Posts Tagged ‘Stock market’

Altitude sickness, anyone?

July 13, 2016

WSJ 7-13-2016

Headlines like “Dow Presses On to Historic Peak” seem a little scary. Yet there it is, splashed across page 1 of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Being part of anything cyclical can bring its chills as well as thrills – because of that old saw about what goes up must … (well, you know, I don’t want to say it). We don’t know, of course, whether this is THE PEAK or simply a peak. And I can’t forecast worth a darn.

Not all that long ago, in the summer of 1979, Business Week‘s cover declared “The Death of Equities.” If you had taken that as a Buy signal and held on through the 1980s and 1990s, you would have done alright – check it out on the WSJ‘s graph.

But “Historic Peak” does make you think. Many of us work for companies that have shared in the market’s relentless, if bumpy – maybe historic – climb. The trends may look fine. But did we cause this rise in the market – or in our companies’ stocks? And what comes next?

My feeling is that all of us, especially investor relations people, need to stay a bit humble about trends and prospects.

© 2016 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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Inside information & avoiding illegal trading

July 3, 2013

Pillory woodcut2In medieval times, morality plays taught people through dramatic performance the difference between good and evil. A related phenomenon was the public punishment of malefactors by locking them in “the stocks.” The prisoner was immobilized in a wooden device, usually in the town marketplace, making his or her crime very public and subjecting the individual to ridicule and abuse as an example to all.

Today, we pillory people through online news and social media.

I thought of the stocks – the medieval kind – as I read how former KPMG senior partner Scott London pleaded guilty to providing inside information obtained through his auditing job for use in illegal trades. Fourteen times, Mr. London gave confidential info on KMPG clients like Herbalife and Skechers to a “friend” to make trades that ostensibly would rescue the man from a financial pinch. The friend, by the way, raked in $1.3 million and gave Mr. London a Rolex, some jewelry and about $50,000 in cash.

“I didn’t do it for money,” London said in a hallway outside [the] courtroom. “I did it to help out someone whose business was struggling. It was a bad, bad mistake.”

It’s not a mistake that will generate much sympathy – especially from professionals entrusted daily with nonpublic information. Now the 50-year-old Mr. London is held captive in the public square, recoiling from scorn and a possible prison term, wondering at what he has lost:

“It was probably the worst day of my life,” London said moments after entering the guilty plea. “Imagine what you do, you do it for 30 years, you go to school for it, and in a matter of weeks it’s all gone. It’s my fault.”

Yes, it was his fault: 14 illegal transactions amounted to 14 betrayals of trust. Each leak of earnings or M&A news corrupted the market.

I don’t share share this to throw more rotten vegetables at the guy in the stocks – but to say that investor relations people have a role to play in protecting ourselves and those around us. Illegal trading didn’t begin or end with Scott London. The SEC makes 50 to 60 cases a year nailing people for misuse of inside information as traders or tipsters. IR people are not immune to this conduct that brings scandal.

Trading on inside information can be a professional, organized crime involving stock-market sharks, such as the Galleon hedge fund guys. But it can also be a temptation for fairly ordinary people: a secretary, an accountant, a doctor helping in a clinical trial … and, yes, an IRO.

My feeling is that people in IR should not trade in our own stocks, or those of other companies about which we have nonpublic information. The NIRI Code of Ethics includes a pledge to “Not use confidential information acquired in the course of my work for my personal advantage nor for the advantage of related parties.” That seems to allow investing in one’s company or client as long as you’re not using confidential information. But for my personal investing, I’d rather not worry about when I know something or don’t. Apart from receiving (and holding) my employer’s stock as compensation when I was on the corporate side, my position is simply not to trade in companies I work with. Maybe that’s extreme, but I prefer to avoid being pilloried.

Also, investor relations professionals should seek clear policies to prevent trading on nonpublic information by everyone in our organizations – and periodic reminders to keep people well-warned.

What’s your take on IR people trading, and on cautioning co-workers?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Google gags on Q3 snafu

October 18, 2012

In the “Things Could Be Worse Department,” an investor relations nightmare struck Google Inc. today: Not only did third-quarter 2012 earnings decline and miss expectations, an unfinished draft of GOOG’s Q3 release was filed prematurely on the SEC’s EDGAR website, triggering a big sell-off before trading was halted.

“I think this is probably the worst technical screw-up I’ve seen in an earnings release in 20 years. I can’t think of anything as bad. I mean, clearly this was a premature release – it was put up on EDGAR prematurely. It even has boilerpate text in it that says, ‘PENDING LARRY QUOTE,’ ” said Bloomberg contributor Paul Kedrosky, a Kauffman Foundation fellow and blogger at Infectious Greed. “The result, however, combined with how poor the numbers actually are, is pretty dire.”

Oh, yes, pretty dire. GOOG closed down 8% on nearly five times average volume, a haircut of about $20 billion for shareholders. No telling whether the stock price would have reacted as violently if bad earnings had been released in a more orderly way – say, after the market closed.

So Google is the lead news story on all the financial sites – with headlines like “Google results, filed by mistake, miss; shares dive” (Reuters), and “Live: the Google Earnings Disaster” (live blogging on WSJ.com). And, of course, the tribulations are even trending No. 1 on Google Finance.

The erroneous press release from EDGAR may become a collector’s item, something to post over your desk as a warning:

It will take time to sort out what all went wrong. Google blamed the early release on R.R. Donnelley, the financial printer that does a lot digital work for IR departments. No doubt there will be further statements and explanations.

For now, what is certain is that “Google – October 18, 2012” will become a case study for investor relations officers in the future. A case of what not to do.

And each of us working on Q3 earnings for other companies should remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Trading at the speed of light

August 10, 2012

The rapid meltdown of Knight Trading, whose nifty new software went berserk last week and racked up $440 million in losses in about 30 minutes, immediately reignited the debate on high-frequency trading and how to regulate it.

Many investor relations professionals already held automated trading in contempt. Algorithms, derivatives and lack of fundamental reasons for buying or selling leave IR out of the picture – and focusing on milliseconds seems like the ultimate short-termism. Really, hypertraders care about tiny price moves, not companies.

Since there isn’t much “warm and fuzzy” in high-frequency trading, critics are quick to blame quants and computers for all the perceived wrongs of the stock market. Personally, I’m skeptical of attempts to regulate this kind of trading out of existence. I prefer a free market approach, with losses for players who make mistakes as Knight did – and rewards for smart investors or traders.

The most interesting piece I’ve read since the Knight Trading fiasco was not in the financial papers, but in Wired Magazine: “Raging Bulls: How Wall Street Got Addicted to Light-Speed Trading” is somewhat critical of high-frequency trading:

Faster and faster turn the wheels of finance, increasing the risk that they will spin out of control, that a perturbation somewhere in the system will scale up to a global crisis in a matter of seconds. “For the first time in financial history, machines can execute trades far faster than humans can intervene,” said Andrew Haldane, a regulatory official with the Bank of England, at another recent conference. “That gap is set to widen.”

This movement has been gaining momentum for more than a decade. Human beings who make investment decisions based on their assessment of the economy and on the prospects for individual companies are retreating. Computers—acting on computer-generated market trend data and even newsfeeds, communicating only with one another—have taken up the slack.

What I found most interesting are the insights science writer Jerry Adler offers into the mechanics behind making our computer-driven marketplace ever faster and faster. If you like tech, read the Wired piece: This is science fiction becoming reality in the capital markets where we labor as IR professionals.

Technologies continue to advance, trading times are still accelerating and we probably haven’t seen our last scary moments in the stock market. To most IR people, super-fast trading is just “noise.” To me, it’s a very different kind of investing – not for me, but not a phenomenon I want Congress to try to ban. Politicians could wreak unintended consequences by trying to codify whether 15 or 20 milliseconds is too fast, 5 or 10 simultaneous orders are too many and so on.

An IR professional, I think, should stick to the job: Understanding markets for the company’s securities, telling the story to investors who do have an interest in the business and its value, and building relationships across the capital markets.

What’s your take on computerized trading and what it means for IR?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Congratulations, FB, and good luck

May 17, 2012

Facebook pulled it off.

The New York Times “DealBook” site, May 17, 2012

A nice summary by NYT “DealBook” writers Evelyn Rusli and Peter Eavis. Facebook did pull off the IPO of the year, pricing at $38 a share for a total sale of $16 billion. The market initially valued the company at $104 billion.

Congratulations, FB!

There is a sense of relief, after the IPO with more media hype than any in recent memory, in seeing it priced and starting to trade. Following a few more days of craziness, no doubt, investors can settle down and begin looking at Facebook as they would view any other public company.

Here are a few bits of information for the curious investor relations pro:

Being public will impose a new sort of discipline on Facebook the company. Thinking about disclosure vs. trial balloons and leaks. Telling investors the basics like revenue and earnings. Meeting quarterly expectations or taking a beating. Perhaps a future day when hedge funds and analysts call for a new CEO.

I’m not going to second-guess the valuation, roughly 100 times trailing 12-month earnings. Or $115 for each of those ballyhooed 900 million users. Enough market gurus already are opining on FB, and people were willing to pay the $38.

Rather, I’m looking forward to watching the biggest social network as it grows and matures in the coming months and years. The “DealBook” writers comment:

The question is whether the company’s management will make it work.

Facebook, in many ways, is like a mining company sitting on valuable deposits that are hard to dig up and refine. At a market value of $104 billion, investors believe Facebook is sitting on gold. But the share price could tumble at any sign that Facebook’s management can’t unearth it.

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

The public markets’ competitor

May 11, 2012

Q: Do you ever wish you were publicly traded?

A: Oh God, no. I have the greatest job in the world, because I work for a guy who runs the company for the next 20 years, not the next 90 days. It’s tough being a public company, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

 –  Steve Feilmeier, executive VP & CFO
Koch Industries, Inc.

As investor relations people, we rub elbows mostly with publicly traded companies. We think about how to get our message out to the capital markets in competition with other public companies, especially our peers within narrow industry sectors.

But a whole other class of competitors exists in a parallel universe – competitors for capital and, in our businesses, for customers. Maybe we ought to pay attention.

What started me thinking was Steve Feilmeier, CFO of Koch Industries, who spoke this morning to the Kansas City chapter of Association for Corporate Growth. Known to outsiders mostly for media attention in political controversies, on the business side Koch is a $125 billion company with 67,000 employees – the No. 2 privately held business in America. No. 1 in profitability, Feilmeier hastens to add.

Right at the start, Feilmeier says being privately held is a competitive advantage:

We benefit from not having to report earnings every 90 days. All of our decisions are based on, How is this going to work out in the next 10 years?

And it’s working out just fine for Koch (sounds like “coke”). The firm is doubling revenue every five or six years with a dozen operating companies in agriculture, energy and manufacturing. Although Koch doesn’t report publicly, Feilmeier makes it clear those businesses are delivering even better growth in EBITDA (slides here).

An example of Koch’s presence: AngelSoft, its toilet tissue brand, is the No. 1 SKU in Walmart stores. No. 1. Feilmeier says 60 truckloads a day leave Koch’s Georgia-Pacific subsidiary loaded just with AngelSoft four-packs bound for Walmarts.

The ongoing shift in institutional investor preferences among asset classes is the other thing that got me thinking. I keep hearing about pension funds, endowments and real people putting more money into alternative investments – capital that isn’t flowing to publicly held companies represented by IR pros.

Consider these stats: In 2001 U.S. pension funds held 65% of assets in equities, but that dropped to 44% by 2011, according to the Towers Watson Global Pension Assets Study 2012. in those 10 years, the “Other” category in asset allocation – real estate, private equity and hedge funds – quintupled from 5% to 25%. Apply those changes to $16 trillion in U.S. pension assets and you’re talking real money.

Without getting in over my head further on macro views of the capital markets, my point is that public companies ought to think strategically about their investors. Institutions and individuals don’t have to invest in any particular public company. They might even flee the stock market, with some of their funds, for “alternatives.”

And this brings me back to Koch. Feilmeier’s description of why Koch keeps growing at the top line – and especially the bottom line – holds lessons that public companies and IR people might take to heart. A few interesting ideas:

  • Do investors see management-by-quarterly-numbers, or something like Koch’s “patient & disciplined” creation of wealth? How do we discuss performance?
  • Can we demonstrate how our incentive pay turns managers into entrepreneurs, who get paid when they deliver (and not when they don’t)?
  • Do we have real accountability? Koch doesn’t believe in subsidizing any of its businesses, so operating execs are responsible for balance sheets and P&Ls.
  • How do we make decisions? Koch demands rigorous comparison of every capital project with alternatives – will this investment deliver the best return?

Koch, of course, is a giant company. There are well-managed and poorly managed firms of every size in both the public and private arenas. But the principles Feilmeier discussed are common private-equity approaches to driving performance.

Private vs. public is a common debate among CEOs and finance folks. Some private companies long for public status – and a fortunate few make it through the IPO process to get listed. On the other hand some micro-cap and even mid-cap public companies wish they were private, to escape the hassles of quarterly reporting.

Whether public or private, maybe we need to get back to basics of running companies by rigorous disciplines of wealth creation. And public companies need to communicate how those disciplines create real shareholder value.

What do you think?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Facebook IPO: Should we “Like” it?

February 5, 2012

Yes, I know, investor relations people should be thrilled to see life returning to the IPO market in 2012 – and here comes Facebook, the biggest Internet IPO of all, to stir up interest in public markets. But I’m wavering on whether to click “Like” or “Not-so-much.”

I can’t help feeling that all the hoopla around the social media giant’s pending public-company status may be a sign of a frothy top in the stock market. I hope not – and I do wish Facebook success in its IPO. It’s a wonderful growth story.

The stock market has had a good run recently, despite some nervous days. The S&P 500 is up 110% since about this time in 2009. The Nasdaq Composite has reached a level it hasn’t seen since 2000, not the top of the dot-com bubble but the time when prices were still deflating. And the market may keep rising for now.

Two things bother me a bit about the Facebook IPO:

Valuation. The prices being bantered about seem a little unhinged from reality. Andrew Bary’s commentary this weekend in Barron’s is interesting:

The best businesses can be poor investments, if you pay the wrong price. That’s worth considering as Facebook readies the most closely watched initial public offering in years—a deal that could value the seven-year-old company at $100 billion. …

Assume Facebook comes public at around $40, a slight premium to its private-market price. That would value the company at $92 billion, based on 2.3 billion shares outstanding. At $40, Facebook would trade for 93 times trailing earnings and 25 times 2011 revenue of $3.7 billion. … If Facebook’s profit doubles in 2012, topping the 65% gain in 2011, it would earn 86 cents and trade for nearly 50 times earnings.

The FB offering brings back “eyeballs” as a major performance metric – in this case, Facebook’s 845 million users and the assumption that there simply must be ways to make lots and lots of money off of all those eyeballs.

Exuberance. That gee-whiz enthusiasm, built on a rising market and a technology so popular grandmas are using it to follow the kids’ activities online, is just a little scary. The New York Times‘ Jeff Sommer commented this weekend:

THE financial system may not be in great shape, but why dwell on it? Stocks are rising and I.P.O. euphoria is in the air. … Greed in the market is rising, and for some seasoned investors, there is an uneasy sense they’ve read this script before.

“It’s like we’re finally emerging from nuclear winter for I.P.O.’s but we’ve forgotten our history,” said Harold Bradley, chief investment officer for the Kauffman Foundation and a former executive with the American Century mutual funds. “If we don’t start paying attention, we’ll be making the same stupid mistakes all over again.”

If the stock market teaches anything, it is to keep historical perspective, watch the broader context of the economy and markets, and not bet too much on an upward-sloping line you can draw through the past couple of years’ performance.

Good news for investors is that Facebook’s S-1 filing reports five years of rapidly rising revenues and three years of real earnings, also fast-growing. So this isn’t an “idea on a cocktail napkin” IPO from 1999. But neither is it J&J or Procter & Gamble.

If I were the IRO for Facebook, I would be emphasizing three messages to investors:

  1. Revenue and earnings. We have ’em, and here’s why they are sustainable. Investors should understand the varied revenue streams and their profitability. The IR story is about financial returns, not the social mission.
  2. Value for customers. Not the 845 million – users are essential but aren’t the ones who pay Facebook. The business is selling access to FB’s users to advertisers, application developers and the like. How much value does Facebook deliver to these customers – now and over the next few years?
  3. Durability. Investors must be concerned about what happens if Facebook’s “cool factor” wears off and users start taking photos and events and friends to newer, cooler platforms. Facebook needs to communicate its strategies for sustaining the dominant position in social media.

A friend tells me his worst investment decision ever was Apple: He bought AAPL at $15 a share and sold when it hit $35 – and he’s been kicking himself all the way up to $450. I must admit my investing instincts run in that same vein. Apple is a great example of “cool” staying cool – for consumers and shareholders. So Facebook may soar in its IPO – and continue to fly in the years to come.

What are your thoughts on the Facebook IPO?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Shareholders & ‘the ADD society’

October 14, 2011

Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times M&A columnist, CNBC “Squawk Box” co-host and author of Too Big to Fail, says we’re kidding ourselves when we say we want corporate leaders to think long-term. The problem, he says, is all of us.

“We are the ultimate ADD society,” Sorkin said today in a speech to the Association for Corporate Growth Kansas City chapter. Patience is nowhere to be found, and that goes for the stock market and demands it places on managements, he said:

We keep saying we want more shareholder democracy because we want executives to think long-term. The problem is not that the people in power are short-termists, it’s that we are short-term thinkers.

As Exhibit A, Sorkin cited the statistic that the average shareholder holds onto a stock for only 2.8 months. Less than one quarter. Of course, high-frequency automated trading turns stocks over in milliseconds, and multiple times every day. But even individual investors can be fast-moving and fickle:

I would love to find a way to get our country back to being an investing society, not a trading society.

Sorkin acknowledged there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon. (Coverage of the rest of what Sorkin had to say is here or here.)

The investor relations person in search of a patient investor, in this environment, is something like a mythical but tragic hero. Solutions, anyone?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Five stages of grief

September 15, 2011

I hate to go all morose and contrarian on another “up” day in the markets, but …

Jerome Booth, research director of London-based emerging markets specialist Ashmore Investment Management, makes an interesting point in a Sept. 14 Financial Times column. He posits that global markets are moving, slogging really, through the classic five stages of grief. When we lose a loved one, we follow a pattern described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as the five-step model of grief: denial … anger … bargaining … depression … and, finally, acceptance.

Booth applies this to global markets.

As investor relations people making our rounds with investors, we might probe what stage the patient is in, on any particular day, before launching into our story.

What has died, Booth writes, is our complacence in using debt to meet all needs:

Western Europe and the US now face years of painful deleveraging. The loss they feel is the death of the levered model enabling them to live beyond their means, plus a loss of prestige as their economic models have failed.

As an EM guy, Booth says we’ll have to adjust to kowtowing a bit to emerging markets. In the West right now, he writes, we’re in denial:

When faced with a truly awful prospect we explore and then cling to any theory or hope that reality may be different. Even where political leaders understand the immensity of their loss, the denial of their electorates constrains their action.

There are examples of anger – riots in Greece and other nations over economics. And of bargaining to delay unpleasant consequences or sweep them under the rug. Still ahead, perhaps, is the loss of hope a patient feels as depression. And we haven’t seen many signs yet that our leaders – or we the people – have moved on to acceptance of realities so we can deal with what needs to be done.

All this is very global and “macro,” but let’s think about how it applies to IR messages about the businesses we speak for:

  • Above all, are we helping our management teams to avoid living in denial?
  • In offering forward-looking views to investors, do we spell out assumptions on the economic factors that drive our particular businesses?
  • Do we explain how we plan to perform if the economy stays weak for a long time, vs. signing onto consensus hopes for recovery in H2, or H1 2012, or  … ?
  • When our stock is beaten-down, do we listen to see if the investor on the line is in the anger stage or depression – or maybe in a place to hear reality and look forward to ways out of the doldrums?
  • Do we deal with debt and balance sheet metrics, including strategies for managing the balance sheet, in a way that helps investors understand?

Just a handful of thought-starters. I’m not arguing where investors’ sentiment should be – just saying IR people need to pay attention to where it is.

Mainly, I appreciate Booth’s wry insight into the psychology of today’s happy-nervous-elated-terrified-optimistic-not so sure-ever mercurial stock market. I’d love to hear your reactions.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

New IR tactic? Michelle Obama …

October 22, 2010

Well, there it is, in the pages of the Harvard Business Review for November 2010: Finance prof David Yermack of NYU reports in “Vision Statement: How This First Lady Moves Markets” that Michelle Obama’s choice of outfits generates “abnormal returns” for stocks of publicly traded companies behind the fashion brands.

Who’d have thought the First Lady might become a tool for investor relations?

Yermack reports on 189 public appearances by Obama – FLOTUS, not POTUS – in which she wore 245 items of apparel with recognizable brands of 29 public companies. For those 29 companies, her wardrobe choices generated a total value of $2.7 billion, Yermack says. You read it right: $2.7 billion, with a B.

When the First Lady jetted off on a one-week tour of Europe in March-April 2009, for example, her fashion choices were much in the media – and Yermack calculates the stocks of fashion and retail companies whose clothes she wore rose an average of 16.3%, beating the S&P 500 gain of 6.1%. For 18 major appearances, the cumulative abnormal return averaged 2.3%, he says.

A hedge fund could build a trading strategy on this First Lady Fashion Anomaly. The NYU Finance prof observes:

The stock price gains persist days after the outfit is worn and in some cases even trend slightly higher three weeks later. Some companies that sell clothes that Obama frequently wears, such as Saks, have realized long-term gains. Her husband’s approval rating appears to have no effect on the returns.

This is about impact on revenue (and perhaps investors’ perceptions), not some kind of fashion voodoo like the stock market hemline indicator. And her impact exceeds that of other celebrities or models, Yermack says. He explains it this way:

The unparalleled robustness of the Michelle Obama effect results from the confluence of three factors: her personal interest in fashion, recognized by consumers as authentic; her position as First Lady and the intangible value it confers; and the power of the social internet and e-commerce. Descriptions and images of what she’s wearing spread across the social internet in near-real time, and consumers can buy these fashions almost instantly online.

So figure out how to get your product on the First Lady, preferably for a high-profile event like a state dinner or tour of world capitals. IR needs to be creative!

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.