Thursday, December 20, 2007

How Not to Run a Conference Call

Yesterday Al Lord, the CEO of SLM Corporation (Sallie Mae) held a conference call to reintroduce himself to the analyst community (He had previously served as SLM’s CEO and CFO). The purported purpose of the call was to bring some transparency to his role as CEO and to talk about some broad issues and goals for SLM. He certainly brought transparency to his role as CEO. What the Street saw was an executive who was by turns vague, defensive, arrogant and profane. Investors’ reactions were what you might expect – the stock traded down 20%, the worst one-day drop in the company’s history. As this is an example that we can all learn from, I thought I would dissect the call in more detail for our edification.

There were many issues that needed to be addressed on the call – a failed buyout bid and ensuing litigation, lowered credit ratings and the need to shore up capital at the company, the CEO’s recent sale of 1.2 million shares and steps needed to return the company to a growth mode following the nine months the failed buyout bid was pending. To the CEO’s credit, he raised all the issues in his prepared remarks. Unfortunately, he didn’t clearly explain any of the issues or set out concrete steps to achieve his goals. Then he acted surprised and defensive when during the Q & A session analysts tried to get a bit more specificity out of him.

Take for example, the issue of shoring up capital. According to the transcript, Al Lord said: “My goal, first goal, probably my first goal and second goal, is to strengthen our balance sheet. The deal, the unfinished deal, cost us a single-A rating. We're now BBB. First objective is to solidify that BBB, next goal is to improve it from BBB to single-A. It is very much my first priority. In order to do that, obviously, we're going to add capital …” There was nothing said about how capital was going to be added. Predictably, the first question during the Q & A session was about how the capital was going to be raised. Here’s a portion of the exchange:

Analyst: “I wanted to ask -- you're going to shore up the balance sheet. Does that mean you're going to be selling equity?”
Al Lord: “The most preferred type of equity is common equity. At this point, I'm not going to get very precise with you. The idea is to strengthen the equity, the capital count with financing somewhere beneath the long-term credit line.”
Analyst: “Do you think you would need to raise to get back to the credit rating you would like? And what are your thoughts about the dividend?”
Al Lord: “This is the last question I answer that's more than one part. We will look at the dividend in the second half of the year.”
Analyst: “Okay. And you didn't mention how much equity you were going to need to get back up to the single-A rating.”
Al Lord: “You're talking to the wrong guy. I don't know that answer.”

This exchange is a microcosm of what went wrong with the call. The first answer is vague and indirect. A simple yes would have sufficed, as the answer seems to imply that SLM will be selling equity and would prefer to sell common equity. The answer to the last question is simply a stunner in its arrogance. Here the CEO has stated that his first (and second) priority is to add capital, yet he can’t be bothered with the details. This guy used to be the CFO, so it’s not as if he came out of sales and marketing and doesn’t know his way around a balance sheet. This is not the way to inspire confidence in the market place. There are lots of ways to answer that question without giving specifics, such as “We’ve just started studying the issue, so we’re not prepared to comment on exact amounts yet”, or “There as so many variables that can come into play as we work to improve our capital structure that it would be premature to comment on amounts of equity required just yet.”

I could go on, as there are plenty of other examples of what not to do in a conference call, from failed humor to profanity, but it’s a bit like shooting ducks in a barrel – it’s way too easy, and besides, this post would be too long. The fact that the market removed $3 billion from SLM’s market cap probably says more than I can.

So, it makes for great theater, but what can we learn from the call? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Broad, rambling statements of goals don’t cut it with an audience of equity analysts. These are people whose job is to parse the details to construct models of future earnings. General statements coupled with a refusal to go into specifics will drive them nuts. If you can’t be clear and concise, it’s better not to say anything at all.

2. Tone, attitude and preparation matter. Al Lord clearly did not want to answer questions from pesky analysts and wasn’t prepared. This sends a message that he doesn’t care about his investors and is a shoot from the hip sort of executive.

3. Never, ever, use an expletive on a conference call. Before this, Jeff Skilling of Enron fame held the award for dumbest thing ever said on a conference call when he called an analyst a particular body part. Al Lord has clearly taken the award from Skilling, by ending his conference call with “let’s get the [expletive] out of here.”

On that note, I will get the heck out of here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Investor Relations Year in Review

Like Jimmy Buffet, I sat down last weekend just to try and recall the whole year; all of the faces and all of the places, wondering where they all disappeared. Unfortunately, unlike Jimmy, I didn’t run into a chum with a bottle of rum, so I wound up sitting right here. Writing this post, I may add. Herewith a quick review of some of the more notable things I noticed in the world of investor relations this year coupled with Palizza’s Predictions for 2008:

The World is Going Electronic: The SEC ushered in the era of more aggressive electronic delivery of proxy materials in 2007. Previously, shareholders could opt-in for electronic delivery of the proxy statement and annual report. Relatively few did. Now, companies can force them to opt out of electronic delivery. The first big annual report season for this new delivery method will occur in the Spring of 2008, and given the cost savings in printing and postage involved, most companies will make economically rational decisions and force shareholders to take action if they want to receive a paper copy of the annual report. After all, investor relations reports to the CFO, not marketing. Annual report printers everywhere have to be very concerned about the disappearance of the traditional printed annual report. Companies will like the cost savings and designers of annual reports should be neutral on the subject.

Hedge Funds and Activist Investors have a Bifurcated Year. The first half of the year saw lots of activity by hedge funds and activist investors. Deals were easy to come by and the credit markets were loose. Company managements were always looking over their shoulders to see who was sniffing around. All of this came to a screeching halt in the second half of the year as the sub-prime mortgage crisis caused the credit markets to lock up. Companies that have been underperforming or that are particularly subject to financial engineering because they have underleveraged balance sheets have gained a bit of breathing room. If they’re lucky, investor relations officers will be able to focus more on the longer term fundamentals and less on the short term trading trends in 2008.

A Corollary to the Credit Crunch: Look for the M & A pendulum to swing back in favor of strategic corporate purchasers over the next year or two, until the credit hangover eases. Of course, corporate purchasers will have to try and overcome the heightened price expectation of sellers who have seen the multiples financial buyers paid over the past few years. That should make for some interesting investor relations spiels from IROs as they attempt to justify the price being paid.

The U.S. Dollar weakened throughout the year against the British Pound and the Euro. U.S. equities must look like relative bargains to investors in Europe. On the other hand, whatever gains European investors had in U.S. equities this year were probably wiped out by currency conversions back into the Pound or the Euro. (The market giveth, and the market taketh away.) Look for more interest in U.S. equities from European investors in 2008 provided they start to think the U.S. dollar is at or near the end of its slide.

Four predictions is about all I can handle, so I will close out with best wishes for a happy holiday season for all and a prosperous new year. May the markets be kind to you in 2008!

Monday, December 3, 2007

What the World Equity Markets are Telling the U. S.

Last week I conducted a workshop on investor relations in Singapore for Asian companies. It has underscored for me the fact that we live in an increasingly global village. Yes, there are cultural differences. There are also time and distance differences that sometimes make communication difficult, but the process of transferring information from companies to investors seems to be remarkably similar worldwide.

We now have publicly listed companies in spots such as China and Vietnam. These are economies that did not even acknowledge the benefits of capitalism just a short time ago. I don’t know why, but it came as a revelation to me that companies in these countries worry about much the same things that investor relations officers do here in the U. S. – being undervalued relative to their peers and the index, managements that expect everyone to love their stock, how to measure the effectiveness of IR, and hedge funds, to name a few topics. There are differences – some of the companies I spoke with had relatively low levels of public float and a number of markets were heavily influenced by speculative individual investors, leading to volatile stock price movements. My impression, however, was that many of the differences related to the equity markets being younger, and that as the markets mature and deepen, with greater levels of liquidity and professional investors, most of the differences will work themselves out of the market.

One fact came through loud and clear however – none of the companies I spoke with were listed on a U. S. exchange, and further, none of them had any remote desire to list in the U. S. The reason universally cited was Sarbanes – Oxley. None of the companies wanted to voluntarily undertake the regulatory burden imposed by the legislation. Not so long ago, it used to be that listing in the U. S. was a sign that a company had truly arrived. Today, there are growing alternatives to the U. S. markets, including Hong Kong and London, which have more attractive regulatory environments. According to the Wall Street Journal last week, more IPOs have been filed this year in London than in the U.S. (although the U.S. is slightly ahead in dollar volume of deals).

I’m not in favor of a regulatory race to the bottom, but if seems to me that the U. S. has priced itself out of the equity listings market through the increased cost of compliance with our regulations. Clearly, the rest of the world is telling us that the increased security achieved through the oversight and controls required by Sarbanes – Oxley does not justify the increased cost. To put it another way, there would have to be a tangible benefit, shown by a premium to stock valuations for companies subject to Sarbanes - Oxley in order to justify the increased cost of complying with the regulations. Companies are not seeing it, and are taking their listings elsewhere. If the U.S. intends to remain a leader in the world equity markets, it needs to take a hard look at Sarbanes – Oxley.