thoughts (vi)

the discounting mechanism

Discounting is Wall Street jargon for the process through which profit-relevant information about a given company is factored into its stock price.

When I started as a securities analyst (in 1978) Wall Street was just beginning to recover from a half-decade long slump caused by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the end to fixed (and outrageously high) commissions on trades. At the same time, the passage of ERISA was sparking demand for professional third-party managers for corporate pension plans.

So there was huge demand for analysts.

By the 1990s, portfolio management companies worked out that they could save a lot of money by relying on brokerage research, paid for by higher commissions on trades, rather than in-house efforts. So the buy side began to lay off research staff. After the housing crisis of 2007-09, brokers decided to save money by firing their high-priced experienced analysts and replace them with recent college or business school graduates.

What did old-style researchers do? In my case, I spent over thirty years studying tech and the global gambling/hotel businesses, and somewhat less following global natural resources. I’d read the SEC filings, visit the companies, try to figure out corporate culture and how firms in a given industry jockeyed for position with one another. I’d also try to find leading indicators that would give me an idea of whether a firm’s prospects were looking up or down. Nothing unique to me or exotic in itself. Sort of like picking up a bat, walking to the plate and swinging at a pitched ball. For example:

–one of my first companies was Singer, the sewing machine company. It was trading a $7 a share and had gone nowhere for years. After all, the peak for consumer purchases of sewing machines in the US had been in 1929. The IR person told me the company’s factory in Elizabeth, NJ looked like something from Dickens. On the other hand, it had cash, tax losses worth $25 a share if they could be used, a leading flight simulator business, a booming emerging markets sewing machine operation and lots of property in the vicinity of New York City. All in all, the pieces were worth $50+ a share if the company were broken up …and Singer’s new chairman appeared to have decided to do precisely that.

–when Apple had been left for dead as, in effect, a penny stock, Steve Jobs decided to bet the farm on the iPod. So iPod sales would end up being the near-term key to the company’s survival/success. How to find out, legally/ethically what sales were likely to be?. One way would be to visit Apple stores and ask. Another would be to look for relatives, acquaintances, people on the street/bus/train using one. But the iPod was essentially a small form factor hard disk drive. Suppliers–there were only two–was a natural way to go. But it turned out that there was only a single supplier of the spindles that the drives spun around–Nidec, in Japan. The company ended up regularly sending representatives to NYC to try to get investors interested in it as a play on Apple.

–to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Macau gaming a decade or so ago was that the Hong Kong market was totally oblivious to the fact that half the profits from Las Vegas casinos came from non-gaming entertainment. So the market was twice the size locals thought it was.

Anyway, information like this would slowly but surely leak into the market. If nothing else, brokers would see who was buying and what was working, and spread the word to other customers.

My sense is that this sort of research doesn’t happen much any more. Maybe because it’s much cheaper to have a trading bot react quickly to reported results rather than try to figure out what they might be.

Look at TSLA, for example. It was down by 12% on an earnings report whose general contents had been widely circulated in the press and in internet chatter over the past several weeks. I don’t follow TSLA any more, but the negative news seemed to me to be so widespread that in another day one might have argued that the bad news was over-discounted and the stock would go up on the report.

This is just my take on how today’s market works. If this is right, though, it has implications for what will happen to stocks during the first half.

more tomorrow

One response

  1. Just wanted to drop a note and say these insights and context and very much appreciated.

    Happy New Year and good hunting.

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