Rick Santelli, animated on-air editor for CNBC Business News, relishes talking hot-button issues. But when the ex-trader/financial services executive emotionally blasted President Obama’s bailout plan on live TV, the magnitude of the reaction took him by surprise.
His so-called epic rant from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor in February triggered more than 850,000 YouTube downloads. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs publicly tore into him. He got an invite to appear on “The Today Show” (he did). He got an invite to appear on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” (he canceled).
“I was shocked by everything. I’ve been impassioned about dozens of topics and go off on tangents, but I wasn’t prepared to be propelled above the radar screen. I’m glad to get back to my day job and to what I’ve always done without too much fanfare,” he says from his office above the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floors.
Santelli, 52, makes 12 to 16 appearances each weekday live from the CME floor, reporting on and interpreting mainly interest rates, foreign exchange, the Federal Reserve and precious metals. With his energetic, humor-added delivery, he brings life to dry material.
The Chicago native insists that he’s never read from notes nor used a teleprompter. “When I’m on the air, it’s pretty much coming from my head to my mouth; and there’s nothing in between,” he says, just as peppy and verbal in an interview as he is on television.
He rates high with employer CNBC both for his expertise as a former trader and his singular telegenic style. “Television is a cool medium, but the heat breaks through — and Rick is hot!” says Tyler Mathisen, CNBC Business News managing editor. “Viewers respond to him. They sense his passion.”
Twenty years in the financial services industry with a variety of firms, Santelli joined CNBC in 1999 reporting live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade before its merger with the CME.
It wasn’t just the glitz and glory of being on-camera talent that seduced him from the executive suite.
“By the ’90s,” he says, “the [financial services] industry had changed dramatically,” he says. “People were replaced by computers. Compensation was moving down, but risk was moving up. It was a good time to make a move. The TV thing seemed a natural — a nice way to be like a coach, not necessarily a player anymore.”
So here’s a tip for FAs from Coach Santelli: “Buy-and-hold strategies have worked for the better part of the last three or four generations, but we’re in a unique time now. …The day Bear Stearns went down, I told my parents: ‘Get rid of everything and put your money in T-bills.’”
How to fix the huge financial mess? Not with bailouts, Santelli says. “There are a lot of possibilities that don’t all include funneling huge sums of tax-payer money. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly does create potential deficits down the road.”
Fresh out of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign with a B.S. and headed to law school, in 1979 he visited a friend’s trader dad at the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “Mesmerized,” as he puts it, he promptly switched direction and with help from the pork belly trader, snared a job as a $62-a-week runner for Shearson.
“Six months later,” Santelli recalls, “I was begging and borrowing to put enough money together to lease a membership so I could trade” lumber and gold.
By 1984, he was working for Drexel Burnham Lambert and promoted soon to vice president of interest-rate futures and options. Six years later, he became managing director of Geldemann, Inc.’s derivatives products group, focusing on agricultural derivatives. In 1993, Santelli joined Rand Financial Services as vice president of institutional futures and options. His final industry stint was at Sanwa Futures, 1997-99, as a vice president handling institutional trading and hedge accounts for futures-related products.
By then, Santelli was making his first TV appearances. The first time came purely by chance. Striding through the trading-floor turnstiles one morning in 1994, he was tapped by a woman with a local TV channel. Would he help her out of a jam and appear on “Ask An Expert”?
“The next thing I knew, they were tapping me on the shoulder routinely,” he recalls. After five years of supplying on-air commentary for CNBC, he left Sanwa to sign with the “First in Business Worldwide” channel — and launch a new career. To avoid a conflict of interest, he gave up trading the day he inked his contract.
At the start, Santelli says, “people were giving me advice. They said, ‘You talk too loud, too fast; wave your arms too much; you sound too excited.’ I talked it over with my [ex-trader] wife Terri. She said, ‘Just be who you are. You’re a market guy.’
“I still don’t do many things from a textbook-journalist standpoint,” he continues. “The best way is to do them just the way they come — naturally.”
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts,” he shares.
That’s what he did on February 19, when, working up a lather — with the traders and clerks standing near him too — Santelli attacked Obama’s stimulus plan, calling for a referendum “to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages.” He was starting to organize a “Chicago Tea Party,” he said, and floated the idea of “dumping some derivative securities” into Lake Michigan. The whole thing, he says, was spontaneous.
Santelli’s fiery remarks inspired groups nationwide to stage April 15 anti-tax “tea parties.” He took part in none and has not mounted the protest he announced; though he might do a July “pay-it-forward tea party” with Internet podcasts, asking folks to “donate to the food pantry,” he says.
Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.
PHOTO BY Todd Winters.