September 13, 2017

A Big Deal

Tim, I’m listening,” said this conference attendee, “and I’m wondering if I made the wrong career choice.” He said, “Am I going to be a compliance officer?”

We were in Boston, Karen and I, marking our wedding anniversary where the romance began: at a NIRI conference, this one on investor-relations fundamentals for newbies. I was covering market structure – the behavior of money behind price and volume – and what’s necessary to know today in IR (it wouldn’t hurt investors to know too).

It prompts reflection. The National Investor Relations Institute’s program on the fundamentals of IR that Karen and I both attended over a decade ago differed tectonically. Then, most of the money in the market was fundamental.

Companies prided themselves on closing the books fast each quarter and reporting results when peers did – or quicker.  I remember Tim Koogle hosting thousands on the Yahoo! earnings call about a week after quarter-end, the company setting a torrid pace wrapping financial results and reporting them.

Most of the money was buying results, not gambling on expectations versus outcomes. There were no high-frequency traders, no dark pools, limited derivatives arbitrage, no hint yet that passive investment using a model to track averages instead of paying humans to find better companies would be a big deal.

I’ve over these many years moved from student to faculty. I had just described the stock market today for a professional crop preparing to take IR reins, no doubt among it those who years from now will be the teachers.

I explained that the stock market possesses curious and unique characteristics. When you go to the grocery store and buy, say, a bag of spinach, you suppose the price on it is the same you’ll pay at the cash register. Imagine instead at the checkout stand the price you thought you were paying was not the same you were getting charged.

Go another step further. You had to buy it by the leaf, and someone jumped ahead of you and handed you each leaf, charging a small fee for every one.

That’s the stock market now. There is always by law a spread between the bid to buy and offer to sell, and every interaction is intermediated so regulators have a transaction trail.

I explained to the startled attendees unaware that their shares were priced this way that in my town, Denver, real estate is hot. Prices keep rising. People list houses for sale – call it the best offer to sell – and someone will offer a higher price than asked.

In the stock market today, unlike when I began in the profession, it’s against the law for anyone to bid to buy your shares for a price greater than the best offer. That’s a crossed market. Nor can the prices be the same. That’s a locked market. Verboten.

So in this market, I said, trillion of dollars have shifted from trying to find the best products in the grocery store to tracking average prices for everything. This is what indexes and exchange-traded funds do – they track the averages.

By following averages and cutting out cost associated with researching which things in the grocery store are best, money trying to be average is outperforming investors trying to buy superior products. So it’s mushroomed.

And, I said, you can’t convince the mathematical models tracking the averages to include you.  You can only influence them with governance – how you comply with all the rules burdening public companies these days, even as money is ignoring fundamental performance and choose average prices.

That’s when the question came.  See the first paragraph.

I said, “I’m glad you asked.”  Karen says I need to talk less about the problems in our profession and more about the opportunities.  Here was a chance.

“It’s the greatest time in history to be in our profession,” I said.

Here’s why. Then, we championed story, a communications job. Today IR is a true management function because money buying story is only a small part of volume. IR demands data and analytics and proactive reporting to the management and Board of Directors so they recognize that the market is driven as much by setting prices as it is by financial results.

There are $11.5 trillion of assets at Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street alone ignoring earnings calls and – importantly – the sellside.  IR courts investors and the sellside.

It’s time to expand the role beyond the message. Periods of tectonic change offer sweeping professional opportunity. Investors should think the same way: How does the market work, who succeeds in it and why, and is that helpful to our interests?

IR gets to answer that question.  It’s a big deal.  Welcome to the new IR.

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