Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Keep Your Eyes on the Ball

The underlying premise of investor relations is simple: to the extent you can give investors a clear picture of what your company’s future earnings prospects are, the better they will be able to accurately assess the value of your firm and its stock price. This derives from the financial principle that the value of a firm is equal to the sum of its future cash flows, discounted back to a present value. Your past earnings history, even yesterday’s quarterly release, is germane only to the extent that it illuminates and gives confidence to estimates of future cash flows.

I bring this up because lately it seems to me that there are more distractions than ever to the discipline of investor relations. To start, it is the silly season in Washington and regulatory initiatives are in full swing. Every day seems to bring more news about SEC initiatives, whether it’s on flash trading or creating a new division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation. They seem determined to prove that they can cure past ills by more regulations. Further, the industry association, NIRI, seems to be singularly focused on regulatory issues, which I guess makes sense as they are based in Washington and are creatures of their environment. Added to that we have whole new channels of communication opening up in the amorphous world of social media with twitter, facebook, linkedin and blogs. Then we have technical issues such as XBRL reporting and IFRS accounting to worry about. All of these are things that investor relations officers need to be aware of, have an opinion on and react to if it is their ox that is getting gored, but are not central to what they do.

With all of this going on, it’s very easy to forget the main function of investor relations: creating a clear and concise picture of what your firm’s prospects are and how you intend to get there. I will grant you that investor relations derives from regulation. Without specific regulatory guidelines most companies would be loath to tell investors anything, regardless of what the financial theory says. But the jumbled mess that we refer to as securities law regulation is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Let the lawyers worry about the latest SEC staff interpretations; let the accountants worry about IFRS. What investor relations people should worry about is whether the market understands how what your company is doing leads to profits in the future. This means disclosing not only what happened in the past quarter; it also means helping investors gain insight into your markets, your industry and the trends, both long-term and short- term, that drive your business.

Likewise the social media that we are seeing today is nothing more than additional forms of communication. I’ve been around this business so long that I remember when conference calls were a novelty. Today conference calls are just another tool to get the company’s story to investors efficiently. Done well, they are helpful; done poorly they can be a disaster. Social media will eventually play out in a similar fashion.

So my advice is to let the hype and chatter pass you by. Keep your eyes on the goal of getting investors to understand your business and its prospects. Appropriate valuation in the form of stock price will follow.

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