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.