Ray Dirks, Kevin Chang and other stuff

a $30 million fine

According to the Wall Street JournalCiti technology analyst Kevin Chang was fired last month.  Citi was fined $30 million by state regulators in Massachusetts for his leaking the contents of a research report to influential clients the day before it was published.  Other investigations are ongoing.

What happened?

The Journal, whose account appears to be taken from the Massachusetts consent order, says Mr. Chang found out from an Apple component supplier, Hon Hai Precision, that Apple had cut back orders–meaning, presumably, that sales of iPhones were running considerably below expectations. Chang wrote up his findings in a report that he submitted to Citi’s compliance/legal departments for review.

While his report was being processed, Chang was contacted by at least one hedge fund, SAC, which was looking for corroboration of similar conclusions drawn in an already released research report by Australian broker Macquarie.  Chang promptly emailed the guts of his report to four clients, SAC, T Rowe Price, Citadel and GLG.

The legal issue?   …selective disclosure of the research conclusions.

not the first time:  the Ray Dirks/Equity Funding case

Mr. Dirks was a famous sell-side insurance analyst back in the early 1970s.  In researching Equity Funding, a then-high flying stock, he discovered that the company’s apparently stellar growth was a fiction.  The firm had a bunch of employees whose job was to churn out phony insurance applications for made-up people, which EF then processed and showed “profits” for, just as if they were real.

When he found the fraud out, Dirks immediately called all his important clients and told them.  They sold.  Only then did Dirks inform the SEC.

Rather than being grateful for his news, the SEC found Dirks guilty of trading on inside information and barred him from the securities industry–a verdict that was reversed years later by the Supreme Court.

two observations

1.  Why put important clients first, even at the risk of career-ending regulatory action?  After all, many sell-side analysts take home multi-million dollar paychecks.

Their actions show who the analysts perceive their real employers are.  Ultimately, they collect the big bucks because powerful clients continue to send large amounts of trading commissions to pay for access to their research.  If that commission flow begins to shrink, so too does the size of the analyst’s pay.

Also, an analyst’s ability to move to another firm rests in large measure on whether these same clients will vouch for him–and will increase their commission business with the new employer.

2.  What happens to people like Dirks and Chang?

Dirks was eventually exonerated.  While he was appealing the SEC judgment, his thoughts on insurance companies continued to be circulated in the investment community.  Only they appeared under the byline of a rookie apprentice to Dirks–Jim Chanos.

Dirks eventually established his own research firm.  Interestingly, when I Googled him this morning, I found that the top search results were all basically rehashes of the favorable information put out by Ray Dirks Research itself.  No one remembers the real story.

Chang?  I don’t know.  He lives in Taiwan, where I suspect he will catch on with a local brokerage firm or investment manager.  As far as Americans are concerned, disgraced analysts or portfolio managers tend to end up in the media.  For example, Henry Blodget, who wrote all those laudatory “research” reports for Merrill touting internet stocks he actually believed were clunkers, now works for Yahoo Finance.  You can watch similar characters every day on finance TV.  Crooked, maybe.  But they’re articulate and look presentable.  And that’s all that matters.

 

 

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.

security analysis in the 21st century: the former paradigm

One of my California brothers-in-law, a savvy investor and an Apple devotee, sent me an email the other day lamenting the parlous state of brokerage house analysis of AAPL.  He supplied this link from Apple Insider as evidence.

The article talks about Peter Misek, an analyst from Jefferies, who:

1.  had a price target of $900 for AAPL last year while the stock was going up and one of around $400 now that the stock has weakened

2.  made a series of (mostly negative) predictions about new products and current sales for AAPL, none of which have come true, and

3.  is blaming his misses on AAPL management failures and has used these occasions to downgrade the stock further.

 

In one sense, this is “normal” Wall Street behavior.   As an analyst trying to make a name for himself, Misek has been making out-of-consensus predictions.   He wants distinguish himself from the crowd and catch the attention of institutional clients who might direct trades (and therefore commissions) to his firm in exchange for access to his research.  In this, he’s following the time-honored dictum that customers will remember the home runs and quickly forget about the strike outs.

From what I’ve read on the internet–I haven’t seen Mr. Misek’s actual research, and have no desire to–what really sticks out in this case is the lack of skill he’s shown in the predictions he’s made.

Even that is not so surprising.

An illustration:

Early in my career (I’d been a buy-side oil industry analyst for maybe three years), I got a call to interview for a job as assistant to Charles Maxwell, then the dean of Wall Street sell-side oil analysts.  I went.

The interview was with the research director for Maxwell’s firm.  It was very short.

The hours were long.  The pay was poor.  I would be away from home visiting companies and clients about 60% of the time.  The payoff would come–if one did–three or four years hence.  Having made a reputation with clients, and with Charlie’s blessing, I’d be hired by a major brokerage firm as its oil analyst.  I’d do basically the same work as before but be paid the equivalent of several million dollars a year in today’s money.

The look of horror on my face at the prospect of a ton of boring travel–hadn’t they ever heard of the telephone?–was enough to tell both of us that I wasn’t the man for this job.

Two points:

–back in the day, securities analysts spent long apprenticeships learning their trade before they were allowed to take the reins as sell-side analysts covering major companies. and

–compensation was relatively high.

Both factors have changed a lot during the past decade.  Nevertheless,  I don’t think either the investing public or the companies being researched understand what’s happened.  Neither group appears to me to have adjusted to the new world we’re in.

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

where is the stock market headed?: Wall Street strategists vs. analysts

 Factset:  what Wall Street thinks

Last week I got a press release from Factset, a financial data collection and analysis service, on the topic of where the S&P 500 is headed over the coming twelve months.  The short answer from Factset:  brokerage house analysts think the market is going up a little bit, strategists think the market is going down–again by just a touch.

I’m going to write about this over the next few days.  My short answer:  if history is any guide, neither outcome is likely.  The market seldom drifts along.  It either goes up a lot, or down a lot.

strategists vs. analysts

Who are these people?

First of all, they’re both sets of “researchers” who work for brokerage houses.  Now, they don’t call brokers the “sell-side” for nothing.  The number-one job of any sell-side researcher–analyst or strategist–is to persuade customers to do their trading business with their firm.  In other words, they’re primarily salespeople.  That’s important because it means that at least to some degree they both tailor what they say to fit what their buy-side audience wants to hear.

strategists

Strategists are typically economists or statisticians by training, although they are also sometimes former portfolio managers (snide pms would probably say failed portfolio managers).

Strategists normally work “top down.”  That is, they use data about the macroeconomy to make forecasts about GDP growth and  the course of interest rates.  They then derive expected future earnings growth for the overall stock market and the price earnings multiple at which they think the market will trade.  That gives them a forecast of the future stock market price.  For the S&P over the next year, Factset says the strategists’ consensus is down, but my less than 10%.

Based on their analysis, strategists also recommend sector- and industry-based portfolio structure.  In conjunction with analysts, the may also suggecst individual stock holdings.  They may also help set policy–like the official forecast of the oil price–that analysts more or less adhere to in making their company earnings forecasts.

Strategists are normally much more conservative than sell-side analysts.  Their earnings growth projections are almost always lower than analysts’.  Clients occasionally permit strategists to be bearish, and–as is the case now–to say the market is headed south.  But a prolonged bearish tilt is almost like buying a ticket for the unemployment line.

analysts

Analysts are specialists in specific industries or economic sectors.  They may have academic training in engineering or other subjects pertinent to the industry they cover.  They may have worked in the industry, often in strategic planning or M&A.  They’re invariably deeply knowledgeable about company financials and about the competitive dynamics of their coverage. They often also have privileged access to the top management of the firms they analyze.

That access usually comes at a price.  Analysts can come under considerable pressure not to deviate–either up or down–from the official earnings guidance announced by these firms.  A “sell” recommendation can sometimes trigger a violent reaction from the company in question.

Many investors–childishly–don’t like to hear bad news about the companies they own.  At the same time, the analyst won’t earn much if he doesn’t have good things to say about at lease some firms in his industry.  As a result, analysts tend to err very substantially on the side of optimism.  They turn bearish, even for a short time, at their peril.

year-ago predictions

Industry analysts make projections of earnings growth and set stock price targets for the companies they cover.  They don’t make projections for the S&P.  Factset gets an implicit analyst forecast for the market by aggregating the analyst projections for each company in the S&P 500.

Getting a strategist forecast is much more straightforward.  Factset just takes a median.

Anyway, in April 2012 the implied analysts’ forecast for the S&P was much more bullish than the strategists–at +11.9% vs. +2.6%.

No surprise there.

What is a surprise (“shock” may be a better word), however, is that the analysts were a lot closer to the actual S&P 500 results of +13.8% (capital changes only).

year-ahead projections for the S&P

That’s tomorrow’s topic.