Friday, December 17, 2010

Proxy Advisory Services Regulation: What’s Good For the Goose…

As a commentator, one of the best things you can find to write about is when you come across someone being totally disingenuous; it’s almost as good as when companies do something really stupid (for which see “How Not to Run a Conference Call” December, 2007 and “What Was He Thinking, Whole Foods Version”, August 2007).

Which brings me to this week’s subject, the possibility of the Securities and Exchange Commission imposing regulations upon proxy advisory firms. Proxy advisory firms have grown in size and influence over the last twenty years. Their positions on corporate governance, compensation and proposed mergers and acquisitions have become important to both investors and corporations, creating in effect, de facto standards. Yet the manner in which the proxy advisory firms reach their recommendations and ratings, the formulas they use when looking at compensation and equity plans, and the process by which they make recommendations regarding merger and acquisition activity are considerably less than transparent. Further, the amount of research available to support their positions on corporate governance is less than overwhelming and far from conclusive. Finally, some firms, such as ISS, have actively worked both sides of the street, advising institutions how to vote and selling their consulting services to corporations to tell them how to structure things in order to get approval and high ratings from ISS.

So when the Securities and Exchange Commission asked for comments on the proxy process earlier this year it is not surprising that a number of comments came back suggesting that proxy advisory firms be subject to some regulation from the SEC, namely that proxy advisory firms should be subject to proxy rules and regulated as investment advisers, including mandated disclosure of specific conflicts of interest, transparency on how they develop their ratings and recommendations, and that they adopt procedures ensuring the accuracy of their reports and voting recommendations.

It seems as though the proxy advisory firms, which like more regulation for corporations, are not so happy when the shoe is on the other foot. Here’s Nell Minow, Chair of The Corporate Library and former general counsel and CEO of ISS in a comment letter to the SEC: “I would like to object in the strongest possible terms to the possible regulation of proxy advisory services.” Later in her comment letter, she goes on to explain how market forces will keep the proxy advisory services honest.

In other words, if we just let competition work without government getting in the way, everything should be fine. Of course this is exactly what they say doesn’t work for corporations when they want more regulation on say on pay, proxy access, compensation disclosure and a whole host of other corporate governance issues.

It does seem to make sense that these firms, which have a great deal of influence in how investment firms vote should at least be required to disclose the methodology by which they come to their ratings and recommendations, disclose any potential conflicts of interest (or better yet, be prohibited from conflicts of interest) and show they have stringent procedures in place to prevent inaccurate reports and recommendations.

After all, if increased disclosure and regulation is good for the goose (corporations), then it is certainly also good for the gander (proxy advisory firms).

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lawyers Gone Wild

To a certain degree, we are all governed by our experiences. In the case of Wal-Mart, that experience seems to include getting sued – a lot. While I was unable to get exact, recent numbers, a 2001 USA Today report had Wal-Mart stating that they were sued 4,851 times during the year 2000. Another source on the web reported that Wal-Mart was sued 845 times in federal court alone during 1999. The point here is not the preciseness of the numbers, but rather the magnitude, and the simple fact is that Wal-Mart finds itself on the receiving end of lawsuits with great regularity.

Having to deal with plaintiff’s lawyers on such a regular basis would warp the sensibilities of almost anyone and it appears that a bunker mentality regarding being prepared for lawsuits has crept into Wal-Mart’s investor relations pronouncements. How else can you explain the safe harbor language for forward-looking statements contained in their most recent earnings call?

A transcript of Wal-Mart’s third quarter earnings call shows that their safe harbor statement runs 1,316 words, or about 4 1/2 pages of dense, lawyer drafted prose. By my calculations using the transcript available on Seeking Alpha, this was slightly more than 10% of all the words spoken during the call. Interestingly, this was almost 300 words longer that their second quarter safe harbor statement, which came in at a mere 1,038 words. To get an idea of how things have escalated, their fourth quarter 2005 earnings call used a safe harbor statement containing 455 words. At this rate, pretty soon Wal-Mart’s entire earnings call will consist solely of a safe harbor statement.

I am fortunate enough that I don’t get sued with great regularity, so I may not be as sensitized to this issue as Wal-Mart is, but to me it seems like lawyerly overkill. Here’s an example:

“This call will contain statements that Wal-Mart believes are forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, as amended, and intended to enjoy the protection of the safe harbor for forward-looking statements provided by that Act. These forward-looking statements generally are identified by the use of the words or phrases anticipate, are anticipating, are expecting, assume, could be, expect, forecasting, goal, guidance, guided, is expected, is planning, may affect, plan, will accelerate, will add, will be, could save, will drive, will ring, will be growing, will come, will continue, will cost, will experience, will generate, will grow, will improve, will not continue, will remodel, will see, will spend, will take, would represent, or a variation of one of those words or phrases in those statements or by the use of words and phrases of similar import. Similarly, descriptions of our objectives, plans, goals, targets, or expectations are forward-looking statements.”

The lawyer seems to have parsed through every verb that was going to be used in the call and labeled anything that could possibly be construed as future tense as forward looking. Of course, then for good measure, they throw in the phrase “or a variation of one of those words or phrases in those statements or by the use of words and phrases of similar import” which is legalese for “I can’t think of anything else, but if you can that’s excluded too”. Similarly, it appears as though a lawyer was determined to parse through every statement that Wal-Mart proposed to make during its earnings call, call out anything that could be deemed even slightly a forward looking statement, and specifically disclaim liability for it if things didn’t turn out as represented. That goes on for almost four pages. This is deadly stuff, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. I can’t image what Wal-Mart’s lawyers would do if the company actually took questions from analysts during the call.

All of this points out one of the central tensions of investor relations; the desire of IR practitioners to point out the road the company intends to pursue in order to earn future profits, versus the desire of lawyers to insulate the company from liability in a dangerous world where securities class action attorneys wait to pounce on any slight misstep. I’m not sure where the proper balance exists between these two desires, but management needs to recognize when lawyers are getting in the way of the message and tell them to cut back on the excess verbiage.

Certainly, if the lawyers are taking up over 10% of the message, things have gone too far.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Insider Trading – The More Things Change…

There’s an old French proverb, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, which translates into “the more things change, the more they stay the same” and that’s the way I feel about insider trading. Every few years, the topic seems to rear its ugly head long enough for prosecutors to make some headlines before moving on to other offenses.

In the past few weeks insider trading has come back into the news. Federal prosecutors recently unveiled a sweeping investigation centered upon the use of so called “expert networks” and involving subpoenas to SAC Capital, Janus Mutual funds, Fidelity Investments and Wellington Management. The current round follows about a year after the indictments announced in connection with the investigation of Galleon Hedge Fund and there appear to be a number of links between the two cases.

Insider trading issues are always going to be part of Wall Street as there is an inherent conflict of interests between our regulatory scheme and what motivates professional investors. The regulations seek to ensure fair and honest markets where all investors play on an even field. On the other hand, investors seek to gain an “investment edge” either through superior analysis or by figuring out insights to what may be happening at the company in question by piecing together disparate snippets of information. Given that there are significant amounts of money involved, Wall Street analysts are always going to push as hard as they can to gain an investment edge, up to, and sometimes over, the ethical line.

It doesn’t help matters that the current regulations and case law regarding insider information are not crystal clear. To greatly oversimplify things: If you are in possession of material, nonpublic information and you received it as a result of a duty to the corporation, or from someone who has such a duty, or if you have misappropriated the information in violation of a fiduciary duty, you can’t buy or sell the securities of that company. However, the mosaic theory, first enunciated by the federal courts in Elkind v. Liggitt & Myers, Inc., holds that analysts can assemble seemingly disparate non-material information into a material piece of information; that is, information that leads to a decision to buy or sell the stock. Of course, if some of the mosaic of information was obtained as a result of violations of duty to the company discussed above, things become somewhat less clear.

And there we have what I believe to be the crux of the current crop of insider trading cases. If you listen to the defendant’s attorneys you hear a constant drumbeat of mosaic this and mosaic that, portraying their clients as simple analysts who gain insight into companies by dint of digging harder than anyone else. If you listen to the prosecutors, what you hear is a tale of misappropriation of information that was known to be from sources that had a duty not to disclose the information, even if the piece of information was not material in and of itself. To my knowledge, there is no clear case law that governs in such a situation. Judges and juries are going to have to figure this one out, followed by inevitable appeals.

If we’re lucky, there eventually may be some clarifying language that will help people understand what they can and cannot do - what lawyers like to refer to as a “bright line” test. If we’re really lucky, the courts will give it a handy catch phrase such as “fruit of the poisonous tree” or “clean hands doctrine” that will help investors know what they can and cannot do.

Goodness knows, the securities laws could use some simple, clear rules that everyone can understand.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reg. FD - There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Regulation Fair Disclosure has had an up and down history in terms of enforcement. It would appear that we are currently in an up cycle and investor relations officers need to have an enhanced sense of awareness about Reg. FD so that they don’t find themselves in the SEC Enforcement Division’s crosshairs.

A bit of history is in order at this point. Reg. FD was enacted by the SEC in August, 2000 in order to prohibit companies from selectively disclosing material nonpublic information to market professionals under circumstances in which it would be reasonably foreseeable that the market professionals would trade on such information. In enacting the regulation, the SEC was attempting to level the investment playing field by assuring that all investors receive material nonpublic information at the same time. Of course, given that investors are constantly looking for an investment edge, usually in the form of information, there were bound to be some built in conflicts in the actual operation of the rule.

In the first years following the adoption of Reg. FD, the SEC brought a number of successful enforcement actions, as if to drive home their point. In these cases, companies had their knuckles rapped because they: told analysts (i) that earnings estimates were “too high” or “aggressive” (In re Raytheon Co., SEC Release No. 34-46897 (Nov. 25, 2002)), (ii) they were entering into a new material supply agreement (In re Secure Computing Corp., SEC Release No. 34-46895 (Nov. 25, 2002)), (iii) through a “combination of words, tone, emphasis and demeanor” indicated that next year’s earnings would decline significantly” (In re Schering-Plough Corporation, SEC Release No. 34-48461 (Sept. 9, 2003)).

During this period the SEC also brought not one, but two enforcement actions against Siebel Systems. After acquiescing in the first enforcement action, Siebel got their back up in the second enforcement action and litigated the issue in Federal District Court, where the SEC met their Waterloo. Basically, the District Court ruled that the SEC was being too aggressive on how they enforced selective disclosure and that companies could make statements in private conversations with analysts that vary from their public statements, so long as the statements were “equivalent in substance” (SEC v. Siebel Systems, Inc., 384 F.Supp.2d 694 (2005)). And there the matter stayed, with the SEC bringing no further enforcement actions.

Until recently, that is. Since September 2009, the SEC has brought three enforcement actions for Reg. FD. In addition to the high profile case against Office Depot which I wrote about several weeks ago (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – Office Depot and Reg. FD, October 25, 2010), American Commercial Lines and Presstek have been taken to the regulatory woodshed. In September 2009 the SEC settled a civil action against Christopher Black, former CFO of American Commercial Lines for emailing 8 sell side analysts from his home on a Saturday, adding "additional color" to a previous company press release that had stated "2007 second quarter results to look similar to the first quarter". Black's email said that "EPS for the second quarter will likely be in the neighborhood of about a dime below that of the first quarter", which effectively cut in half the previously given guidance. That email cost Mr. Black $25,000, payable to the SEC.

In March of 2010, the SEC settled a Reg. FD enforcement action against Presstek, Inc. for selectively disclosing its poor earnings outlook to a single investment advisor in a phone conversation, who then sold his holdings of approximately 500,000 shares. Although Presstek issued a public announcement about 12 hours later, they still wound up paying a $400,000 fine.

I have no special insights into the inner workings of the SEC, but it appears to me that for whatever reason – new political administration, new head of the enforcement division of the SEC, desire to nail some scalps on the wall following a number of highly publicized enforcement failures – the SEC has decided that Reg. FD will receive renewed enforcement attention. In reality, the underlying reason doesn’t matter. Investor relations officers need to sit up and take notice that the SEC is once again taking a close look at fair disclosure situations. After all, receiving a Wells Notice letter can really ruin your day.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What Warren Buffett Can Teach Us About Investor Relations

In October, Jeff Matthews, the author of “Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha” came to our local Houston National Investor Relations Institute chapter meeting to talk about his book and to make observations about Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway. It was an interesting talk and the Houston chapter gave everyone who attended copies of the book.

Normally I don’t read a lot of business books, as by the end of the work day I’m on information overload and prefer to pick up something kinder and gentler, such as a murder mystery. But in this case I already had the book and it looked as if it might be interesting, so I started to read it. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s an easy read and has more nuggets than the usual business book written by consultants or business school professors. (As someone who fills both roles, I am qualified to make that statement.) If you get a chance it’s worth the read.

The book itself is written around two visits Jeff Matthews made to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meetings in 2007 and 2008 and the bulk of the book is devoted to what was revealed through questions and answers at those sessions. But Matthews, a professional investor, is not content with merely acting as a reporter and uses the visits as springboards to examine a little bit about Buffett himself and a bit more about the businesses that make up Berkshire Hathaway.

There are a number of trenchant observations in the book, including the fact that most of Berkshire’s operating companies seem to prefer high profitability with okay growth to high growth with okay profitability, so that they can send all of their excess cash back to Omaha for further investment by Buffett. However, this is a blog about investor relations, so I want to focus on what I consider to be the most important IR takeaways from the book.

First, the bad news: Berkshire Hathaway does not have an investor relations department, nor do they have a fancy IR web site. Instead what they have is Warren Buffett and his annual letters to shareholders and appearances at the annual meeting. But this is more than enough. What Buffett tries to do is to get investors to understand the philosophy and culture of Berkshire Hathaway. He figures that if they understand what he is trying to do, he will get “high quality” investors that will stick with Berkshire Hathaway over the long term. Jeff Matthews illustrates this early in the book with a quote from the 1983 Chairman’s letter:

“We feel that high quality ownership can be attracted and maintained if we consistently communicate our business and ownership philosophy – along with no other conflicting messages – and then let self selection follow its course.”

In investor relations we all want to have “high quality” investors, but most of us spend our time discussing the latest 5 basis points of change in last quarter’s gross profit margins. As a result we tend to self-select towards those types of investors that are interested in the latest minute quarterly change as opposed to where the company is going to be five years down the road. So the first takeaway is that we get the shareholders we cater to. Focus on the long term and how you propose to increase value over time and you will be rewarded (assuming you execute well against your plans) with shareholders that are more patient and willing to overlook short-term bumps in the road. Focus on the current quarter and the short term and you will get investors that think that’s what’s important.

The second item for investor relations practitioners from the book is the immense amount of importance Buffett places on culture and reputation. I’ve written about this before in the context of investor relations (see “A “Cultured” Approach to Investor Relations” February 24, 2009) but it’s always nice to see that the world’s greatest investor agrees with you. In short, corporate culture and reputation matter, and it is important that investors understand these intangibles if they are going to understand how to value your company. And finally, and most importantly, it’s crucial that the actions of management conform to the culture that supports the reputation of your firm. To take another quote from Buffett in the book:

“We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. We cannot afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation. Let’s be sure that everything we do in business can be reported on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.”

A short way to sum up these two key IR points is that you get the investors you deserve as a result of what you do and say. This is very typical of the way Buffett boils things down into powerful insights into the obvious that we often overlook.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink: Office Depot and Reg. FD

Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission announced enforcement actions against Office Depot, its CEO and former CFO for violation of Regulation Fair Disclosure. After a four year quiet period following its Federal District Court loss in its second enforcement action against Siebel Systems, new leadership in a new administration seem to have resurrected Regulation Fair Disclosure from the regulatory dustbin, with three actions in the past year.

In the case of Office Depot it seems that management was concerned about analysts’ estimates for the second quarter of 2007 being too high. The CEO and the CFO directed people in the investor relations department to conduct calls with 18 analysts designed to remind the analysts of statements Office Depot made earlier in the quarter and that Office Depot’s competitors were having a tough time of it. The talking points used by the investor relations department were along the following lines:

"Haven't spoken in a while, just want to touch base.

At beg. of Qtr we've talked about a number of head winds that we were facing this quarter including a softening economy, especially at small end.

I think the earnings release we have seen from the likes of [Company A], [Company B], and [Company C] have been interesting.

On a sequential basis, [Company A] and [Company B] domestic comps were down substantially over prior quarters.

[Company C] mentioned economic conditions as a reason for their slowed growth.

Some have pointed to better conditions in the second half of the year – however who knows?

Remind you that economic model contemplates stable economic conditions – that is mid-teens growth"

In other words, Office Depot was attempting to imply that the economy was lousy, just as they had previously warned it might be and that their competitors had all been impacted by it. The logical inference then (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is that Office Depot’s operations were also suffering. As might be expected, following the calls, analysts began to lower their estimates and the price of Office Depot shares began to fall. Six days after the calls began Office Depot filed a Form 8-K Report announcing that its sales and earnings would be negatively impacted by the softening economy.

This is the sort of thing that drives the Enforcement crowd at the SEC nuts and they went after Office Depot with a vengeance, eventually winning an agreement from the company to pay a $1,000,000 fine and $50,000 fines against both the CEO and former CFO.

The good news here is that the people actually making the calls, the investor relations staff, were not fined. Either the defense of “I was just following orders” works with the SEC or they figured that, given the salaries of most investor relations officers, there just wasn’t enough there to make fines worthwhile.

There are a number of lesson that can be drawn from all of this, the most obvious being that you shouldn’t try to do indirectly what the regulations do not allow you to do directly. This enforcement action will send shivers through any investor relations officer that has wrestled with an analyst over their estimates being out of line, as many of the same techniques are used to bring estimates into line.

But what I’m interested in is what did the management of Office Depot think they were going to accomplish? They clearly wanted to signal that business was not as robust as analysts were expecting, but to what purpose? So that the stock wouldn’t trade down when the earnings were announced? Surely they must have known that the stock would trade down when they began to contact analysts. So is it better to have the stock go down earlier? I don’t get it.

This is classic short term corporate thinking, worrying about the stock price over a period of a few weeks. Over the long haul, the stock price will reflect the intrinsic value of the stock, and management should be worried about how to drive that intrinsic value higher, not where the stock price is going over the next few weeks due to short term economic conditions.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Maybe They Thought It Wasn’t Important

There are several scenarios that are a company's publicity and investor relations nightmare. One of them is if a senior executive is arrested for drunk driving. That’s just the situation Walgreens found itself in recently when its CFO was arrested, not once, but for the second time in a little over a year for driving under the influence of alcohol. According to press reports, Wade Miquelon, Walgreens CFO, was first arrested in September of 2009 for having a blood alcohol level that was unacceptable under Illinois law. As a result of the first arrest, Miquelon paid a hefty fine and was placed under Court supervision. In September 2010 he was again stopped and charged with driving under the influence and driving on a suspended or revoked license. At the time of his second arrest he refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, resulting in an automatic suspension of his driving license for three years.

Walgreens response to all of this has been to have a company spokesman state, “We are aware of the situation. It's a personal matter, and we don't comment on personal matters related to our employees.”

This is a perfect example of adopting a regulatory approach to investor disclosure. If you just read the regulations, there is no requirement to make a disclosure under any of the filings. The instructions for filing a Form 8-K state that a company need only file a Form 8-K if someone like the CFO either resigns or is removed, not if he has done something criminal. Regulation S-K, which governs disclosures for periodic filings and proxy statements, states that with respect to certain legal proceedings, a company must disclose events during the past five years “that are material to an evaluation of the ability or integrity of any director, person nominated to become a director or executive officer of the registrant:…

(2) Such person was convicted in a criminal proceeding or is a named subject of a pending criminal proceeding (excluding traffic violations and other minor offenses);”

Driving under the influence of alcohol, even if it is a second arrest, would seem to fall under the exception for traffic violations, so that there is no specific requirement to file a disclosure of the event. So what one is left with is a standard materiality test, not unlike the situation when Steve Jobs of Apple was ill and the company was faced with a disclosure decision. (See my posts “The Weighty Issue at Apple", Jan. 6, 2009 and "Maybe Things Were Not So Simple and Straightforward", Jan. 15, 2009.) The legal analysis revolves around whether Mr. Miquelon, the Chief Financial Officer of the company who was specifically hired in to lead a restructuring effort called “Rewiring for Growth” was considered so key that effort that investors would deem it important to a decision to either buy or (more probably) sell the stock if he was shown to have a drinking problem. On this point, reasonable minds can differ, and when the subject of making a disclosure that might prove embarrassing to senior officers is concerned, it’s easy to see how a company might be able to get an opinion from counsel that you need not disclose.

The more interesting question is whether the company should have said something voluntarily. Clearly they have an officer, one of the most important in the company, who is either suffering from an illness or is exhibiting extremely poor judgment. According to reports in the press, if convicted for the second offence, Mr. Miquelon faces a high probability of doing some jail time, which will remove him from the company for a period of time. Additionally, I’m sure the questions crossed the minds of investors along the lines of “If Mr. Miquelon thinks so little of laws that affect him personally in the most direct way possible, what are we to think about the way he will choose to deal with the myriad laws and regulations that surround the accounting and investor disclosures he is in charge of for his company?” Yet Walgreens did not make any disclosure until the incident came to light. Wouldn’t it have been better to be proactive, acknowledge the problem and how they were addressing it?

You can’t tell me that the CEO and Board of Directors don’t think this series of incidents is not important. So it should be considered important to investors as well. Some well thought out disclosures should have been made for the benefit of the shareholders, the owners of the company.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stand Up and Take It Like a Man

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle lately about virtual, online annual shareholders meetings. It seems that Symantic Corporation recently held an audio only, virtual meeting where they took only two questions from shareholders. This angered a number of shareholders and Symantic came out of the process looking as if they lacked transparency, rather than looking as if they are on the cutting edge of technology. Gretchen Morgenson, the financial columnist for The New York Times, did a good job summarizing the meeting and the anger it engendered in its shareholders in her column on September 25th.

The issue however, is not the efficacy of online annual meetings. There are some obvious efficiency and cost savings benefits to be realized by enabling people to link electronically rather than forcing everyone to come to a single physical location. With today’s technology there are ways that will enable shareholders to actively ask questions and see management’s responses in real time. In other words, companies can structure transparent online annual meetings if they want to; it’s just that many of them are less concerned with transparency than they are with controlling the agenda and message.

To be fair, corporations have reason to be concerned about controlling the agenda. Many special interest groups, if given the chance, would monopolize the question and answer sessions of annual meetings in order to promote their own agendas. In order to combat this, corporations put in place all sorts of limitations and devices to filter out dissenting voices, from the requirement to submit questions beforehand, to time limits, to limits on the number of questions, to arbitrarily cutting off questioners. The result is that usually management ends up looking arbitrary and controlling rather than open to the owners of the company. And when the controlling is done remotely and electronically it looks even worse that it does in person.

So the issue to me is not whether shareholder meetings occur virtually, in person or a combination of the two: the issue is how does management treat the shareholders, even if they don’t like the shareholders’ point of view. For this I take a page from Cork Walgreen, the former CEO of Walgreens.

One of my duties when I was working at Walgreens was to organize the Annual Shareholders Meeting. Attendance at the meeting during the time I ran it grew from around 400 people to over 3,000, and as you can imagine, the number and type of people attending ranged from retirees and employees to sophisticated investors and special interest groups. Questions at the meetings from shareholders at the meeting could be anything and often ranged from complaints about stores being out of merchandise to expansion plans in the State of Alaska to the use of non-union labor in certain construction sites.

The interesting thing about all of these questions was how Cork Walgreen handled them. First, let me say that public speaking was not one of Mr. Walgreen’s favorite things. In fact, he disliked it intensely and rarely appeared in public. But when it came to the annual meeting, he stood up there and took all the questions that time permitted. His attitude was that the shareholders paid him to be in charge and that included answering questions at the shareholders meeting, in good times and bad, no matter how uncomfortable that may have been. He may not have given everybody the answers they wanted – in a forum like the annual meeting you can’t please everyone – but he always gave them the courtesy of listening and responding to their questions. And the shareholders respected him for it.

So the takeaway from all of this is that when you’re conducting your next annual meeting, be it virtual, in person or a combination of the two, take the time to listen to and respond honestly to the shareholders’ questions. In short, “Stand up and take it like a man”. The pain may be intense, but it’s brief. And no one will write stories about how rude you were to shareholders in The New York Times the next day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Motivates Your Analyst?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit once characterized the exchange of information between corporations and investment analysts as “a fencing match conducted on a tightrope”. If investor relations officers are going to be successful in such a treacherous environment, it helps to understand the analyst on the other side of the conversation and what motivates them. Different analysts have different approaches, and early on in this blog I wrote about “information vampires” (March 2007), “elephant hunters” (April 2007), and “channel checkers” (July 2007) as prime examples of the way some analysts approach things. Now comes a New York Times article published on September 12, 2010, entitled “The Loneliest Analyst” about Richard Bove, a banking analyst that offers some good insights about the way another type of analyst works.

The bulk of the article concerns the lawsuit brought by BankAtlantic, a Florida bank, against Bove for a report he issued about the banking industry in 2008, which ranked the bank’s holding company as among the most risky financial institutions based on financial ratios. The lawsuit was eventually settled without liability to Bove, but it left him the poorer by $800,000 in legal fees. While the drama surrounding the lawsuit is interesting to anyone who has ever listened to a CEO fume about what he thinks is unfair or inaccurate in an analyst’s report, the more interesting part of the article occurs when Bove speaks about his work.

The lead in the article talks about how Bove likes to take “extreme positions” which can occasionally move the markets, gaining him prestige and notoriety. It then cites as an example a recent opinion issued by Bove that government rules would curb mortgage profits and by implication, bank profits. When the share price of Wells Fargo, a large mortgage lender, begin to drop following the report, Mr. Bove’s phone lights up with calls and he states, “That’s what makes the game fun, right?”

According to the article, Bove’s work tends to focus on the big picture, because, as he puts it, “What’s the reason to pay me to be the 14th guy to tell you what is going to happen in the second quarter at Citigroup? There’s just no utility for a guy at a boutique that operates pretty much on his own to replicate the work of other analysts.”

So one of the takeaways from the article come from learning that analysts at boutique firms may have an entirely different motivation in how they approach research. Without the resources of some of the bigger shops, their focus may be on hitting the home run as opposed to maintenance research, or on big picture, macro stories. Understanding if the analyst you are speaking with takes a differentiated approach will help you as an investor relations officer have a more meaningful discussion with that analyst.

In another interesting portion of the article, Andy Kessler, a former Wall Street analyst, is quoted as saying that it’s common for analysts to change their opinion styles in order to cater to their clients: “If your clients are mostly hedge funds, you’re going to give mostly short-term analysis”. Given that a large percentage of trading volume these days comes from hedge funds, it’s no wonder that we get mostly short-term analysis.

So two quick takeaways from the article: understand what motivates the analyst, and know who his clients are will help you understand his research approach. Sounds a lot like the old broker rule of “Know your client”, but this time reversed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Proxy Access - Who Benefits?

There is a famous Latin saying, “Cui bono?” that was used in Roman trials to help determine the underlying truth of a matter. The phrase translates into “To whose benefit?” and is meant to suggest the possibility of a hidden motive or that the party responsible may not be who it appears to be at first. And so it is with proxy access, recently adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The thinking behind proxy access appears pure at first – to promote shareholder democracy by letting shareholders utilize the corporate proxy statement rather than go through the expense of mounting a proxy campaign of their own. But over the years, I’ve come to be suspicious of anything that drapes itself in motherhood and apple pie, whether it comes from the right or left side of the political spectrum, and so I started to think about who really benefits from proxy access.

As I understand the new rule, shareholders who have held at least 3% of a company’s stock for at least 3 years will be able to nominate up to 25% of a company’s board of directors using the company’s own proxy statement. So I guess this is a move to open up corporate boards to shareholders, but I wonder, which shareholders?

Retail? Certainly not retail shareholders; for the most part they don’t reach the 3% threshold.

Hedge Funds? Unlikely, as the turnover in their portfolios means that it is doubtful they will hold stock for 3 years.

What about activist investors – might this new rule inure to their benefit? Possibly, but not to a large extent. A paper entitled “Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance and Firm Performance” suggests that the median holding period for activist hedge funds is 556 days, or 18.5 months. While this might be longer than you thought, it is still only half the time required by the new rule.

Mutual Funds? I suppose mutual funds might be a beneficiary of the new rule, but I’ve never known them to take an interest in nominating directors.

So who’s left? What entities have the financial muscle to hold 3% of a company’s stock for 3 years? What entities have exhibited a desire to use the proxy system to agitate for their own agendas? The answer is: Foundations and Pension Plans. Of these the bulk of the money is represented by pension plans. Add to that the fact that, according to The Wall Street Journal, four out of five for profit corporations have moved away from pension plans, while unionized employees both in the private sector and government, have fought to retain their fixed benefit pensions and the picture of who benefits starts to become clearer.

Least you were in doubt on the issue, consider also that the SEC adopted the rule in a party line vote, 3 democrats for and 2 republicans against. Suffice it to say that republicans don’t get many campaign contributions (or votes) from union members. Finally, consider two of SEC Chairwoman Shapiro’s key appointments to the Commission staff: senior advisor Kayla Gillian, former general counsel at Calpers, the California state workers pension fund, and Richard Ferlauto, former pension director at AFSCME, the union representing state and local government employees nationwide to the investor advocacy office.

Add it all up and it becomes clear that who benefits under the guise of shareholder democracy for all is really a limited number of unions. Now instead of spending union member’s dues in proxy contests they can lay that cost off on the corporations. It’s a nice deal if you can get it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

In the early part of the twenty-first century we all seem to lead time stressed lives. The press of business competes with the demands of ever increasing amounts of information that need to be absorbed. There never seems to enough time in the day to read everything that seems as if it might be important. So the question becomes, “How does one stay current with business thinking, or better yet, get ideas from some of the latest research?” Fortunately, technology has provided a solution.

Most people that work today spend significant time in commuting and this provides anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours a day when time is available to listen to podcasts. For those people who are not familiar with podcasts, they are electronic files that you can download to your computer, iphone and ipod and listen to anywhere, be it in the car or working out. There are an amazing variety of podcasts available, but here is a sampling of some of the better ones that that I have found that deal with business issues. Almost everything I list here is available through ITunes, and in the style of the ITunes store, I will sort them into Basics, Next Steps and Deep Cuts.

The Basics

HBR Ideacasts: Put together by the editors of the Harvard Business Review, I find this series particularly well done, with interesting topics that make me stop and think.

Freakonomics Radio: Produced by the authors of the Freakonomics books, these podcasts put an interesting spin on the dismal science.

Knowledge@Wharton Interviews: I’ve listened to relatively fewer of these as they have not been as well done as the HBR series, but there are occasional interesting interviews.

Wall Street Journal Editors Picks: Didn’t have time to read that interesting article in the Journal you saw at breakfast? You can usually get it here as the WSJ editors interview the authors of the article.

Next Steps

TED Talks: While not strictly speaking business podcasts, these speakers are engaging enough and knowledgeable enough on their subjects to get you thinking about things in a different light. Everyone engaged in business should occasionally be subject to new perspectives and these podcasts will give them to you.

BBC World Weekly with Gideon Rachman: A good way to get a non-U.S. perspective on the news events of the week, which often involve the world of business.

Stanford University Business Management: There are currently only 12 podcasts available in this series, but the ones available are quite good. (Stanford University also has a series on Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs which I have just begun listening to, which looks to be as good, but I haven’t heard enough to officially place it on the list.)

Deep Cuts

Yale Business & Management: Many of the podcasts in this series focus on very narrow topics, so you really have to hunt for what you think may be relevant to your situation, but when you find it, the speakers are quite good.

The Economist: Find the magazine too dense to read? Try the podcast.

The Bowery Boys History of New York: If you are going to deal with Wall Street, you need to understand New York and this delightful series gives you New York City history in bite-sized chunks.

And just to prove that it’s not all about business, here are some of my other favorites from my ipod.

A Prairie Home Companion’s News from Lake Wobegon: Comic genius (in a Midwestern sort of way) from Garrison Keillor.

The History of Rome: Want to know if the sex, sand and sandals in the HBO series are accurate? Listen to this podcast and catch up on your classical history.

Car Talk: Who doesn’t love Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers?

BBC In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg: Features erudite scholars being forced to speak in plain English about a variety of (sometimes) obscure topics.

Oxford Biographies: Catch up on your British history by hearing about people you’ve been told were important, but you don’t know why.

NPR Columns – Driveway Moments: Features the best human-interest stories from National Public Radio’s programming.

While everyone will have different tastes in what they want to listen to, the main point is that you don’t have to listen to that classical rock song for the 200th time, you can actually put your brain to use and learn something useful.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Using Computers to Predict If a CEO is Lying

There is an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal discussing an academic paper by a couple of Stanford University Graduate School of Business professors. The article is entitled, “For Lying CEO’s, ‘Team’ Not ‘I’” and refers to a Paper entitled “Detecting Deceptive Conference Calls” available at Obviously, for anyone involved in conference calls, either on the corporate or the investing side, this is required reading.

What the professors did was interesting: they examined the Question and Answer sessions of 29,663 earnings conference call transcripts between 2003 and 2007 for language features that predict “deceptive” reporting of financial statements. (Note that they were smart enough to ignore the carefully scripted section of the call.) In the professors’ words, “Our primary assumption is that CEOs and CFOs know whether financial statements have been manipulated, and their spontaneous and (hopefully) unrehearsed narratives provide cues that can be used to identify lying or deceitful behavior.” They then compared their predictive results to whether or not there was a later material financial restatement. And what they found was that their methodology had correctly predicted between 50% – 65% of the conference calls as “deceptive” by virtue of their having later resulted in an earnings restatement.

For those of you who want (or need) to know what the linguistic hot buttons are, here are some of the things to watch out for:

  • CEOs that speak in terms of third person plural pronouns or impersonal pronouns are more likely to be deceptive. It seems in this case, honest CEOs tend to speak of I and me while dishonest CEOs prefer to refer to the company or team.
  • Expressing extreme positive emotions with words such as fantastic is more likely while making a deceptive claim.
  • Longer answers also are more likely to indicate that they are deceptive.
  • Lack of hesitation – if a CEO is quick off the mark, the authors hypothesize that the answer is more likely one that he has rehearsed and wishes to answer quickly and move on.
  • References to general knowledge such as “you know” also appear more frequently in deceptive responses.
  • Lack of mention of shareholder value or value creation are also tip offs.

It will be interesting to see if investors pick up on any of this while parsing conference call answers. The Q & A session is already the portion of the call that gets the most scrutiny, and this research will only help to bring more focus to the area.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Where Did You Say You Were Going?

I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: investors buy a company’s stock because they believe they will receive a stream of cash flows in the future from the company. They only care about past performance of the company in so far as it gives them faith that the company will perform as they expect it to perform into the future. Analysts build their valuation models based upon future earnings, not past performance. So it’s surprising to me that companies don’t say more about what their plans are for the future – how they intend to make those future cash flows.

I would not want to make a general assertion about lack of forward looking information without any data, so I decided to do a quick sample of company presentations to see how much, on average, those presentations spoke to future plans. My search took me to the Internet to look for good examples of that staple of corporate communications, the PowerPoint slide show. If you go to investor conferences, almost every presenting company will accompany its speech with a slide deck illustrating their main points. What better way to quantify what companies are saying about their outlook for the future than by counting the number of slides they have shown to investors that contain points discussing the company’s future outlook. I thought it would be a relatively easy thing to go out and pull up the presentations of the various companies and analyze what I was interested in.

To my surprise, I found that it’s not quite so easy to go out on the Internet and find a representative sample of corporate investor presentations. In fact, what I found was that in a random sample of 20 large cap U. S. companies, only five companies (25%) posted their investor presentations from conferences. (I will admit that this is a small sample size, but you get what you pay for, and you’re getting this for free.)

In examining the presentations that I did find, it became obvious that companies were much more concerned with talking about past performance than future opportunity. My methodology was simple – I counted the total number of slides in a presentation and then counted the total number of slides that contained information concerning future operations. I tried to be overly generous in what I counted as a slide concerning the future, and any slide that had even a little bit of information about what a company intended to do going forward or the outlook for their products and markets was counted as being about the future.

What I found was that the percentage of forward looking slides in presentations ranged from a low of 6% to a high of 35%, with the average for all presentations being 20%. If we assume that the information being discussed generally follows in proportion to the slides in the presentation, this means that, on average, four-fifths of all information in presentations is about current or past activities. This is the equivalent of saying, “Not much new here; we’ll just make our money by continuing to do what we’ve always done”.

Now I will be the first to tell you that the bulk of all corporate profits come from continuing operations, but that doesn’t mean that those operations remain static. We operate in a dynamic economy - markets change; competitors react; new products are introduced; the economy impacts demand for the company’s products and services; and a host of other things mean that the future will not be the same as the past. Company presentations need to take these issues into account in order to give investors a clearer picture of where the company is headed.

In short, companies should spend a little bit more time and effort talking about where they’re going as opposed to where they have been. Because those future cash flows are a crucial component that investors use to value the stock.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tell Them Why

Following on to last week’s post about what investor relations presentations can learn from jazz, this week I take my inspiration from a different pod cast, Ted Talks. Anyone who is interested in communications should listen (the pod casts are available on ITunes) or watch Ted Talks (, where you can find some of the best and most passionate speakers on a wide variety of topics. The TED Talks speakers have the ability to grab and hold their audiences, and if you are in the business of communicating ideas, there is no better way to learn about the process than to watch speakers such as these.

The talk that caught my attention and which I think can be instructive for people trying to get their story across to investors was one by Simon Sinek, the author of a book entitled “Start With Why”. The talk, which I gather distills the main idea of his book, offered one overarching thought, which is “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. In a world where there are many competing products and services, the thing that distinguishes the winners and makes them appealing is the underlying passion that forms the core of their product or service. The example Sinek talked about is Apple and how they inform everything they do with a passion for combining technology, design and ease of use, but there are plenty of other examples out there. Everything Wal-Mart does is designed to deliver products to their customers at the lowest price possible. Toyota sells Lexus automobiles based upon a relentless pursuit of excellence. Whole Foods wants to deliver better and more wholesome foods.

When you start to think about this in the context of investors, who are purchasing the future stream of cash flows of your company, it starts to make eminent sense to bring to the fore the why of your company. Products, markets and service offerings change over time. Who your company is and why they do things in the manner they do changes far less often. Investors need to know what informs your basic philosophy and culture, because that is part of what they are buying: it goes into everything your company does.

Yet if you look at most investor presentations, what you find is that companies are good at telling what they do, but not why they do it. What they do is something that can be quantified or visualized. Why they do what they do is much less easy to explain. So my thought for the day is: the next time you are putting together an investor presentation about your company, stop and think about the why of your company. Is your motivation to be the very best at providing customer service, are you experts at solving technical engineering issues or perhaps you want to deliver the best combination of value and product offerings to consumers? Every company has a motivating factor and good investor relations dictates that it should be placed on display for investors to make a judgment about.

As for me, I’m passionate (and opinionated) about getting people to understand the principles of good investor relations.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What IR Presentations Can Learn from Jazz

I was working out the other day and listening to one of my new favorite podcasts, NPR’s Driveway Moments. The particular segment I was listening to featured an interview with the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who was explaining jazz to the uninitiated. I definitely fall into that category, as I don’t “get” most jazz. Several of the things Wynton Marsalis said caught my attention and made me think that there are some interesting parallels between some things we see in music and investor relations presentations.

Most investor presentations are set pieces: you’ve got a speaker, a set of PowerPoint slides and a bunch of information that gets disseminated over the course of 30 minutes. In this they resemble classical music. They follow a prescribed score and they don’t deviate. The speaker covers every last bullet point, just as the musicians play every note, and everyone feels safe and secure because they are on familiar ground. The speakers, similar to orchestral players, are almost interchangeable and it’s very hard to see any individuality or emotion.

This approach has some merit in that everyone navigates the treacherous shoals of regulation and potential litigation and (usually) nobody gets fired. The problem with the approach is that it’s boring and it’s not very good at getting investors excited about your company’s prospects. And investors are buying the future stream of earnings of your company, not its past deeds. Next time you’re at an investor conference, sit and listen to three or four presentations in a row. I guarantee that you will be numb at the end of the last speaker.

Contrast this with jazz. There is a structure with rhythm and melody, but there is also room for some improvisations and solos. The improvisations and solos have to fit within the framework – they don’t work if they don’t fit into the structure of the piece, but they also allow for the expression of talent and passion for the subject matter.

More passion is needed at investor presentations. Speakers should be allowed to get excited about their companies and what they’re doing. They should have a passion and a pride in their products and people and it should show through to the investing public. This is very hard to do if what you’re saying is highly scripted.

One of the masters of conveying the excitement about what he was doing was a guy I used to work with at Walgreens, Dan Jorndt. He never worked with a script, but he always knew what he wanted to say. He put things in his words and allowed his passion and pride in the company to show. Investors loved him. Another master of the art is Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Not only can he convey the romance of a cup of coffee, he is passionate about what his company stands for, from the product to the entire customer experience. If you’re ever at an investor conference and he’s speaking, take the time to go and listen to him.

Now, I can sense that many IR officers out there are squirming and thinking, “We can’t do that with our guys, they’ll go right off the rails and into the ditch”. And perhaps the approach is not for everyone. Some speakers need more structure than others, but all speakers should be allowed to exhibit what they think makes their company great. And that doesn’t come from reading a bunch of bullet points off a slide. At the very least there should be a point within a presentation where a speaker can speak from the heart, whether it’s to tell a story about an employee or a customer, or the great new product the company has developed. To put it in a jazz context, a riff or solo within the structure of the piece that serves as an exclamation point to the entire presentation. Try it – you just might acquire a taste for it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Who Are You Going to Believe – Me or Your Lying Eyes?

Trial lawyers have a cheap, but effective trick when they catch a witness in an inconsistency. They simply ask, “Well, are you lying now or were you lying then?” I sometimes get the same feeling when I compare management statements with the risk factors disclosed in SEC filings.

For example, there was a recent blog post at Footnoted ( 29, 2010) that pointed out exactly just such a discrepancy between management and the lawyers over the impact of Walgreens’ participation in prescription drug plans administered by CVS, a rival drugstore chain.

Walgreens and CVS, bitter rivals, also do business together by virtue of the fact that CVS owns Caremark, a large pharmacy benefit management company. Many prescription takers are in plans administered by Caremark, but choose to get their prescriptions filled at Walgreen retail stores. This, of course, was bound to be a troubled relationship, and sure enough, earlier this summer, Walgreens announced that it would no longer take new prescription plans administered by Caremark. After CVS, in a fit of pique then announced that it was terminating Walgreens participation in all pharmacy benefit plans, Walgreens released a statement by Kermit Crawford, executive vice president of pharmacy stating: “Regardless of CVS Caremark’s decision, we are confident of our ability to continue to grow our business as a provider in hundreds of other pharmacy benefit networks and as a direct provider to employers.”

Walgreens and CVS subsequently reached a new agreement and that was that until Walgreens filed its most recent 10-Q where, out of the blue, a new and previously undisclosed risk factor was discussed. In what seems to be a direct acknowledgement of the potential impact of losing the Caremark plans, the risk disclosure states:

“We derive a significant portion of our sales from prescription drug sales reimbursed through prescription drug plans administered by pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies. … If our participation in the prescription drug programs administered by one or more of the large PBM companies is terminated, we expect that our sales would be adversely affected, at least in the short term. If we are unable to replace any such lost sales, either through an increase in other sales or through a resumption of participation in those plans, our operating results may be materially adversely affected.”

Now, I suppose you could say that Walgreens was merely posturing in saying that they were confident they could continue to grow their business in spite of losing the Caremark business, but that’s the sort of thing you do at the negotiating table, not in a press release. Investors expect and deserve consistency. The original statement is patently at odds with the risk statement, so I’m left with the basic question: Should I believe what you say now or what you said then?

(Full and fair disclosure: by virtue of having worked at Walgreens for over twenty years, the author has a significant financial interest in the company. I want them to get it right, which is why I get so upset when they screw up.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Make Your Financials Easier to Understand

In my opinion, most companies do a lousy job presenting their financials on their websites. It’s not that the information is not there; it’s just that companies don’t make it easy for investors to work with the data. I find this surprising given that financial information is the lifeblood of understanding how a company is doing, but it’s probably part of the regulatory mindset of investor relations. Many companies will disclose their financials to the extent and in the form regulations require it, but no more than that.

Computers and the web give us lots of innovative ways to present financial information in an interactive and easy to use manner. Yet most financials I see on the web are static and limited in scope, with little to no interactivity. This means that companies are forcing investors to laboriously build spreadsheets by copying over information and then creating formulas to calculate ratios. We’re starting to see this change a bit as you can now copy and paste the basic numbers with the use of XBRL, but it’s still not that easy to deal with, and the time periods are limited to those set out in the 10-Q and 10-K formats. And don’t even get me started about the pain and suffering involved in creating useful graphs.

Just to prove my point, I went out and looked at the web sites of four major players in the discount store sector, Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and BJ’s Warehouse Club. Here’s what I found:

Wal-Mart: provides quarterly press release financials, SEC filings and their Annual Report. The financials from the Annual report are in pdf format with three years of income statement and cash flow data and two years of balance sheet data, as you would find in a 10-K.

Costco: same as Wal-Mart.

Target: In addition to the same information provided by Wal-Mart and Costco, Target also provides Summary financial information in pdf format for their consolidated financials, retail segment and credit card segment for varying periods of time.

BJ’s Warehouse Club: The smallest of the four companies mentioned here, BJ’s actually goes one better than everyone else by providing, in addition to press releases and annual reports, an excel download capability for their 10-Q and 10-K filings, based on XBRL technology. (This information is also available for the other three companies, but you have to go to the SEC website to get it.)

In this day and age, there ought to be a better way to present the financials so that investors can get to the information they want quickly and with a minimum of effort.

And there is. A company by the name of Virtua Research ( has created a product, which they call Interactive Analyst Center, which allows investors to go in and look at multiple years worth of data, ratios and charts, in an easily accessible format. I’ve spent some time looking at the product and I like what I see.

The product allows companies to set up their sites to provide financial information to investors that they can use quickly and easily. For example, on the site I reviewed, there were five years of annual and quarterly financial data available. There was also a page that computed over 40 different financial ratios and even included some non-financial operational ratios that the company considered important. Finally, the part that I thought was the slickest, a charts page allows the viewer to go in and create charts with only one or two clicks.

I think many company websites could benefit from this product, as it compiles financial data about a company into a single easy to use package. In short, it allows investors to analyze instead of spending their time gathering data and crunching numbers. In this day and age of time stressed investors and short attention spans, anything a company can do to help investors get a handle on their financials should be worth a look.

(Full and fair disclosure: I have a potential financial interest in this product if sales result from referrals, so feel free to mention my name. It would be the first time I’ve made money from this blog.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Say on Pay and Proxy Access – Start Thinking Now About Talking to Investors

The history of legislative and regulatory reform relating to Wall Street is one of egregious excess, followed by financial distress, resulting in laws and regulations being enacted. It first played out with the boom and bust of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, which gave us the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. We saw a replay following the Enron/Adelphia/Worldcom/Tyco frauds in 2000, which resulted in the Sarbanes/Oxley Act. And now we are seeing the same scenario following the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 as Congress is feverishly putting together a financial reform package.

I generally try not to pay too much attention to the legislative process, as things change frequently and the process is not pretty to watch. However, there are a couple of things that will likely be included in the current bill relating to corporate governance – proxy access and say on pay - that investor relations officers should be thinking about.

Corporate governance issues have traditionally been an area that falls within the purview of the Corporate Secretary or General Counsel with investor relations only becoming involved if the vote doesn’t look good or if some form of a contest is looming. As activist investors have increasingly turned to proxy proposals to agitate for corporate change, investor relations has gradually become more involved in the process because they are the ones that know the investors. If proxy access and say on pay are going to open up corporate governance to more public scrutiny, it behooves investor relations practitioners to start to get more engaged with the people who vote the proxies.

Of course, when you take a hard look at who does the voting, you realize that IR people have their work cut out for them. You can generally break down investor voting blocs into three categories: active long-term investors, passive investors and active short-term investors.

Active long-term investors usually don’t want to be bothered by this stuff. Portfolio managers and analysts want to analysis stocks, not get involved in corporate governance. Their compensation is benchmarked against their performance relative to an index, not against good corporate governance and they spend their time accordingly. The result is that these decisions are handled by either subscribing to one of the services such as ISS/Riskmetrics, handing it off to an internal committee if the firm is large enough, or by voting with their feet and selling the shares if they don’t like what management is doing. As a result, the typical investor relations officer usually doesn’t talk to the person casting the proxy vote.

Passive index investors can’t vote with their feet by selling the stock as long as a company is in an index, so they all have committees and policies regarding how to vote on governance items. From an investor relations perspective however, you never talk to these passive shareholders, so you don’t know anything about their committees.

Active short term investors are here today and gone tomorrow, so by the time they appear on a 13 D report, they may have well sold the shares and moved on.

I would suggest that investor relations departments need to be proactive in discussing potential vote issues with the people who actually vote the shares. I’ve written about this before (see my post of February 10, 2010), but here are a couple of suggestions to bridge this gap: First, well in advance of proxy season, investor relations officers, together with their securities law counsel, should schedule a number of calls to key investors (both active and passive long-term investors) to discuss current disclosure issues in areas such as compensation and governance. The calls should be designed as a dialogue to discover how these investors view the topics, not as advocacy. as you can’t solicit votes without a proxy statement. What investors are interested in can then be incorporated into your compensation and governance disclosures. Secondly, when you’re out on non-deal road shows, ask to spend five minutes at the end of a visit discussing the firm’s views on disclosure issues, whether they be compensation, governance or social responsibility. This actually makes for a nice break in the road show meeting rat race as it introduces a new topic into the discussion. In the larger firms this will mean that they will have to bring in someone at the end of the meeting, as there is usually a separate person that deals with proxy voting, but it is well worth the effort as it gives upper management an opportunity to hear investors’ concerns and thinking.

This doesn’t solve all issues, as sometimes the interests of investors about compensation and governance structures are different from management’s, but at least you’ll know prior to the vote being cast and can do more accurate predictions at proxy time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Corporate Governance Ratings – What Are They Good For?

Way back in 1970, there was a Motown record that had as its catch phrase, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!” Today, there is research that suggests that the same can be said about corporate governance ratings.

For the past ten years or so, investor relations practitioners have been drawn into the debate on corporate governance. It’s not that IR practitioners have a special expertise in corporate governance, or that many of them really want to become experts. It’s just that Boards of Directors have been under increasing scrutiny to comply with a list of “best practices” compiled by groups such as Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”), Governance Metrics International (“GMI”) and The Corporate Library. Directors do not like it when shareholders withhold their proxy votes for failure to meet minimum corporate governance scores. And it’s investor relations that talks to the shareholders, so IR people find themselves working with the Corporate Secretary and the General Counsel to find out how they can achieve the highest possible corporate governance scores to present to shareholders while actually changing corporate practices as little as possible.

The underlying premise of the governance rating services is simple, yet compelling on its surface: companies that focus on corporate governance as indicated by high ratings will, over time, generate superior returns and economic performance and lower their cost of capital. Conversely, companies weak in corporate governance as shown by low governance scores represent increased investment risks that should be penalized by a higher cost of capital.

But did you ever take a step back and wonder whether the corporate governance ratings have any value in actually predicting poor corporate governance or performance? I certainly have. And so too, it seems, have Professors Robert Daines of Stanford, Ian Gow of Kellogg and David Larker of Stanford. In a recent scholarly article, “Rating the Ratings: How Good Are Commercial Governance Ratings?” which is to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Financial Economics they look at how effective corporate governance ratings are in helping shareholders figure out if companies with high corporate governance scores are actually better governed. The findings are so startling and unequivocal that I am going to quote the article abstract in its entirety:

Proxy advisory and corporate governance rating firms (such as RiskMetrics/Institutional Shareholder Services, GovernanceMetrics International, and The Corporate Library) play an increasingly important role in U.S. public markets. They rank the quality of firm corporate governance, advise shareholders how to vote, and sometimes press for governance changes. We examine whether commercially available corporate governance rankings provide useful information for shareholders. Our results suggest that they do not. Commercial ratings do not predict governance-related outcomes with the precision or strength necessary to support the bold claims made by most of these firms. Moreover, we find little or no relation between the governance ratings provided by RiskMetrics with either their voting recommendations or the actual votes by shareholders on proxy proposals.

Inside the article the language is even stronger. Here’s my favorite quote: “One especially interesting result is that CGQ (perhaps the most visible governance rating) [Corporate Governance Quotient, a measure devised by RiskMetrics/ISS] exhibits virtually no predictive ability, and when CGQ is significant, more often than not it has an unexpected sign (e.g., higher CGQ seems to be associated with lower Tobin’s Q, and in some models more class-action lawsuits).” In other words, high governance scores have virtually no value, and companies that put in all of the so called best practices are actually more likely to be worth less and get sued more often.

What all of this suggests to me is that good oversight by the Board of Directors and good management of the shareholders’ assets is not a function of a formula or a list of practices. Rather, the way Boards and managements function needs to be examined by investors on a case-by-case basis in relation to their cultures and their track records. How Boards function does need more transparency so that investors can judge for themselves if they are practicing good stewardship. But those that think that good governance can be boiled down to a single number score are just kidding themselves. And if you are paying to get advice on how to increase your governance scores, you’re wasting corporate assets.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Corporate Life Cycles and Investor Relations, Part 2

In my last post I wrote about the commonality between the product life cycle chart and corporate life cycles and some of the implications this has for investor relations. To recap, where you are in terms of your corporate life cycle is a large determinant in whether you get Growth, GARP, Value or Deep Value investors. As each of these different styles of investors is willing to pay differing amounts for your future earnings, the valuation you get in the stock market will in no small degree be influenced by where investors view you in your life cycle. To carry this one step further, in this post we will look at how companies seek to avoid the point at which they transition into a mature, and then declining company and how successful this is in avoiding a declining P/E ratio.

In product development, when a product threatens to become mature, the marketing people move in and try to rejuvenate and refresh the brand by introducing new product features and formulations or market applications. The idea is to boost sales volume and market penetration. Nobody wants to get to the point where a product is mature, verging on stale, and headed for inevitable decline. In graphical terms, what they do looks like this:

Companies do the same thing. A great example of a company continually reinventing itself via new products and markets is Apple. First Apple was a computer company. Then they introduced the iPod and iTunes. This was followed by the iPhone, Apps and now, the iPad. Apple has been incredibly successful in this approach, helped by great design and engineering, creating a tightly integrated suite of products that customers love. And the stock market has richly rewarded them for this. As of this writing, Apple stock is trading at a P/E ratio of 23.8, placing it in very exclusive territory for companies with over $100 billion in market cap.

Companies do not do this with just new products, however. Companies attempt to extend their progress up the growth curve through acquisitions, entering new markets, entering new territories, going global, reengineering their work processes, expense initiatives and a raft of other things too numerous to mention. In doing this they hope to extend their growth and the premium investors will pay for their future earnings. The problem with all of this, from an investor’s viewpoint, is that the new products, programs and initiatives don’t have a track record. Therefore, the certainty with which future earnings from these programs can be predicted is less than it is for existing operations and the willingness of investors to pay up for the incremental earnings is less. Unless and until a company can establish a track record for successful entry into new products or markets or initiatives, investors will discount the future earnings at a greater rate than the old familiar type of earnings. Investors just don’t like uncertainty. So revenues may go up; earnings may in fact also go up, but P/Es will fall until a company can demonstrate that it has as one of its core competencies the ability to extend its growth with new initiatives.

Again, if we look at Apple, the first Ipod was introduced on October 23, 2001. Following the announcement of the new product, one that turned out to be revolutionary, Apple’s stock price didn’t do much for the next couple of years. Investors had a wait and see attitude.

This, of course, drives corporate management nuts. They have invested millions of dollars in a new initiative through design and engineering, consulting fees and countless meetings and studies. They are embarking on a bold new strategy to push their company forward for the next millennium. And yet, in their view, the market doesn’t get it.

Investor relations professionals should learn to recognize this type of fact pattern and be ready to explain to management why the stock didn’t jump when the CEO’s latest initiative was announced. Much heartburn can be avoided if companies take a realistic approach to how the market values new corporate actions. There is no real way around this – companies have to prove themselves to investors on new initiatives to a far greater extent than for existing operations. But as witnessed by Apple, it can be done.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Corporate Life Cycles and Investor Relations

I’ve written before on some of the relationships between marketing and investor relations and I’m at it again today. In marketing there is a well-known graph known as the Product Lifecycle Curve, which I’ve set out below.

The graph points out how products are first brought to market and purchased by early adopters, then go through a phase (if they are lucky) of rapid takeoff and growth. Once the product has achieved wide spread acceptance, the growth cycle slows down, and after a period of maturity, decline inevitably sets in. The speed at which all of this occurs depends in large part on the nature of the industry and the aggressiveness of competitors. Tech gadgets, for example, have much shorter product life cycles than say, breakfast cereals.

The interesting thing about the product lifecycle is that it has applicability to a number of other things, corporate lifecycles included. Stop thinking about products and substitute corporate development and the graph doesn’t change. Where this is of interest to investor relations professionals is in the type of investors each phase of the cycle attracts. Set out below is the same graph with investor segments sketched in.

One of the interesting things about the graph is that as you move on the life cycle line from left to right, the price/earnings ratio that investors are willing to pay for a stock declines. This is because investors perceive that the rate at which future earnings will accrue to the company is slowing and they are therefore willing to pay less for that future stream of lessened earnings.

Companies often struggle with this, particularly at the inflection points between stages. Company executives will say, “We’re a growth company – look at our record. The market is undervaluing us.” Investors, on the other hand, will look forward and say, “Nope, you’re a mature company. Your big gains are over and we’re not going to pay a premium for a company that is going to grow at the rate of the market.” Many an antagonistic relationship has been fostered based on this differing view of the world.

There’s more that can be said about this (and I will in later posts), but if I don’t run out now and buy an iPad, I will lose my status as an early adopter…

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bells Are Ringing

If you ever get the chance to participate in a bell ringing ceremony for the New York Stock Exchange, grab it. It’s a lot of fun. Recently, the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University held a panel discussion on the Future of the Capital Markets. One of the panelists was Duncan Niederauer, the CEO of NYSE Euronext, and as part of the program, the Jones School was honored by being allowed to remotely ring the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange for the close of trading on March 29, 2010.

For those interested in the actual mechanics, the bell actually starts to ring 15 seconds before the close of trading and trading stops when the gavel comes down. The interval between the start of the bell ringing and the gavel coming down is to allow traders to complete their trades. Given that we are talking about professional traders and New Yorkers to boot, it’s never a problem completing trades in that last 15 seconds.

When you ring the bell at the New York stock Exchange, the only one who has a challenging role is the CEO, who has to simultaneously depress a button and remember to bring down the gavel 15 seconds later. This is the corporate equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. As most CEOs are used to having someone else perform such complex tasks, it can sometimes be a challenge. Everyone else on the podium simply has to clap and look engaged.

Doing it remotely is a lot more fun. You get these cute little commemorative cowbells and you get to ring them and shout like mad for 15 seconds. Everything else gets taken care of back in New York. At Rice last Thursday, it seemed as if the entire school was in attendance. We rang our bells and shouted like mad and it was great. And yes, I’m in that picture somewhere.