Research analysts may avoid criticizing companies they cover due to the need to maintain a positive working relationship
Another important point to consider is that analysts generally benefit from having a positive working relationship with the executive management and investor-relations teams of their research subjects.
Analysts rely on corporate management teams to provide more specific and in-depth information on company performance that is not otherwise publicly provided.
Brokers also provide value to investors by providing seminars and one-on-one meetings that are attended by those executive teams, so a strong roster of presenters at conferences can be dependent on the relationships built by the research teams.
I’ve witnessed the negative impact of a souring relationship:
One of the tech analysts at a company I worked for was covering a small-cap stock and built up a good relationship with both the corporate management team and the investor relations person who worked with them. Being a small company, this visibility was valuable to the research subject.
Poor results one quarter were downplayed by management as a temporary speed bump, but the analyst had concerns that these were longer-term problems.
The executive team was upset when the subsequent report negatively portrayed the recent events, and soon thereafter withdrew from an upcoming conference our research firm hosted. The analyst’s bonus compensation suffered as a result as well.
Obviously, this all has very serious implications.
Sell-side analysts tend to produce reports that portray their subjects favorably, and they are more likely to set attainable expectations. It also means that analysts may hesitate to downgrade a company’s stock. This is especially true when poor executive management would be the primary culprit causing a downgrade. All of this may help explain why EPS estimates are disproportionately bullish (see chart 2).
Research analysts may avoid making contrarian calls due to the need to maintain good reviews and a trusted reputation.
Equity research reports are influenced by the means by which analyst quality is measured. Analysts compete with peers at rival banks.
Taking a contrarian stand that results in bad recommendations could genuinely harm an analyst’s compensation and career prospects. These mechanisms create a herd-like mentality.
This can be extremely detrimental if it goes unnoticed or unaddressed by research consumers. These are precisely the sorts of circumstances that fuel bubbles. It’s hard to look especially foolish if everyone else looks foolish too.
Independent equity research may be sensationalized due to the need to stand out.
Research produced by independent firms, which substantially derive all revenues from the sale of research and do not maintain a brokerage business, is not meant to motivate trading.
This eliminates some of the conflicts of interest inherent in the sell-side banks, putting extra emphasis on accuracy. However, independent and boutique analysts are tasked with creating income by selling something that’s been largely commoditized, and they compete with banks that have vast resources.
To survive, they have to offer something specialized or contrarian. Their philosophy must radically depart from the herd. They have to claim special industry knowledge through independent channels, or they must cover stocks that are largely uncovered by the larger powers in the research space.
This creates the incentive for sensationalized research that can attract attention amongst the sea of competing reports.
As we have seen, there are important facets of the equity research profession that often lead to skewed incentive mechanisms, and may ultimately compromise the quality of research being done.
To be fair, the practice of making complex and precise forecasts is necessarily flawed by the requirement to make assertions about future conditions, which by definition are unknowns.
Nevertheless, whilst this might be acceptable if the errors appeared random and with a predictable margin of error, this is not the case.
According to Factset research, consensus 12-month forward EPS estimates for S&P constituents were about 10 percent higher than the actual figures for the years 1997-2011. These numbers are skewed by large misses, and the median error is only 5.5 percent, but several important conclusions can be drawn:
- Analysts tend to be too bullish. In 10 of those 15 years, consensus estimates were higher than the reported figures.
- Analysts were especially bad at navigating recession periods, overcooking their numbers by 36 percent in 2001 and 53 percent in 2008. The error is less extreme for years with rapid EPS growth. Forecasts only lagged actual results by eight percent in 2010, indicating asymmetric tendencies to misforecast earnings.
How can you avoid equity research pitfalls?
There are several ways that consumers of research reports can judge the validity and quality of such reports,in light of what’s been discussed above.
Analyst credentials are an obvious method for vetting quality. CFA designations don’t necessarily guarantee quality, but it indicates a baseline level of competency.
Research produced by reputable banks ensures that it was created and reviewed by a team of professionals with impressive resumes and highly competitive skills. Likewise, veterans of big banks who leave to start an independent shop have been implicitly endorsed by the HR departments of their former employers.
Producers can also be distinguished by specialized backgrounds, for example former doctors turned healthcare analysts or engineers weighing in on industrial/energy stocks. If the analyst has been recognized in financial media, it usually indicates extremely high quality.
Analyst Track Record
Investors can also look at historical analyst recommendations and forecasts to determine their credibility.
Institutional Investor provides a service that tracks analyst performance, and there are similar resources available, especially for investors with deep pockets.
Fintech startups, such as Estimize, actually focus on attracting and monitoring analyst recommendations to identify the most talented forecasters.
However, while third-parties and financial media offer helpful ranking systems based on earnings forecasts or performance of analyst recommendations, these tend to put a lot of emphasis on short-term accuracy. This might therefore be less useful for consumers with a long-term approach or emphasis on navigating black swans.
Investors should consider these factors and look for red flags that an analyst is hesitant to turn bearish. These could include shifting base assumptions to maintain growth forecasts and target prices, suddenly shifting emphasis away from the short-term to the long-term outlook, or perhaps an apparent disconnect between the material presented in the article and the analyst’s conclusions.
Understanding the Context
Investors should also consider context.
Some stocks simply don’t lend themselves to reliable research. They might have volatile financial results, an unproven business model, untrustworthy management, or limited operating history, all of which can lead to wide margins of error for earnings growth and intrinsic value.
The business cycle’s phase is also extremely important. Research shows that forecasts are less reliable in downturns, but investors are also more likely to rely most heavily on research during these times. Failure to recognize these issues can severely limit one’s ability to glean full value from research.
Research consumers should also make sure they know their own investment goals and be mindful about how these differ from those implied by research reports. A temporal mismatch or disconnect in risk aversion could completely alter the applicability of reports.
Consume a lot of research, and hold analysts accountable
For those fund managers wishing for a more reliable research product, the most effective move is to vote with your wallets, and buy reports from the most accurate and conflict-free sources.
It might be expensive to source research from multiple sources, but there’s value in diversifying the viewpoints to which you are exposed.
It’s unlikely that you will move on from low-quality research if that’s all you are reading.
Additionally, consuming a large volume of research from different sources helps forge a meta perspective, allowing investors to identify and overcome worrisome trends in research.
Equity Research Continues to be Useful, but Should be Consumed Thoughtfully
The equity research industry has undergone profound changes in recent years, due to regulatory changes, the emergence of independent research shops, as well as more automated methods of analyzing public company performance.
At the same time, smart investors are looking at broader sets of investments and taking a more active approach to research. This is facilitated by the increasing quantity of publicly available information on listed companies.
Nevertheless, good research continues to be extremely valuable.
It lets you manage a wider pipeline of investment opportunities and be more efficient.
An informed and thoughtful approach can enhance the value of research reports for investors, so asset managers can better serve clients (and their own bottom lines) by considering the content above.
Research consumers need to be wary of predictable errors, analyst incentives, conflicts of interest, and the prevalence of herd-like mentality.
If you can adjust your interpretation of research along these lines, then you can focus on the most valuable aspects of research, namely idea generation, corporate access, and delegation of time-consuming activities.