Most of us remember a decade ago, when the stock market bubble of the 1990s finished inflating and began to spring leaks. Nasty stories were everywhere of Wall Street analysts overselling the stocks they were paid to peddle to investors.
The bear market of 2000-02 led to legislative and regulatory efforts to “fix” equity research, separate the sell side from – well, selling – and bring trust back into the markets. Alas, that’s probably not something new laws can accomplish.
New evidence from McKinsey & Co. suggests the sell side is “still too bullish,” based on a study of earnings estimates for S&P 500 companies from 1985 to 2009. Somewhere in the DNA of the sell side, it seems, lurks a gene for salemanship.
Only two times over the 25-year period did actual earnings on the S&P 500 beat analyst estimates, three McKinsey consultants write in the Spring 2010 issue of The McKinsey Quarterly. Analysts have been “persistently overoptimistic,” typically forecasting S&P earnings growth of 10-12% a year, nearly twice the actual 6% growth. McKinsey concludes:
Exceptions to the long pattern of excessively optimistic forecasts are rare …. Only in years such as 2003 to 2006, when strong economic growth generated actual earnings that caught up with earlier predictions, do forecasts actually hit the mark.
There’s an obvious caveat emptor for investors in data like this. In fact, the market as a whole doesn’t believe the sell side: Actual price-earnings ratios on the S&P 500 are almost always lower than the implied P/E based on analysts’ forecasts, the consultants note.
McKinsey also sounds a cautionary note for corporate staffs: Don’t put too much confidence in the sell side when formulating your own company outlook. Base your outlook on what’s really happening in your business, not so much on Wall Street’s view from a distance:
Executives, as the evidence indicates, ought to base their strategic decisions on what they see happening in their industries rather than respond to the pressures of forecasts, since even the market doesn’t expect them to do so.
Easier said than done, of course. But investor relations professionals ought to keep this advice in mind when serving as a conduit for communications between Wall Street and senior management.