On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article, “Hedge Funds Learn Secrets Not So Safe.” It’s about brokerage house research reports on individual companies.
Brokers provide research to customers either by giving them access to a research website, which contains all a broker’s research reports, and/or by responding to requests for specific research items, including meetings with analysts. The problem with this is that brokers collect and analyze all their points of contact for the information they contain. Conclusions will certainly wind up on the firm’s sales desk and can easily end up on the firm’s proprietary trading desk, too.
The same written information is also available to authorized customers through third-party information services like Bloomberg. I can use my Bloomberg account not only to call up a chart of a company’s stock price, see summary financial statistics and find out who a company’s major suppliers and customers are. I can also read brokerage research from the brokers I do business with. Not having read the service agreements they’ve signed, hedge funds have apparently assumed that if they read brokerage house report on a given target investment using a third-party information service, the broker never finds out. By doing so, they’ve outwitted the broker and avoided information leakage.
The third-party information providers supply such usage data to brokers, sometimes being as specific as what person at a given firm has accessed a report. In fact, the article cites an instance of an unnamed analyst finding out his research wasn’t as stealthy as he’d thought when the broker whose report he’d been reading called him up and offered to arrange a meeting with the target company.
What I find odd is that there’s an obvious way to prevent information leakage–do the research yourself. There’s a ton of relevent information available from the SEC’s Edgar site, as well as from government agencies and industry trade associations. There are also suppliers and customers to talk to. There’s gossip on the internet, too.
In my experience, except for a narrow set of highly technical areas (where you can always hire a consultant), the picture you create yourself will be more accurate, relevant and in-depth than anything a brokerage report can provide. Yes, the brokerage analyst may be willing to say things on the phone or in person that he wouldn’t care to commit to paper, but that’s another issue.
Two issues: compiling a thorough analysis of a company may take a week or two, as opposed to taking an hour to read someone else’s work. Also, the analyst has to have the skill and experience to do independent work.
I can’t imagine that taking an extra week is the crucial variable. That leaves the possibility that the firms the WSJ is writing about are so weak they don’t know how to do research themselves. Hard to fathom. I guess they’re just great marketers.