Archive for November, 2009

Thanksgiving thoughts

November 26, 2009

In the USA, we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The tradition has less to do with thanking each other for kindnesses extended than it has to do with thanking our Maker for the grace and mercies He extends. It’s a time for counting our blessings.

Avi Ifergan, an asset manager in Israel, shared good thoughts on thanksgiving a couple of years ago in a post called “The Relationship between Gratitude & Value Investing” in his Israel Value blog. (The blog went dormant after Ifergan got a gig with a bank in 2008, but it’s still interesting to browse for comments on investing.)

The point on value investing is that appreciating value in an asset that others don’t appreciate springs from a habit of gratitude in all areas. So investing meets life. He cites examples of humility and gratitude from Warren Buffett and other investors.

Ivergan offers these thoughts on reasons each of us should feel grateful:

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.

If you can attend a church / synagogue meeting without fear of harrassment, arrest, torture or death, you are more blessed than 3 billion people in the world.

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If you have ever made a phone call, you are ahead of 50% of the world population that never has.

And if you are reading this blog – and have access to the internet then you are ahead of 90% of the world population that does not have access to the internet.

We have more than ample reasons to be grateful. So, whether you’re in America or a place with other holiday traditions, happy Thanksgiving!

Getting real on compensation

November 20, 2009

If you work with the proxy statement or other communications on executive pay, you should read the Nov. 9 speech by Shelley Parratt, deputy director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, to the 4th Annual Proxy Disclosure Conference.

Parratt calls on companies to improve the quality of their Compensation Disclosure & Analysis sections – giving clearer, more specific analysis and better explanation of performance targets. She suggests starting over with a blank page, if necessary.

Mostly, Parratt’s comments offer a philosophy for disclosure on compensation. She notes that companies tend to respond with good disclosure once the SEC reviews their proxies – but don’t pay much attention if the SEC doesn’t come calling. Going forward, tangling with the SEC on the CD&A could hurt corporate reputations:

Any company that waits until it receives staff comments to comply with the disclosure requirements should be prepared to amend its filings if we raise material comments. Now is the time to engage in a rigorous analysis to develop meaningful, coherent and comprehensive executive compensation disclosure.

While the SEC staff may appear to serve as your editor from time to time, the CD&A is your story to tell, not ours. Read our guidance. Read the publicly-available comment letters. Take a fresh look at the disclosure requirements. Pay attention to what the market is looking for. Your disclosure will be better if you do.

Concern about pay levels isn’t limited to SEC officials and politicians with a polulist bent. Even the biggest investors can get upset about compensation – as in today’s Wall Street Journal story on mutual funds that are big holders of Goldman Sachs:

Some of the largest shareholders in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have urged the Wall Street firm to reduce the size of its bonus pool, arguing that it should pass along more of its blockbuster earnings to investors…

For a lively take on the potential for more asset managers turning activist on pay, watch the Yahoo! “Tech Ticker” commentary by Aaron Task and Henry Blodget.

Take-home message for the 2010 proxy season: Write the CD&A as if you’re sitting across the table explaining your pay policies to one of those concerned investors.

(Thanks to the panelists at the Kansas City NIRI meeting Nov. 17 for calling this SEC staffer’s speech to our attention.)

Word of the year: “unfriend”

November 17, 2009

The word of the year for 2009, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary:

unfriend.

This says something about our society and the social media we’re all embracing. Relationships of a certain sort are, well, un-doable. Someone can friend or follow you on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and either person can exit just as easily. Friending and unfriending can be entirely impersonal.

Now, I won’t say crack any cynical jokes about relationships with investors. My observation for the day is simply that we are all looking for real relationships – in our personal lives, business dealings … and our investor relations jobs.

Social media play a role in supporting all of these relational areas of life. But the simple act of friending or following or connecting isn’t much of a relationship. Talking with each other over time using whatever medium, listening, supporting – dare we say, investing time and effort in each other – makes a relationship.

Let’s be social in our investor relations outreach, but let’s build real relationships.

Substance over style

November 13, 2009

The CFO of a local company made a good point today during a panel discussion on the state of the capital markets: It’s the substance of a company’s story that matters to investors, more than style or charisma – especially in tough times.

Ryan VanWinkle, senior VP and CFO of NYSE-listed Ferrellgas Partners LP, was asked at the Kansas City chapter of Association for Corporate Growth to explain the company’s success in raising funds in both debt and equity markets in 2009.

“In the end it’s not any one person. If you have a good story to tell, it doesn’t matter who tells it,” VanWinkle said. For a good company with a track record and a good transaction, he said, “the capital markets are wide open.”

This is a change from late 2008, when even good companies couldn’t raise money, he said. And the day may come again when the doors all slam shut, so VanWinkle suggests that companies add some liquidity to protect against that contingency.

Just thought this was a worthwhile insight on investor relations: The reality of the story makes the difference, more than the marketing flair we show in telling it.

Psychoanalyzing Goldman Sachs

November 10, 2009

If Goldman Sachs is a star in your investment universe, or even a remote planet you aspire to add to your universe, you ought to read the fascinating company profile (“I’m doing ‘God’s work’. Meet Goldman Sachs”) in The Sunday Times of Nov. 8.

The newspaper’s piece is heavy on pop psychology and a bit overawed by Goldman (in the mode of “Gee, these guys really have a lot of money and aren’t they smart!”). It delves into the bailout controversy and those evil bonuses. But it’s also full of anecdotes and insights into how Goldman works – and gets ahead. A few tidbits:

There’s no name plate on the building, no sign on the front desk and the armed policeman stationed outside isn’t saying who works there. There’s a good reason for the secrecy. Number 85 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, is where the money is. All of it.

… “I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer,” [Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein] says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. “We’re very important,” he says, abandoning self-flagellation. “We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle.” To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. “We have a social purpose.”

… the bosses work hard to foster a “we’re in this together”, family-style approach. Others say it feels more like a cult, but they mean it as a compliment.

… Goldman staffers are also trained to “brain pick” contacts and clients harder than the other guy. “You ask what’s their best trade. How do they see the market,” says one. “You offer something in return, but you always come back with something. Then you feed it to colleagues …”

… with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns off the street, Merrill Lynch a crippled shadow of its former self, and neither Citigroup nor UBS the forces of old, Goldman has a bigger slice of a growing pie. “We didn’t f*** up like the other guys. We’ve still got a balance sheet. So, now we’ve got a bigger and richer pot to piss in,” is how one Goldman banker puts it. Small wonder the bank is on course to set aside over $20 billion for salaries and bonuses.

Even the firm’s IRO comes into the story, commenting on the sublimation of individual egos to the corporate ethos:

Dane Holmes, 39, Goldman’s head of investor relations, is a 6ft 8in tall, 260lb former college basketball player. He looks like he could run straight through opponents — hell, through brick walls! — if he wanted to. But, he says: “That’s not the way Goldman works. You can have a great career in banking as an individual, but it won’t be here. The system weeds out those who can’t play nicely with others.”

IR as a roadmap

November 4, 2009

Roadmap NJ-NYYou gotta love Global Positioning Systems – finding almost anything, guiding you through the streets, offering data to get you to your destination. And you don’t have to fold them back up, like the roadmaps people used in the old days.

I thought about roadmaps – and their GPS counterparts – as I was working on a strategy for communicating a company’s value to investors.

We need to provide roadmaps to our investors, to enable them to envision our destination and see the path the company is taking. A few broad examples:

  • Investors need to see the path back to financial health for most companies coming through the recession. How will the P&L improve, through cost cuts or recovery in revenues? What steps are we taking, and when will we get there? Where do we need to take the balance sheet? (See earlier post on recovery IR.)
  • Investors in biopharma and other R&D-based companies need to understand the path for commercializing new drugs or high-tech products. What’s the process? Where are the challenges? How will we navigate them? What’s the timeline, and will investors see the mileposts along the way?
  • Investors in companies affected by government policy changes – health care reform, cap and trade, tax increases on dividends, you name it – need to visualize the different routes their investments may take depending on what Washington does in specific areas.

We, of course, are the map makers (or people who load data into the GPS devices).

Investor relations professionals should think more about roadmaps. A good map would tell investors where we are, what the destination is, and how we plan to get from here to there. We can’t assume investors – especially those new to a company – know the road. To create understanding, we must craft the clearest possible explanations of how our companies are moving forward to reach our goals.

The analogy to roadmaps suggests one more thing: We should also try hard to give visual expression to key investor messages. Seeing how a company intends to create value adds persuasive power to the verbal explanation of the strategy.

Do you have any examples of useful “roadmaps” in the financial or strategic realm?