Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do You Think You Could Make That More Boring?

Who ever said that an investor presentation has to be boring? (I exclude from this question the lawyers, who as a default position, always feel that boring and incomprehensible is safer than exciting and interesting.)

I was at an investor conference last month and took the opportunity to sit in on several presentations. I think that most of the company presenters must have been listening to their lawyers. After about two presentations I began to tune out because most of what I heard was pretty bland and uninteresting. It was as if the presenters had all gone to the Sgt. Joe Friday school of public speaking. They were determined to give “just the facts” in the most humdrum fashion possible. (For those of you too young to remember, Sgt. Joe Friday was the principal character in the TV drama Dragnet who gave new meaning to the term poker-faced.)

Honestly, how can you expect an investor to get excited about a stock if the company CEO doesn’t show some enthusiasm when talking about the company? Yet that is exactly what I saw at the conference. This was especially true at the beginning of most presentations, when the speaker should be working the hardest to capture the interest of the audience, yet what I often heard was the recitation of bare bones facts about the company without a lot of context to help investors understand the company’s products and position within the industry.

The other major bone I have to pick about what I heard was that most companies thought their job was done when they had explained what their past activities had been. The implication of such a presentation is “Here’s what we’ve done in the past, now you can go ahead and make your own judgment about what we will do in the future without any help from us.” This is like saying that markets are static, conditions are not going to change and we are not working on any new products or markets. This, of course, is nonsense, as American companies and markets are predicated on growth and conditions change all the time. Further, financial theory 101 teaches that investors are buying your stock based upon the value of FUTURE cash flows, so why not give them some guidance about where you are going in the future? Hey, there’s a safe harbor statement about forward-looking statements in every presentation. Why not put it to good use?

All was not terrible, however. There were several successful and engaging speakers I saw at the conference. Generally, these successful speakers seemed to have two things in common. First, they got a little worked up about what their company was doing and what made their products and services unique. Secondly, they allowed some of their personality to come through. This is important because if you’ve ever read any of the surveys of investors and what they care about, quality of management is always high up the list. Yet if management is nothing more than a bland talking head, how can an investor be expected to make a qualitative judgment about them?

After all, who ever said, “I liked your presentation, but you could have been a bit more boring”?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stand a Little Closer to the Podium… Coaching and Investor Relations

A short while ago a friend sent me a copy of an article in the New Yorker about coaching. We’re not talking here about improving your golf swing. Rather, the author of the article suggests that people in business could stand to benefit from having someone who is an expert observe and offer constructive criticism on how they perform routine tasks. The article can be found here:

I was intrigued by the article, not only because I spend considerable time coaching first year MBA students on how to give business presentations, but also on the concept’s potential for improving investor relations activities. By its nature, investor relations involves repetitious activities that revolve around everything from how you talk on the phone, to investor presentations and quarterly earnings reporting. These are the exact type of activities that can benefit from coaching. And yet, in all my years of business, I have rarely seen anything that approaches coaching done outside of a seminar environment.

Take for example, your typical investor relations presentation given by a CEO. I’ve sat through literally hundreds of these throughout my career and most were less than memorable. Just a few things that we talk about with our students touching upon delivery, content and visuals could be pointed out to many CEOs:

Delivery – was the speaker enthusiastic when speaking to the investors? After all, if the CEO isn’t enthusiastic about the company, how can you expect investors to get excited?

Content – is the speaker able to place the company into an understandable framework that helps investors understand the value his company brings to the marketplace? I have seen any number of presentations where software and tech companies get so wrapped up in the technological aspects of their products that they fail to bring it down to the level where an investor can see how they can make money on the technology.

Visuals – how many times have you seen a screen full of bullet points that the speaker feels compelled to read? Worse yet, how about a balance sheet in 8 point type?

Business leaders of today have to be communicators, yet many of them could stand some improvement in their delivery. This is where coaching should come in, but rarely does. My guess is that most investor relations officers are loath to criticize their superiors. Which is too bad, because we can all stand some improvement. I know I’ve been practicing public speaking for over thirty years and there are still things I need to improve.

So here’s today’s practical tip: if IROs don’t want to tread on thin ice by critiquing executives, videotape them and let them review themselves. It helps if you give them a list of common errors to watch and listen for, such as vocal fillers, repetitive phrases, body language and eye contact. Then tell them to watch/ listen to the presentation four times:

First, listen and don’t watch. This lets the speaker focus on vocal qualities such as pitch, tone, speed, ums and ahhs, and if he was using his voice to tell listeners what was important.

Second, watch with no sound. This will draw attention to body language, eye contact and the annoying things the speaker may be doing with their hands.

Third, listen and watch the presentation to see if it all comes together in a coherent whole.

Fourth (for the brave), watch the presentation at double speed. This will really bring to the fore any annoying or quirky things the speaker tends to do, such as looking up at the ceiling, or performing a little dance step as he speaks.

Who knows, after watching themselves a few times, CEOs might get a little bit humbler.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Can’t This Gang Shoot Straight?

The Securities and Exchange Commission used to be one of the most respected federal agencies in Washington. Some would argue that this is a low barrier to overcome, but nevertheless, the SEC was for many years considered a well run agency that, by and large, did what it was supposed to, and helped to give the United States the best and most transparent capital markets in the world. Alas, things have changed and now it seems that the SEC is the agency that can’t seem to get it right.

The most recent stumbles have come over the fact that the SEC Chairwoman, Mary Shapiro, who was given a mandate by President Obama to strengthen enforcement, failed to disclose to her fellow commissioners a conflict of interest involving the agency’s former top lawyer, David Becker. According to the SEC Inspector General’s report, it seems that Mr. Becker stood to have a financial interest in the settlement of the Bernie Madoff fraud case, and although he disclosed the potential conflict, Ms. Shapiro stayed silent on it, even allowing her fellow commissioners to vote on how to divide up the Madoff assets without telling them how their top lawyer might potentially benefit from the decision.

Not only that, but the Inspector General’s report also brings to light the fact that the SEC decided not to have Mr. Becker testify before Congress for fear that his conflict of interest would come to light. And this is from the agency that is charged with “full and fair disclosure” for investors.

This is bad enough, but it come after a series of other blunders over recent years that make you wonder if the agency has lost its way. Most notably, this is the agency, charged with protecting investors, that actively ignored the pleas of Harry Markopolos to investigate the returns being generated by Bernie Madoff, which turned out to be the biggest ponzi scheme in history.

More recently, and somewhat more mundanely, proxy access, a pet SEC project that would allow shareholders the ability to nominate directors using a company’s own proxy materials, was struck down by the Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia. According to the appeals court, the SEC had “inconsistently and opportunistically framed the costs and benefits of the rule; failed adequately to quantify the certain costs or to explain why those costs could not be quantified; neglected to support its predictive judgments; contradicted itself; and failed to respond to substantial problems raised by commenters.” Further, the court said there is “good reason to believe that institutional investors with special interests” – such as unions and pension funds -- would use the proxy access rules to advance their own issues and chided the SEC for “ducking serious evaluation of the costs that could be imposed” by shareholders representing special interests. It certainly doesn’t sound as if the Court of Appeals thought the SEC was taking a fair and balanced approach towards rule making in this instance.

And finally, how about the $557 million lease the SEC entered into without competitive bidding, which the agency can’t afford and doesn’t need because the underlying assumptions for the space were incorrect. Never mind that Commissioner Shapiro approved the lease in a 10 minute unscheduled meeting and later said that “The agency made a terrible mistake here,” and “I view myself as being ultimately responsible.” In most corporations if you were responsible for a $557 million mistake, you’d be fired, or maybe the SEC would investigate you…

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Crisis Communication

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) Southwest Regional Conference in San Antonio. I’m on record as having said this before, but I like to repeat it: I believe that the Southwest Regional Conference is a better learning experience for investor relations professionals than the National Conference. I say this because the Southwest Regional Conference is shorter – a day and one-half as opposed to two and one-half days and thus more focused and, with a smaller number of people in attendance, you actually feel as if you have a chance to get around and talk to everybody.

This year, under the leadership of Lee Ahlstrom and Scott Winters of the Houston NIRI chapter, the Conference once again took an interesting departure from the usual lineup of talking heads you normally get at these conferences. The first morning saw everyone engaged in a case study examining a crisis communication situation. The case required everyone to participate, as each table of eight assumed the role of the investor relations/corporate communications professional. They soon found themselves barraged with information in the form of management meetings, memorandums, twitter feeds, media inquiries and videos of the plant explosion in question. In the middle of trying to parse through the data, they found themselves being interviewed by a reporter and asked questions by a sell side analyst. While all of this was going on they found themselves having to recommend media and disclosure strategies to management.

Everyone I talked to said that the exercise was one of the best simulations they had seen on crisis communications. While that’s nice to hear, when I do case studies in my class, I always like to wind up with some key takeaways from the experience, so for the benefit of both the people who were at the conference and those that may wish to learn a little something about crisis communications, so here are the points to remember from the exercise:

1. 1. To quote Dwight Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In other words, the crisis you wind up with rarely looks like the one you planned for, but the exercise of planning for a crisis causes you to think through the process. This planning process is what helps you to deal with the crisis you do get.

2. 2. There is always somebody important you can’t reach when the crisis breaks. This may seem surprising in this age of interconnectedness, but people go on vacation to remote areas, cell phone coverage tends to break down under the stress of a crisis and there is always someone who is just out of pocket for some random reason or another. Having a clear chain of command as to who acts in the absence of others is important.

3. 3. The need for speed. People have to meet on short notice. Large amounts of data have to be absorbed quickly. Investors want answers right away and if you don’t respond to the press they will come up with their own version of events. There is no time for multiple editing rounds of your press release.

4. 4. You almost never have all the facts you need when you need them. In a crisis information is often garbled, late and sometimes just wrong. This means that the best messages you can send to your audiences are based on simple factual statements.

5. 5. Differing people have different agendas. The corporate counsel may not want to disclose anything at all. Business managers may not want certain facts to come out so that customers, suppliers and creditors don’t get upset. The reporters want to sell newspapers and get good video footage. Analysts care about how the event will affect the company’s stock and what collateral damage there may be to other companies. Good crisis communications has to deal with all of this.

In the end, there is no set formula for how to deal with a crisis, as each situation brings its own unique set of facts. Practice and planning can help however, which is why this year’s NIRI Southwest Conference was so well received.

Before I finish, I have to relate an interesting story from the conference. This year I decided to participate in the golf outing at the conference. I was out on the golf range practicing before the event (I need a lot of practice) when the person on the next practice tee looked at me and asked, “Are you the blogging professor?” I guess there are worse things you can be known as – it even has a sort of ring to it –“The blogging professor.” Maybe I’ll have it put on my business cards.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Building a Good Investor Presentation

The company presentation to analysts is a staple of investor relations, yet it doesn’t get the type of analysis it deserves. I’m not talking here about whether or not your slides are any good or how well your chairman speaks in public. Rather, I’m talking here about the basic structure of how you convey the information about what your company is and how it operates. A good presentation can generate interest in your company, whereas a bad presentation may very well turn off investors. Presentations are further complicated by the fact that at any given conference, a company executive will be speaking to a spectrum of investors, ranging from those that know the company well to those who may never have heard of it before.

There are many ways to create a well thought out overview of company information for investors and I don’t claim to hold a patent on the only way to do things. What follows is my approach, worked out over thirty years of presenting to investors. It is designed to organize the flow of information you need to convey.

First, start with a structure that borrows from a common investor relations framework:

Past Performance + Perception of Future Performance = Stock Price.

In other words, investors analyze the value of a company’s stock by trying to project what it will do in the future, using what it has been able to accomplish in the past as a reality check. From this framework, it becomes clear that when speaking to investors, a company needs to address both where it’s been and where it’s going. While this may seem obvious, I have seen many presentations totally ignore one side or the other of the equation.

In order to impose some logical flow to the requirements of such a formula, it makes sense to break down the presentation into three basic building blocks of information: Who we are, What we’re currently doing and Where we’re going in the future. This format helps to keep the story on track while still retaining enough flexibility to be creative.

Who We Are: This is the foundation of the presentation. It should include basics on the company’s industry, position within the industry, market share, operating locations, history and culture. The art to doing this section correctly is to provide enough basic information so that someone new to the stock has a good grasp of what your business is, while providing sufficient new information to keep those familiar with your story interested. For example, if you are in the oil exploration business, the basic information you give out should not only include the basics of the segment of your industry, but would also include updated information on the number of rigs you might have in operation and new exploration sites.

What We Do: This is the section of the presentation where companies can talk about what makes them unique. Most companies have an overriding operating philosophy which drives them forward; for some, such as Wal-Mart, it is being the low cost operator, while for others, such as Apple, it’s an obsession with design excellence. As important in this section as the “what we do” is the “why we do it”. If you can convey to investors not only what you are good at doing, but also the driving force behind what you do, you begin to put some informational meat on the presentation.

Finally, Where We’re Going: This is probably the most crucial part of the presentation. Critical information areas include giving investors some insight into how your company plans to compete; opportunities for growth and profitability; how you view the future of your industry; and the unique products or service offerings you plan to use to set your company apart going forward. This should be where the good investor presentation distinguishes its company from other possible investments in an investor’s mind. Remember, sophisticated investors are looking at an investment in your company as a claim on the future cash flows of the company, so they have to have a good sense of where those cash flows may be coming from.

Interwoven into all of this, Dave Mossberg, my colleague at Three Part Advisors, would add, “The presentation should give the investor three compelling reasons to own the stock”. Investor relations being a consultative sale, rather than a hard sell, the art here is to make the compelling reasons obvious enough for a reasonably astute investor to grasp without hitting them between the eyes with a two by four. So if, at the end of the presentation, the investor can sum things up by saying something along the lines of: they have a great track record, industry leading technology and are growing rapidly in an industry segment that is poised for expansion, you will have accomplished your presentation objectives.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Golf and Investor Relations

Mark Twain famously called golf “A good walk spoiled”. I was reminded of this because last weekend I returned to playing golf after a ten-year hiatus. In between swings of the golf club (of which there were many), I got to thinking about what investor relations practitioners can learn from the game of golf. So, hard on the heels of a discussion of the infield fly rule and IR (May 25, 2011), here are some of the thoughts that popped into my head about how golf resembles IR.

First, the more people you have, the longer the process takes. A twosome in golf plays more quickly than a foursome. In investor relations, if you are drafting documents, a large group takes much more time writing, editing and revising than a small group. While in a normal quarterly release process, this doesn’t matter too much, except to raise the blood pressure of the investor relations officer that has to try and write clear concise prose after the securities lawyer, the accountants, the general counsel, the CEO and the operations people have had their say, it becomes much more important when faced with a crisis situation when speed is essential. So when you need to get a release or a response out quickly, have a smaller designated group lined up for those exceptional circumstances. To many businessmen, this is counter-intuitive, as they are used to solving issues by throwing more bodies at the problem.

A corollary to this is that you are only as speedy as your slowest player. If you are out on the course and have one player who is constantly searching for their ball, or taking eight or nine practice swings before hitting the ball, everyone has to wait. Similarly, in the editing process, if you have one person who is consistently late in sending in edits, the entire process slows down.

Both golf and investor relations have their own coded clichés designed to blunt the impact of bad news that we can pull out at a moment’s notice. For example, in golf, when you say, “You’re on the beach”, it refers to your having landed in the sand trap; not to taking a quick refreshing break at the seaside. Similarly, in business, the phrase, “He left to spend more time with his family” does not really mean that the person in question wants to become more of a family person; rather it means he was fired and the company does not want to tell you the real reason the executive was let go.

Finally, both golf and investor relations are governed by sets of complicated and arcane rules that can get you into trouble if you’re not careful. It’s important to know the rules and abide by them – in golf, no one wants to play with a cheater, whereas in investor relations, your reputation for honesty and integrity are of paramount importance. Interestingly, in both golf and investor relations, the primary means of enforcement is self policing, although there are notable exceptions. Golf pros are bedeviled by people watching on TV who will call the PGA if they think there has been the slightest rules infraction, and in investor relations the plaintiff’s bar is always willing to second guess disclosure issues if the company’s stock price goes down.

Well, that’s it for now – you don’t want to overdo these analogies. Besides, I need to go practice my swing – it could be that I will play another round before ten years is up.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Small Cap Companies and Efficient Markets

One of my favorite quotes about the capital markets comes from Fischer Black, the financial mastermind who helped invent the Black-Scholes option-pricing model. Black, who had been a Professor at MIT, situated on the Charles River in Cambridge, left the world of academia to work for Goldman Sachs, which sits near the Hudson River in Manhattan. After experiencing finance from both the academic and practitioner viewpoints, Black commented, “Markets look a lot less efficient from the banks of the Hudson than from the banks of the Charles.”

I bring this up because last week I was involved in the East Coast IDEAS Conference in Boston at which most of the presenting companies were small capitalization firms. My background is primarily in large capitalization firms, so the conference was an opportunity to see the other end of the spectrum and learn a few things. The most surprising thing I learned as a result of speaking to company managements was how difficult it is for good small cap companies to get noticed by investors. It seems that finding a good match between underfollowed companies and investors can be a daunting challenge.

Part of this can be ascribed to much less sell side coverage available to small cap stocks. The name of the game with sell side coverage is commission flow, and small cap stocks have a lot less of it than larger cap stocks do. Without the distribution of information available from the sell side sales force, small cap companies are forced to try and bring themselves to the attention of investors through their own efforts. Similarly, investors have a hard time finding the good companies through all of the “ground clutter” on their radar screens. Add to this the fact that many smaller companies do not have full time investor relations officers, relying instead upon their CFOs to speak to investors and you have a combination of factors that can lead to companies just not finding the right investors. The result is that the markets seem a lot less efficient in the small cap space.

In theory, (from the banks of the Charles) the efficient market theory would say that as long as your company information is public, investors will find you and properly value your firm. So filing required reports with the SEC and having a web site should be sufficient. In reality (from the banks of the Hudson) this rarely seems to be the case for small cap stocks. What is required of smaller companies is what I refer to as “retail institutional marketing”. They have got to go out and actively bring themselves to the attention of potential investors because they are competing with so many other small cap companies for attention and investment dollars. And it seems as though those investors are not easy to find.

There is a solution for this, and that is for investor relations firms with knowledge of the capital markets for small cap companies to bring companies and investors together. One way to think of this is that IR consulting firms step into the role of the sell side sales force in terms of their knowledge of what investors may be interested in, introducing their client companies to interested investors. The difference is in the method of payment. The sell side is paid for via commissions from the buy side, whereas IR firms are paid by the company. When done correctly, a good IR firm can add to the efficiency of the markets by helping to match the right investors to the right companies, helping them achieve better liquidity and proper valuations

(Full and fair disclosure: The author consults for Three Part Advisors, an investor relations consulting firm and a sponsor of the East Coast IDEAS Conference.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Infield Fly Rule and Disclosure

With the advent of Memorial Day and warm weather (down here in Houston we define warm weather by temperatures being above 90 degrees, where they will stay until late September), my thoughts have turned to baseball and what we in the investor relations profession can learn from it. After all, baseball is a deceptively simple game consisting of throwing a ball, hitting it with a stick and then catching the ball. This compares to investor relations, which on the surface is also deceptively simple, as it’s really just about talking to people about your company and how it’s doing.

In both instances however, what starts out to be simple, rapidly get complex as the result of rules. For example, in baseball, consider the infield fly rule. The infield fly rule is designed to eliminate a situation where a base runner might be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. That is, the purpose of the infield fly rule is to prevent the defensive team from turning a double play by intentionally dropping or not catching a fly ball hit to the infield. The rules of baseball define an infield fly as the following:

An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule. 
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare ”Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare Infield Fly, if Fair.” The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball.

There are several interesting aspects to the rule, such as it requires the judgment of the umpire that the ball can be caught with ordinary effort, an outfielder can be an infielder for purposes of the rule, and it has exceptions for line drives and attempted bunts. And, in true regulatory fashion, this is just the definition. You have to go to another rule to discover the effect of the rule, which is that the batter is out. This is a rule that only a lawyer can love.

Next consider the rules and regulations surrounding disclosure of material non-public information. The rule here appears to be a little less complex than the infield fly rule (although technically speaking, it’s not a rule at all as it came out of court decisions), and goes as follows:

“Information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would consider it important in making an investment decision.” And “There must be a substantial likelihood that the disclosure of an omitted fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the “total” mix of information made available.” (TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway and Basic v. Levinson.)

There are several striking similarities between the disclosure of material information and the infield fly rule. First, the judgment of the umpire, or in this case the arbiter of fact such as a judge, jury or your securities law lawyer, is called for to figure out what is important and what a reasonable shareholder would think. Next, if you think about the cases handed down about people who have been caught using insider tips, you know that outsiders can be considered insiders. Also, just as with the infield fly rule, there are clear exceptions to the application of the rule. Just as base runners cannot be forced to leave their base in the case of an infield fly, companies can’t be forced to disclose if the disclosure would interfere with sensitive negotiations (for example, in the event of merger negotiations) or if the issue isn’t ripe (due to facts still being discovered). Finally, just as with the infield fly rule, you have to go to a different rule, in this case Rule 10 b-5, to learn that failure to disclose a material fact is unlawful. Coincidence? You decide. It’s enough to make me think that Casey Stengel would have made a great securities law lawyer.

So the next time you’re confronted with a disclosure issue, think of the infield fly rule and take comfort in the fact that very few people truly understand the way these things work, and even fewer can make the right calls under the pressure of the moment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Expert Networks Following the Rajaratnam Verdict

There was a front page article in today’s New York times as part of the coverage of the guilty verdicts against Raj Rajaratnam, that was titled, “Next Up: A Crackdown on Expert Networks”. The gist of the article is that federal prosecutors were now going to focus their insider trading crackdown on the use of expert networks. In fact, there have already been a number of indictments and guilty pleas resulting from the government’s investigation.

Expert networks, in a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, sprang into being following the enactment of Regulation Fair Disclosure. The theory was Reg. FD was forcing companies to stick to a plain vanilla disclosure script, telling everybody at the same time, whereas investors would pay to get something more than plain vanilla before everyone else. It proved to be a good theory, as on Wall Street, time and information are money, and expert networks could help investors with both. If an investor needed to get up to speed on a new industry, a new drug or a new technology, paying an expert for an hour or two of their time could be much more efficient than spending a week researching the topic. And presumably the investor could get the information free of corporate spin with some insights into the topic that corporate management might be unwilling to discuss.

Alas, like all good ideas, abuses soon appeared. Some expert networks solicited people to act as experts on the companies they worked for, with the implied marketing pitch to investors that they would be able to get an insider’s perspective. And lo and behold, some of the experts actually gave out material, non-public information about their companies. Many of these “experts” were in technical fields, such as medicine or technology, and it would be easy to say that they might not be expected to know technical SEC regulations. However, when someone is paying a person large sums of money to tell them about things that are not generally known about their company, it’s fair to say that person knows he’s doing something wrong. At the very least they are violating their duty of confidentiality to their employer, at the worst, they are violating the federal securities laws.

So now that people are beginning to be sentenced, what does it mean for expert networks?First, they’re not going away. The desire of Wall Street for fast information that may give them an investment edge will insure that the expert networks will continue to be around. Costs will go up as more compliance is layered into the process, both by investors and the networks, but the demand for the product will not go away. Second, companies will strengthen their disclosure policies to prohibit employees from acting as experts. As I write this I am sure there are securities lawyers all over the country drafting memos advising their clients to update their disclosure policies to prohibit all employees from participating in expert networks. Third, maybe, perhaps, we hope, the bad actors will be forced out of the business.

I hate to sound like a cynic about the last point, but when you’ve hung around the industry as long as I have and witnessed Michael Milken, Dennis Levine, Martin Siegel, Ivan Boesky, R. Foster Winans (The “Heard on the Street” columnist from the Wall Street Journal), James McDermott (the former CEO of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods who gave tips to his adult movie star mistress) and Martha Stewart, you get just a bit jaded about the ability of regulations and compliance programs to overcome the lure of making a quick buck.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sell Side Coverage, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the relationship between Sell Side Coverage and a company’s ability to generate commissions. The long and the short of the article was that the sell side is paid via commissions and therefore, the more trading volume your stock has, the greater the likelihood a sell side analyst will cover your company. This is bad news if you are a small capitalization company, as the volume of commissions generated by your average daily trading volume will not make you a high probability candidate for coverage.

So if you are a small cap company, the question becomes, can you achieve any meaningful sell side coverage? The answer to this is yes, but like so much in life, in order to achieve your goal, you must be willing to spend a good deal of time and effort in order to get where you want to be.

There are a number of approaches to this, but in the end, they all come down to doing things that make you more attractive to the sell side. First, you can institute a marketing campaign to make your company more known to the sell side. This means reviewing who covers your peers and others in your industry and contacting them regarding your company’s investment thesis. While this alone is unlikely to result in sell side coverage, it does get you on the radar screen and raises your profile with the sell side. It also helps if you can present the sell side with a compelling reason to follow your company, such as a unique market niche, product or approach your company has that will enable the sell side analyst to be more knowledgeable about the industry than his competitors.

Second, you can make yourself more known to the sell side’s clients, the buy side. This involves the somewhat labor-intensive task of segmenting, targeting and positioning the company’s message to the buy side community followed by lots and lots of mostly fruitless phone calls. The result of this can be two things that will get the sell side’s interest: more trading in the stock and more questions about the company from the buy side. In this process it is wise not to ignore the IR officer’s anathema, hedge funds, as that is where a significant portion of today’s stock trading volume resides.

Next, you can make your management more accessible to the sell side. This may help sell side analysts fill in gaps in their knowledge about the industry and your company’s position in it, or may give them more product knowledge. As the sell side is expected to be experts in all aspects of the industry they cover, helping them gain more knowledge will put you on their radar screen. Additionally, doing a sell side analyst’s conference or using them to help arrange non-deal road shows allows them to show the buy side that they have management access, something they do get compensated for by the buy side.

One thing to keep in mind about this process is that it takes time and commitment from company management to raise the profile with the sell side. If a company has a dedicated investor relations officer and that person has a good working knowledge of how the Street operates, and the willingness to spend the time, then it can be done in-house. If, however, like many small cap companies, the CFO is filling the role of principle spokesperson to the Street, then it makes a lot of sense to hire an outside IR advisory firm to do the heavy lifting described above.

(Full and fair disclosure: the author is a consultant for Three Part Advisors, an investor relations strategic communications and consulting firm.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold, But Just Right

I had the privilege of speaking last week before the Austin- San Antonio chapter of NIRI. The topic was one of my favorites, Insights from Academia, or What I’ve Learned About Investor Relations by Teaching in a Business School. Every time I give the talk, it’s a chance to step back from the day-to-day activities that comprise investor relations and think about the process as a whole. This time when I gave the talk, I was struck by the need to achieve balance in what we do.

Those that are involved in investor relations recognize that in order to do it right, you need to combine skills from the disciplines of finance, marketing, law and communications. So there are a lot of factors at play. If one chooses to emphasize one factor over another the entire message can suffer. For example, if a press release is written where legal factors and accounting dominate, the result is a stilted document that tends to read like a SEC Form 10-K filing or a lawyer’s brief. In other words, something that’s deathly dull and uses language to obfuscate rather than clarify. Similarly, if the marketing and communications disciplines dominate, what you wind up with is a document that is more hype than substance and is bound to turn off your audience of sophisticated investors. The key to getting the message right is to balance the various factors.

One of the things I have learned from combing through business textbooks in preparing for my class on investor relations is that a catchy graphic helps to explain complex relationships. Couple that with the fact you almost can’t give a talk without powerpoint slides and I simply had to create a graphic to illustrate this point. So here it is – my attempt at capturing the need to combine all four disciplines in your investor relations message.

Of course, it’s one thing to understand the theory, it’s another thing entirely when you are trying to incorporate comments to your press release by the CFO, the General Counsel, the outside auditors and the communications department. This is where investor relations officers should think back to the Goldilocks story and say to themselves, “Not too much law, not too much marketing, but just right…” It’s at times like that I recommend you pull out the graphic to remind yourself what it is you are trying to achieve.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Relationship Between Sell Side Coverage and Commissions

Go to almost any gathering of investor relations officers and you are likely to hear them bemoaning the decline in the number of sell side analysts that follow their companies and publish earnings estimates. And if you are talking to small and even mid cap company IROs, you may hear them complaining that they are having trouble attracting sell side coverage at all. So I thought I would spend some time this week explaining why this might be so.

The answer is simple, really, and like many things in life, it boils down to “that’s the way the math works”. My children would always roll their eyes whenever I said that, so before I get to the quantitative part, a bit of historical perspective is in order. In the old days, before Elliott Spitzer, research departments received much of their budget funding from their bank’s investment banking departments and there was more coverage of companies because investment bankers wanted potential clients to get coverage from the firm. Of course, there were also quite a few conflicts of interest, as investment bankers only wanted the research department to have buys on potential clients. In addition, there was a lot of pressure from investment bankers for stock analysts to give generous recommendations to companies they were taking public. All of this culminated in the 1999 – 2000 dot com bubble when many highly touted internet company IPOs foundered on the shoals of reality.

Enter Elliott Spitzer, who, before he became Client 9, was Attorney General for the state of New York. Sensing that political hay was there to be made, Mr. Spitzer demanded that the conflicts of interest arising from the intersection of investment banking and research be eliminated. Using the bully pulpit of the Attorney General’s office, Mr. Spitzer was able to extract settlements from the investment banks that basically separated investment banking and research. No longer could investment banking departments contribute to the research budgets of their firms. In fact, investment bankers couldn’t even talk to research analysts unless an attorney was in the room to insure that no insidious conflicts reared their ugly heads.

This meant that research departments now needed to justify their existence based upon their only revenue source, which was commissions. And commission rates, due to a number of factors, were declining and continue to decline to this day.

This is where the math comes in, because for research departments, it all comes down to how many commission dollars covering your company can generate for their firm, and that in turn is heavily dependant on the average daily trading volume of the company in question. If you look at a mega-cap company such as Wal-Mart, they trade in excess of 14 million shares per day. Assuming an average institutional commission rate of $.04 per share, this means that on an average day, trading in Wal-Mart shares generates $560,000 in commissions. Even if you are a mid-tier analyst covering Wal-Mart, and you figure you can get credit for 5% of the commission flow, this means that potentially you have available to your firm $28,000 per day.

On the other hand, a small cap stock with average daily trading volume of 100,000 shares, generates commissions of $4,000 per day. Even if you figure the very top, go-to analyst on the stock can get credit for 25% of the commissions, the potential dollars available total $1,000 per day.

Wall Street firms are economically rational, and they will naturally gravitate to where the most money is to be made. And the long and the short of it is that it is a lot better to be a middle of the pack analyst following a mega cap stock than it is to be the number one analyst following a small cap stock.

So the next time you hear someone bemoan lack of sell side coverage, ask them what their daily trading volume is.

Because that’s the way the math works.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Take the Time to Say Thank You

I’m going to take a break this week from investor relations and instead talk about personal relations. After all, it’s my blog and I can write about what I want to.

The other day I had one of those “What ever happened to?” moments. In this case, I was wondering what had happened to my old track and cross-country coach. He had only coached me for two years in high school before moving on to a different school, but he was a great coach and had given me a love of running that lasts to this day. The Internet is a wonderful tool that allows you to reach out to people that in the old days you would simply have lost track of, so I gave it a try. I wasn’t real hopeful of finding anything, as it has been forty years since my high school track days, but lo and behold, after about five minutes with Google, I had an email address.

Then I did something that I should have done many years before: I wrote him, thanking him for the time, effort and consideration he had put into coaching a young and inexperienced runner many years ago. A couple of days went by and I was beginning to think perhaps I had a bad email address when I received a short email from my old coach saying “You made my day – I will call you”.

Several hours later, I got a call from him and I must say that it was one of the most enjoyable conversations I have had in a long time. Not only did my old coach remember me all these years later, but he even remembered some of my track times from my sophomore year in high school.

In our lives we all have people who have been important influences on who we are and what we have achieved. They may be teachers, coaches, scoutmasters, professors, relatives or even friends of the family. They are people who have taken the time and effort to help young men and women understand who they are and how to use the talents they have to move forward with their lives. They teach fundamental disciplines, help nurture young talent and often give considerable amounts of their own time.

Because the people being helped are young, they often don’t realize how they are benefiting. I used to think that my track coach was good because he made me a better runner. It was only many years later that I realized that as good as he was at making me a better runner, he was just as good at instilling in me disciplines such as hard work and attention to detail that were to benefit me long after I stopped running competitively. But this realization didn’t come until later. When I was young, I was busy getting on with my life, and so I moved on and didn’t give it, or the influencers in my life, a whole lot of thought.

So here’s the thought for the day: take ten minutes and thank someone who has been an influence on you life. I doesn’t matter if it’s an email or a phone call or you stop and chat when you see them in the grocery store. The important thing is to just say thank you. It’s a simple thing to do, but too often we put it off until it’s too late, so do it now. Not only will it make the day of the person you thank, but I guarantee that you will get a big benefit from it as well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

One Generation’s “Nice to Have” is the Next Generation’s Essential

In our mind’s eye, we never age. We remain slim, dark haired and up to the moment in developments. However, every now and then something happens that reminds us that our view of the world is different than those younger than ourselves.

Just such a moment happened to me the other day when I was teaching my class in investor relations. We were discussing a case in class that revolved around how to improve a company’s visibility with investors. One of my students suggested that one thing the company could do was to improve its web site. As the case occurs in 1993, I said that most companies did not have web sites back then. My student looked at me as if I were from Mars. The concept of a company not having a web site was utterly foreign to her.

The reason I find this interesting is that it points out how quickly something can go from being almost non-existent to becoming an essential part of the information mix of a company. For those of us with a little (or in my case a lot) gray hair, we tend to think of web sites as a secondary means of transmitting information, following real information, which is imparted via pieces of paper and speaking to people. However, if you have grown up in the Internet age, information is first gleaned from the web, and then secondarily refined through other means. For example, if I want to find a good quote for use in writing, I am likely to turn to my trusty volume of Bartlett’s Quotations. My children, on the other hand, would not dream of pulling down a book, but would immediately do an Internet search.

One of the ways this intersects with investor relations is in the way companies treat their IR web sites. Older investor relations officers tend to think of IR sites as “adjunct” or “supplementary” information backing up the annual report, press releases, conference presentations and one-on-one meetings that are the grist of the daily IR mill. Yet with each passing day, more and more analysts are coming out of graduate school with the viewpoint that the Internet is the primary source of information. Just as another data point, it is not unusual for me to see papers from MBA students where all citations are to internet sources, with not a single book cited.

What this means for IR practitioners is that the content of their investor relations web site is increasingly important. The design, information content and logic of the IR site are things that should be given considerable thought. Further, given the pace of change for web sites, the IR site should be thoroughly reviewed at least once a year. This means that delegating maintenance of the IR site to the junior member of the IR department and forgetting about it isn’t an option any longer. Just as the senior member of the IR department wouldn’t dream of letting the junior member of the department do one-on-one meetings with the company’s most important investors, they shouldn’t delegate or outsource the web site. Investor relations sites are rapidly becoming the primary source of information about companies and they need to be accorded a high level of attention.

Otherwise, the likely scenario going forward is that investors, rather than contacting the company, will go elsewhere on the web to get their primary information.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Motive Doesn’t Matter

The insider trading trial of the century has started in Manhattan featuring Raj Rajaratnam, his Galleon hedge fund and a diverse set of characters ranging from a former Goldman Sachs director to consultants and naturally, other hedge fund managers. The trial is providing plenty of grist for the mill, but I wanted to focus on one interesting article that appeared the other day in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Motive for Stock Leak Can Be Respect, Love”. The story looks at the motivations for some of the people that leaked inside information to hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam and others involved with the Galleon hedge fund. It turns out that not all of them did it for the money.

Mind you, the ultimate recipient of the information appears to have been in it for the money, profiting handsomely from the information given to him by his network of informants. And filthy lucre also appears to have been a part of one of the initial witnesses at the trial who testified to being paid $2 million. (As an aside, it’s kind of hard to argue that you don’t know you were doing something wrong when you’re being paid in an offshore account in your housekeeper’s name.)

However, others appear not to have been motivated by money or to even have profited by their leaks. In the case of one Intel executive, friendship appears to be the motivating factor. In the case of an IBM executive, a desire to impress a woman with whom he had become intimate was the reason cited by the executive in explaining himself the judge in his case.

But here’s the thing that any prosecutor worth his salt will tell you when you start to trot out non-monetary motivations: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Knowingly passing along inside information is a crime and it makes not a whit of difference if you made millions as a result of the information or you did it for the love of mankind. There might be some distinction made by the judge between the two when you get sentenced, but make no mistake, if someone has acted on inside information that you knowingly passed along, the government has the obligation to track you down, take you to trial and convict you.

So here’s the point, from an investor relations and compliance viewpoint: A good IR Disclosure Policy and program will drive home the point that it is the disclosure of non-public information that can get you in trouble, not being paid for it. Most people can easily understand that if someone offers to pay them for confidential information, it is probably illegal. Harder for them to understand is that if they pass along the information because they wanted to impress their friend, or were out in a social situation and wanted to appear important, or they had a long standing friendship with the person they gave the information to, they can just as easily get into trouble.

So find a way to get people with access to inside information to understand that they don’t have to profit from passing along inside information in order to break the law. And just to drive the point home, remind them that whatever friend they pass the information to will not be serving jail time for them when everything unravels.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Whistle While You Work

If you look at the history of financial regulation in the United States, one of the things you notice is that almost all regulation of financial activity at the federal level comes as a result of some form of financial scandal or abuse. This goes all the way back to the Securities Act of 1933, which resulted from the stock market shenanigans brought to light by the Pecora hearings following the stock market crash of 1929. In more modern times, this trend has continued with the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in the wake of Enron, Tyco, and others, and the Dodd Frank Financial Reform Act of 2010 that was spawned by the housing and mortgage crisis.

These laws are usually enacted quickly, as legislators are anxious to demonstrate that they are doing something, but the resulting legislation lingers on for many years. Companies are left to deal with and adjust to murky legislative language and often burdensome regulations resulting from laws that are designed to prevent the last crisis. Often these laws have unintended consequences, such as the effect of Sarbanes-Oxley on the number of companies choosing to file their IPOs in the United States.

Now we have at least one provision tucked away in the Dodd-Frank law which may come back and bite public companies. I am referring here to the whistleblower provision in the financial reform act. Under this provision of the new law, if a whistleblower provides independent information of fraud to the SEC that results in a successful enforcement action that recovers at least $1 million in sanctions, the whistleblower is entitled to recover at least 10% and up to 30% of the recovered funds.

There are a couple of interesting twists to this legislation. The first is that the independent information regarding the fraud can come from independent analysis of public information. Thus, an outside analyst without any inside knowledge of the company’s books and records can blow the whistle on a company if their analysis shows that the company must be acting fraudulently. This was precisely what happened in the Madoff scandal, when Harry Markopolos went to the SEC with an analysis that showed the returns shown by Madoff were impossible to achieve. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to foresee a new subgroup of analysts devoted to looking for financial fraud with the thought of collecting a reward from the SEC.

It also doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think that the plaintiff’s bar would be very interested in the new whistle blower rules. Now, instead of trolling through Form 4 filings to look for Section 16(b) short swing profits violations by insiders, aggressive attorneys can cultivate relationships with short sellers in the hopes of joining together to find companies engaged in fraudulent activities. Given that short sellers are almost always convinced that companies are defrauding the public and plaintiff’s lawyers never pass up an opportunity to turn a new legal provision into a revenue stream, this is a match made in heaven.

If nothing else, people involved in the disclosure of company information pursuant to the securities laws needs to take a close look at the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd Frank law. Under the current SEC proposed regulations, whistleblowers do not even have to first go through company channels before blowing the whistle. So the company needs to get their disclosures right on the first try, because if they don’t, there may not be a chance to remedy things before the SEC is notified. And the possibility of $100,000 or more in reward money can make it very tempting for whistleblowers to accuse first and verify later.