early stumbles have undercut confidence that the Chicago-based company can catch up with rivals, much less transform the markets it dominates, anytime soon.
Even as CME reported a big jump in second-quarter profit on Tuesday, analysts were looking for answers regarding its data business, whose revenue tumbled 7 percent to $96.1 million, the lowest figure since the fourth quarter of 2014.
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The decline comes months after Chief Executive Officer Terry Duffy rescinded revenue goals he laid out for the unit, after finding that growing data sales would be harder than expected.
"What's driving the decline in data?" Wells Fargo analyst Christopher Harris asked CME executives on an earnings conference call on Tuesday.
The decline was "surprising," Harris said, since CME reported strong trading volumes and is adding international customers.
Although they are making progress in revamping the data business, growth will not come until next year, executives said.
Many investors, analysts and market participants view data as the key to future profits and growth at global exchanges.
As owner of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, New York Mercantile Exchange, and Commodity Exchange, CME has a near monopoly in trading certain futures and options contracts across interest rate, foreign exchange, equity, energy and agricultural markets. Its benchmarks, like West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures and S&P 500 futures, are the basis for billions of dollars' worth of daily commerce.
That position allowed CME to put off building a competitive data business even as rivals dived in, because it could charge premium prices.
CME produced net profit margins last year of 43 percent, versus 32 percent at Intercontinental Exchange Inc and 28 percent at Deutsche Boerse AG, according to Thomson Reuters data.
But CME is effectively leaving money on the table as customer demand for data has increased, and it is now trying to make up for lost ground.
In February, Duffy laid out an ambitious plan to grow annual data revenue 5 percent to 6 percent annually, starting this year. The strategy had three major prongs: selling more granular, real-time data to traders; offering services like cloud hosting; and licensing proprietary information to firms that create financial products like indexes and exchange-traded funds.
However, executives realized they had underestimated the complexities of building out the business, and in April nixed 2017 data revenue projections.
CME now expects to see growth next year, President Bryan Durkin said on Tuesday, without specifying a target. The company has made progress on staffing and is now auditing customers to see how they use CME data, to charge them properly, he said.
"It definitely represents an important revenue stream to us," Durkin said.
PLAYING CATCH UP
CME's data revenue has barely budged in recent years, even as the business became the leading source of growth for competitors.
Global exchanges reported a collective 29 percent increase in revenue from data and indexing businesses last year, with a compound annual growth rate of 12 percent since 2011, said TP ICAP-owned Burton-Taylor International Consulting.
At CME, data revenue rose just 2 percent last year, and was lower than in 2011.
Data is also becoming a bigger piece of the revenue pie at most exchanges. At ICE, for instance, data and indexing fees contributed 44 percent of revenue last year, compared with 11 percent at CME.
Although it is still a long way from peers, CME's efforts have been well-received by algorithmic traders, an important customer group. CME recently began rolling out data feeds that give a view into all of the orders on its markets, which can give electronic firms an edge over less-sophisticated counterparts.
CME will likely start charging more for those valuable data, said Christian Hauff, CEO of Quantitative Brokers, which provides algorithms and data-driven analytics to help firms trade.
"It should pay off in the field of work that we do, and I'm sure prop trading firms that share our DNA would be benefiting significantly from looking at this data," he said in an interview.
(Reporting by John McCrank; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Lisa Shumaker)