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 clich├ęs 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.)