Archive for June, 2013

Are stock buybacks overhyped?

June 19, 2013

Share repurchases aren’t the magic potions some investors and corporate managements think, according to an analysis of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies in the June 2013 Institutional Investor. Stock buybacks can create value, but they can also destroy value – and the actual results suggest some humility in talking up the advantages.

Cash stackSome institutional investors love financial wizardry. Share repurchases automatically increase EPS by reducing shares outstanding – and send a message of confidence in a company’s stock. So financial engineering fans press the idea on a CEO or CFO more than any business strategy, such as investing corporate cash in growth or new product creation.

And some companies love share repurchases. Now Institutional Investor, working with Fortuna Advisors, has begun publishing a quarterly scorecard of how effective stock buybacks actually are, at least in the large cap world. Based on S&P 500 companies that repurchase more than $1 billion in stock or at least 4% of their market cap, the magazine reports rolling two-year ROI for buyback programs.

You can get the overview in “Corporate Share Repurchases Often Disappoint Investors” or dive into raw data in a table detailing ROI for S&P 500 companies with big repurchase programs. (A majority – 268 of the 488 index members that were public for the whole two-year period – bought back at least $1 billion or 4% of their market value.)

The II-Fortuna analysis calculates ROI as an internal rate of return to evaluate investment performance of cash spent on buybacks over two years, including share value increases/decreases and savings on dividends avoided.

Results suggest investor relations people – and CEOs – may want to be more modest in discussing share repurchase plans. The accounting effects of buybacks are assured, but benefits to shareholder value aren’t:

Returning cash to shareholders is supposed to benefit everybody – at least, that’s how the theory goes. Investors who want cash get plenty; shareholders who prefer to stay the course see higher earnings and cash flow per share …

The fanfare that typically accompanies buyback announcements never hints that poor execution can torpedo more value than accounting-based bumps in earnings or cash flow can produce on their own.

Apple is the magazine’s poster child for the disparity between  theory and reality. The magazine dings Apple CEO Tim Cook for his $60 billion repurchase program, the biggest authorization in history, which he enthusiastically called “an attractive use of our capital”:

Buyback ROI reveals a less ebullient story at Apple than Cook described. The company’s -56.7 percent return on buybacks trails those of all S&P 500 companies that compete in the rankings. Every dollar spent by Apple on share buybacks during the two-year period was worth less than 44 cents. …

Trouble is, companies often buy back shares when the price is high – and as we know, stocks go up and down. Timing is everything, at least for returns over a typical investment horizon of two years. Often the timing is wrong:

“During the downturn in 2008 and 2009, even companies with good cash balances didn’t buy back stock, and now they are buying back shares,” says Adam Parker, Morgan Stanley’s top U.S. equity strategist. “A lot of companies have not done a particularly good job of buying low.”

If you’re interested in more analysis, Fortuna Advisors CEO Gregory Milano offers companies some direct advice on how to approach share repurchases in “What’s Your Return on Buybacks?”

I’d love to hear your feedback on buybacks.

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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Buy side half-interested in social media

June 11, 2013

Just over half of institutional investors are using social media to gather intelligence on companies and industries as part of their research, according to a survey released Monday by NIRI and research firm Corbin Perception.

While 52% of 87 buy-side investors surveyed say they monitor social media – not much change from 56% in a 2010 survey – they are tuning into social channels more frequently. Some 39% monitor social media on a daily basis, up from 12% in 2010. Others check periodically or in response to someone calling a specific post to their attention.

The investors say overwhelmingly (92%) that information from social media isn’t entirely reliable – it’s intelligence that helps fill in the “bigger picture.” But most of those who monitor social media say their investment decisions have been influenced at some point by what they see.

The top three categories of social media watched by the buy side:

On down the line in buy-side usage are company blogs, chat boards, Motley Fool, Twitter and so on. Facebook isn’t in the top 10.

One-fourth of the buy-side people surveyed don’t use social media at all for work, and 38% can’t access social media sites on work computers because of company policies against it.

The bottom line for IR, according to NIRI and Corbin:

As social media continues to evolve, IR professionals must closely monitor company-specific social media content. That said, when it comes to getting their company story our, one-on-one meetings, the investor presentation, analyst days and conference calls remain the leading sources of reliable information, according to the buy side.

Corbin provides a copy of the survey report on its website.

So where are you in monitoring and/or engaging with social media?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

A pile of dirt and a vision

June 10, 2013

Pile of Dirt2

Sometimes progress looks like a pile of dirt. It’s true of the big construction project starting to take shape. And the biotech company laboring through long years of development to get to market. And the out-of-favor, battered management putting in place a new strategy.

Caught in the snapshot of today’s pervasively short-term thinking, progress often looks like a pile of dirt. When the current financial results aren’t pretty, investors can see an ugly mess – or something entirely different. This brings us to our role in investor relations.

One of our tasks in IR is to communicate the vision to investors – to show the prospective owners the architect’s rendering and give form to what today may seem like a pile of dirt. That vision must begin with the CEO, of course. But the IRO is one of the primary messengers to ensure that others see and understand the picture of the future.

Here are a few thought-starters on how we can do it:

  • Acknowledge the present state. If the past six quarters have been ugly, say so. If the development project has moved more slowly than hoped, admit it. People will give a company credit for recognizing the same pile of dirt they see – and having a plan to get beyond it.
  • Focus on the future state. Any presentation, report or web content should talk more about what is coming than what just happened. I’m referring to  emphasis, not the number of words, because of course we need to give ’em the facts about the company and its performance. Clear accounting results are essential to disclosure and IR – point is, we can’t leave it there. Even past accomplishments are data points for talking about where we are heading, because investing is about the future.
  • Lay out the plan. Executives building a great enterprise – whether developing a medical breakthrough or transforming operations or rolling up an industry through M&A – sometimes don’t clearly explain what they’re doing to those outside. In IR we should be laying out the process so investors know the steps involved in building value. And, of course, then we will tell them each time we complete a step along the way.
  • Give the microphone to the CEO. It’s his or her vision, so challenge the boss to paint the picture of the future. A CEO speaking to investors about nothing but quarterly results seems like a wasted opportunity. Since most CEOs are giving the best part of their lives to a company, they need to share with others the vision that drives their enthusiasm.

What about you – do you have any favorite ways of showing how the company is building value when current results may look like a pile of dirt?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

The phone call no IRO wants

June 8, 2013

As a non-lawyer, I always pay heed when an attorney for a client speaks. Certainly when a letter from a law firm or government agency arrives (though most are friendly). And when the phone rings and a caller says he or she works for the SEC or FINRA, well …

In 20-plus years of IR work, I’ve never personally heard from a regulator. But a piece in the June/July issue of NIRI’s IRupdate, “What to Do When You Get ‘The Call’,” caught my eye. And it’s worth noting.

The advice of the lawyers NIRI cites comes down to this:

… if you are the one to get the call, it’s not hard to know what to do: Basically, it’s say little and listen a lot …

Be polite but reserved. Neither hostile nor chatty. Don’t volunteer details or opinions. Your goal at this stage is to gather information to give your general counsel or securities lawyer – who can then manage the process. Ask the caller what the focus of the inquiry is, if it relates to a specific event, time  or person. Then head for your company lawyer’s office.

This seems like good advice to me. Any reactions?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

What’s your theory?

June 7, 2013

THEORYThe classic question “What builds value for a company?” often finds its answer in a strategy. But that’s the wrong answer, Todd Zenger, a professor of business strategy at Washington University, argues in the June 2013 Harvard Business Review. The right answer, he says, is the corporate theory. The distinction matters to IR professionals who influence messaging on shareholder value.

In “What Is the Theory of Your Firm?” Zenger says value does not come from strategy, at least not military-style plans for targeting attractive markets and conquering your rivals (“competitive advantage”):

Unfortunately, investors don’t reward senior managers for simply occupying and defending positions. Equity markets are full of companies with powerful positions and sluggish stock prices.

What Zenger calls the theory of your firm is a view of life that runs deeper than any particular strategy:

Essentially, a leaders’ most vexing strategic challenge is not how to obtain or sustain competitive advantage – which has been the field of strategy’s primary focus – but, rather, how to keep finding new, unexpected ways to create value. [The corporate theory] reveals how a given company can continue to create value. It is more than a strategy, more than a map to a position – it is a guide to the selection of strategies.

Three kinds of “sight” go into a corporate theory, Zenger says:

  • Foresight: beliefs and expectations for the future of an industry or its customers
  • Insight: deep understanding of what is rare, distinctive and value in your company’s assets and activities
  • Cross-sight: ability to spot complementary skills or assets that will fit together to create something new

Apple is one example Zenger cites. With PC makers chasing cheaper, faster and bigger computers that basically were interchangeable, Steve Jobs took a different view of how to create value. It was a theory:

… essentially it held that consumers would pay a premium for ease of use, reliability, and elegance in computing and other digital devices, and that the best means for delivering these was relatively closed systems …

This theory guided Apple into a wide range of markets:

Apple was not the first to design a digital music library, manufacture an MP3 player, or market a smartphone. But it was the first to craft and configure those devices and their user environment with elegant, easy-to-use devices and with tight control of complementary products, infrastructure and market image.

So what’s your firm’s theory? One way to find out is to often ask, Why?

Why this, and not that? Is a particular view of the future driving your CEO’s choice of strategy? Does a unique set of assets or skills energize success, across products or markets? Is a novel perspective leading your company to build or acquire new skills and assets to drive growth?

As Zenger suggests, a good theory not only guides a business; it gives power to the value creation story. And if investors buy your theory – well, they buy. We investor relations people should always seek to better understand – and better explain – how our companies are creating value.

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.