dealing with hedge funds: institutional salespeople and industry analysts

a new SEC move

A little less than two weeks ago, the media heralded the opening of another in a long line of investigations by the SEC of insider trading involving hedge funds.  This time, those reportedly targeted include an institutional salesman from Goldman Sachs and the former head of GS’s research in Taiwan, as well as hedge funds who allegedly traded on inside information passed by the GS pair.

what do these people do for a living?

The press reports made me start to think that I should write on three associated topics:

–what does an institutional salesman do?

–what does a sell-side securities analyst do?

–why the focus on hedge funds?

three posts, starting today

I’ll answer these questions–from my perspective as a former client, never myself having been a hedge fund principal, an institutional salesperson or a sell-side analyst–over the next three days.

Before I start, though, I should say that the brokerage landscape has been changing, with increasing speed, over the past decade, and to the detriment of many institutional salesmen and industry analysts.

Two reasons:

–pension fund clients and mutual fund boards of directors are paying increasing attention to the amounts paid by traditional long-only investment managers to brokers.  This is only natural, since this money comes out of the pockets of the clients, not the managers (more about research commissions in Wednesday’s post), and

–increasingly, successful traders (think: Jon Corzine) have become the heads of major brokerage firms.  They’ve been reshaping the firms in their own image, and shifting emphasis away from areas like research and institutional sales.

what does an institutional salesperson do?

An institutional salesperson is a marketer.   He’s is in charge of the overall relationship between the broker and a specific set of money manager clients.  The job is to ensure that the broker makes a profit on each client relationship.

The institutional salesperson is a gatekeeper, in two senses:

–he regulates access to brokerage services, depending on the level of client payments.  “Access” includes things like: phone calls or private visits from industry analysts; private meetings with companies on road shows hosted by the broker; one-on-one company meetings at broker-hosted industry conferences; favorable allocations of initial public offerings (the salesman is only one of several parties in this discussion, though).

–he also regulates the timing of access.  Does a requested analyst drop everything he’s doing and rush to the client’s offices?  …or does he make a phone call the following day?  Is a company meeting for an hour at 10:00am?  …or twenty minutes at 5:30pm?  …or a conference call, instead of face to face?  …or a canned presentation at a group lunch?  If the salesman makes personal calls to relay information from the broker’s morning meeting (in addition to internet dissemination) about companies he knows the client is interested in, who is the first call and who is the tenth?

relationship:  commercial to emotional…

As is the case with any effort to sell recurring services, part of the job is to try to turn a commercial relationship with the client into a personal one.  To that end, institutional salespeople study and cultivate their clients very carefully.

In my experience, salespeople know much more about the client and what makes him tick than he would ever dream.  If the client likes to be taken to lunch or to sporting events, fine.  If the client likes to gossip about rivals, okay.  If he likes flattery, so be it.  If the client responds better to salespeople who are tall/short, young/old, male/female, slim/portly, sports nut/nerd–even if the client is unaware he does so–assignments will be altered to suit. (I’ve even seen one brokerage house–long since merged away–that wanted to establish a certain image.  It had only salespeople who were young, slim, good-looking and very tall.)

…or maybe not

An intelligent salesperson (and that’s just about every one I’ve come into contact with) also makes judgments about the client’s overall business.  Is it on the rise, or has a former hot hand turned permanently cold?  Adjustments are made, accordingly.  One of my friends used to classify clients explicitly in terms of the BCS matrix.  I never asked where I stood.

information collection

The salesperson also has an information gathering function.  Particularly in the US, money managers take pains to separate research decisions made by portfolio managers and their implementation through the trading desk.  One reason is to disguise their investment strategy from their trading partners (another is to guard against bribery).  However, experienced institutional salespeople can often ferret out information by reading between the lines in their conversations with clients–data which is immediately relayed to the broker’s trading desk.  Salespeople also usually know their clients’ analytic strengths and weaknesses very well.  If they believe a key client is buying a stock in an area where he’s an expert, the salesperson may give other clients an extra nudge–after alerting the trading desk, of course.

In a good year, an experienced institutional salesperson in the US can make millions of dollars.  And a strong working relationship with a client who becomes a super-star manager can make an institutional salesperson’s career.  On the other hand, high compensation also makes someone like this an obvious target for downsizing during a period of brokerage retrenchment like the one we’ve been going through over the past few years.

Back to the media reports on the SEC investigation:  can an institutional salesperson develop inside information on his own?  Maybe, but that would be very unusual, in my view.  I think a more likely accusation would be that a salesman either traded on inside information himself or passed it on to a client who did.

Tomorrow:  the sell-side securities analyst.



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