Shares of United Airlines' stock tumbled nearly 75% on Monday after an old 2002 report about a United Airlines bankruptcy filing was picked up and circulated as current
. How did this happen? Apparently, a staffer at Income Securities Advisors Inc. did a search for "united bankruptcy 2008" on Google, and found an article
on the Sun-Sentinel. Though the article was published in 2002, neither the Googlebot nor the Sun-Sentinel website indicated as much, and the news item was published to Income Securities' page on Bloomberg. Once the story hit the wire, shares plummeted from $12 to as low as $3, and 54 million shares traded hands before Nasdaq halted trading to investigate what was going on. After United issued an official "we're really not bankrupt" statement and the confusion started to lift, shares of United returned to a somewhat normal price.
After all the dust has settled, the finger pointing has now begun. Who is to blame, if anyone? Sure, the Sun-Sentinel published the story on its site with an ambiguous date, but having archived articles on your site isn't a problem. However, they should really make the dates on their articles more obvious, since they apparently have pretty good SEO. As for Google, they are indeed guilty of publishing an inaccurate date, but as we've seen before, their usual recourse is to blame the site
for the problem, and, that said, their terms of service clearly state that they are not liable for the accuracy of their data. As for Income Securities and Bloomberg, perhaps they will be more careful next time before they publish stories, or perhaps not. The thing is, mistakes happen (like Bloomberg publishing Steve Jobs' obituary
last month) and rumors turn out to be false every day. Income Securities will "pay" for their mistake, since now they will need to earn back the trust of their clients.
For stock traders, timely information translates into moneymaking opportunities. A few decades ago, it would take a few days for the market to react to information (thereby creating a nice opportunity for the shrewd trader). Today, the speed with which information travels (and the market reacts) has increased considerably, as is clearly illustrated by this event. Sure, shares of United are still trading at approximately 10% less than its opening price on Monday, but perhaps that's more a reflection of the fact that a chapter 11 filing would not come as a surprise to anyone at this time. So, it appears that, in actuality, it's pointless to assign blame, since there doesn't seem to be a problem -- the system worked just as it should.