Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back on the Call

Strange as it may seem, National Public Radio and Wall Street sell side research share a common business model – they both give the product away and hope you get paid later. The motivations are different; NPR is a not for profit entity while sell side research sits at the heart of profit driven capitalism, but NPR pledge drives and sell side marketing to get commissions directed their way are similar in many respects. Both occur long after the product has been delivered to the user with no obligation for the user to actually pay for it and both attempt to convince the user that they have been given a superior product.

The reason I bring this up is that occasionally NPR comes up with a story that actually has some bearing on corporate earnings and Wall Street, and they recently did so on February 2, 2012 with a piece entitled “Is That CEO Being Honest? Tone Of Voice May Tell A Lot”. You can find it at http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/02/02/146288038/is-that-ceo-being-honest-tone-of-voice-may-tell-a-lot.

In the story, NPR examines some software developed by an Israeli company based on research referred to as layered voice analysis. The software picks up on “vocal dissonance markers” that may indicate when the truth is being shaded, or when an executive is trying to avoid saying something that should be said in order to make an answer complete.

Of course, analysts on conference calls listen to tone and inflection all the time, so this of itself is not a news flash. The part of this story that makes it interesting is that the research shows that the analysts are much better at hearing the positive tones in a call than they are at hearing the cognitive dissonance in messages that are being shaded from complete truth. According to the radio story, part of this may be that most analysts stand to benefit more from positive recommendations than negative recommendations. Another part may be that most people are less likely to ascribe nefarious intent when a person sounds less than chipper. To this I will add another factor: most conference calls have taken on a very formulaic approach, and much of the time, corporate management sounds as if they are discussing their immanent root canal surgery with their dentist. Sounding unhappy to be on the call is par for the course and, therefore, it is hard to distinguish an unhappy tone from a less than honest tone. Conversely, any time management sounds happy, it really stands out and is easy to pick up on.

Faithful readers with long memories may recall that I wrote about similar research back in August 2010 in a post titled “Using Computers to Predict If a CEO is Lying”. In that case, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business took a look at word patterns during the Q & A sessions of earnings calls to help predict when company management was being deceitful. Now we have software that listens to voice tone that does the same thing. So maybe we are getting closer to the day when management will have no choice but to be completely honest with investors on earnings calls.

It could mark the death knell of the earnings conference call…


Jeffluth said...

I'm beginning to wonder how much value is derived from quarterly conference calls, which are typically viewed by management teams as a form of corporate root-canal, and by investors / analysts as an exercise in answer-avoidance and model tweaking.

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