Is ‘guidance’ all there is?

Providing financial guidance has become so common – NIRI says 76% of public companies offer forward-looking financial guidance – that investor relations professionals don’t stop to think much about it. But an investment banker in the pharmaceutical industry notes increasing frustration with investors and analysts who obsess on guidance.

In a piece called “The Tyranny of ‘Guidance’,” Michael Martorelli of Fairmount Partners tells readers of Contract Pharma that he’s hearing more questions on conference calls seeking clarification or expansion specifically on management’s guidance for near-term financial results – as opposed to penetrating questions seeking insight into fundamentals or trends:

If you thought all analysts developed their own estimates for the revenue and earnings paths of the companies they follow, welcome to the post Sarbanes-Oxley world of Wall Street research.

Before Sarbanes-Oxley, Martorelli notes, sell-side analysts were committed to building in-depth knowledge of  companies and industries. Investors and corporate managements came to respect the best analysts, and the work of analysis was highly valued.

Post-Sarbanes, of course, the mandate to give the same information to everyone at the same time often takes the form of guidance. And market participants, Martorelli says, can put too much value in near-term numbers. They’ll ask, “Why didn’t you raise your guidance this quarter? Why is the range of your guidance so wide? Why did you lower (or raise) only the top (or bottom) end of your guidance?”

When evaluating the future financial results of a company … too many investors rely more on management’s guidance than on their own independent analysis of the company, the industry, and the trends.

The legal structure is what it is, but companies can perhaps affect the tone of the conversation by focusing what we talk about on the fundamentals … what is really changing in our businesses, growth drivers, challenges and the strategies our companies are executing. After all, we really outperform not so much by beating “guidance” as by beating the competition to create real value for shareholders. It’s the big picture, not the pennies for next quarter.

What’s your take on guidance? Has it taken over the conversation?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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