securities analysis in the 21st century: fifty years of changes

Fifty years ago, the financial services industry in the US was a backwater, somewhere people went to work if they couldn’t find a job elsewhere.  But powerful changes were on the cards.  Americans were becoming wealthy, at least in part because the country’s industrial base was the only one in advanced economies left standing after World War II.  And they were developing an appetite for stocks.

reasons for rapid growth of financial services during 1970-90

–the maturing of the Baby Boom

–1974 ERISA legislation, which more or less compelled companies to hire competent third parties to manage their employees’ pension assets

–ERISA also established IRAs

–1978 tax legislation established 401ks

–the rise of discount brokers and no-load funds (even in the 1980s, load funds charged purchase fees of up to 8%) that made investing cheaper and easy

–the crash of 1987, which, I think, caused a fundamental shift by individual investors away from traditional brokers and individual stocks, to mutual funds

–a shift in the 1990s, motivated by wanting to reduce their legal liability, by traditional brokerage houses to convert brokers from “stock jockeys” into salesmen of packaged products like mutual funds

The result of all this was the spectacular rise of the money management industry during the second half of the last century.

seeds of decline

–downward pressure on commission rates

ERISA requires that when money managers transact, they obtain the best execution (buying/selling price) as well as the lowest transaction cost.  As technology developed, this meant that trading rooms had a legal obligation to use electronic crossing networks (“dark pools”) instead of routing orders through traditional brokers. Fidelity was a leader in this.

The move also had the positive side effect of denying brokers to opportunity to use client trading information for their own benefit–either by trading on it themselves or by blabbing about it to other money managers.

–questioning of “soft dollars”

money managers routinely buy information from research organizations, including brokers, by allowing them to charge commissions that are 50%-100% higher than normal (called “research commissions”).  Fidelity, the industry standard of best practice, has been working for years to restrict the amount of shareholder money that is being spent this way.  Yes, this is good for Fidelity–by being bad for smaller rivals.  And its efforts have been very effective in cutting the diameter of the firehose spraying commission dollars at research sources.

in recent years, there’s been a small but growing trend for big clients of money managers to demand that a portion of their soft dollar allotment be earmarked for buying services for the client, not the money manager

–the move to index funds, and ultimately to ETFs, which don’t require active management

–massive redemption of equity mutual funds during the Great Recession, reducing further the assets in the hands of active managers.  Since managers are paid a percentage of the assets they oversee as their fee, fewer assets means less money to pay employees like securities analysts and portfolio managers

–large-scale firings of experienced securities analysts by brokerage firms during the Great Recession.  Over the course of my career on Wall Street, brokerage companies have been gradually changing themselves into trading firms–because, rightly or wrongly, they regard trading as much more profitable.  They’ve been laying off experienced analysts for over a decade,  disgorging even the most deeply entrenched during 2008-9.

The net result:  the big brokerage research departments of the 1980s-90s are gone.  There may be bodies occupying seats today, but they generally lack training, supervision and experience.

Active managers, who had cut back their (mostly ineffective) research staffs in the 1980s,  in favor of buying information from brokers with soft dollars instead, have few internal assets to rely on.  They also have lower fee income.  Are they going to rebuild their own research?  If so, whose current pay gets cut?  Will new research be any better than the sub-par operations they ran last time around?

for individual investors, like you and me…

THIS IS GREAT!!!

Yes, less well-informed institutions means that day-to-day volatility may be higher.  But it also means that we have a much better chance than we did a decade ago to discover valuable information that Wall Street doesn’t know yet.

Tomorrow, what companies are doing–with an aside on AAPL.

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