July 29, 2015

Follow the Line

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

So wrote Woody Allen for himself as Broadway Danny Rose in the eponymous 1984 film. I’m not sure what Allen meant then as I was a high-school sophomore wearing a mini-mullet. But there’s an application to IR.

Last week I had an intense exchange with an investor-relations officer new to the chair and moved over from the sellside after losing his job in research to advancing asset-allocation investment (This is Blackrock to Betterment, the translation of business strategies into squares on a Rubik’s Cube. These investors buy no research with commissions and listen to no earnings calls but track governance, meaning the biggest investors now are tuned more to rhetorical position than financial condition – I leave risk/reward ramifications to you).

Cognitive dissonance by definition is an inherent contradiction between evidence and conclusion. In Steamboat Springs it’s easy to match evidence to conclusion when watching the weather. If storms approaching from the south cross over Catamount Lake, you’re going to get showers on Mount Werner, the ski hill. Simple. No cognitive dissonance. You can see what’s happening.

But it struck me listening to this new IRO that he’d not drawn a line between his emigration from brokerage to corporate belfry. It reminded me of that lyric by Jacob Dylan, son of Bob and troubadour with the Wallflowers, who refrained plaintively how the same black line that was drawn on you was drawn on me and has drawn me in. Despite the origin of his demise on Wall Street, this IRO was certain active investors were pricing his shares. “Indexers don’t set prices,” he insisted. “They track active money.”

This view defies what we just saw from the NYSE where his shares are listed. When the exchange stopped trading for nearly half the day July 8, it was to make sure the closing cross – the ending auction setting prices for indexes and ETFs – would go off properly. The world’s greatest equity market sacrificed most of the trading day to one chronological exigency. And that’s because the most vital endeavor is tracking benchmarks – pegging the index. Getting the data right.

Follow the drawn line between diminishing sellside influence and the shift of equity research analysts to the IR chair and how the market functions. It’s drawn us all in to a 6th Avenue Heartache in a way, because what moved markets before doesn’t now, and if you suppose so, I refer you back to the definition of cognitive dissonance.

But it’s not sad! It just changes IR Best Practices – things we should all be doing. Our profession’s requisites must include comprehension of how prices are set so that the information you provide to management is accurate. Five rules:

Number One, high-frequency trading is a product of incentives paid by exchanges to fast traders to create valuable pricing data that exchanges can sell back to brokers. This is the No. 1 price-setting force (only half of intermediation is fast trading; the rest is from brokers working orders for customers).

Number Two, the buyside and sellside have spent billions over the past decade to disguise whether they’re buying or selling, so translating “block trades” into “long-only investing” doesn’t follow the money.

Number Three, the greatest force in the equity universe today is not love but asset-allocation. Blackrock and Vanguard. And they do price your shares routinely.

Number Four, more than 50% of your volume is the middle men (fast traders, brokers disguising orders) not actual investment. Factor that into your thinking.

And Number Five, there is little to no “long only” money anymore. Everybody uses a smartphone, and everybody hedges. Derivatives are a colossal factor because they represent risk-transfer and leverage and often (as yesterday in equities) price the underlying asset.

Connect the dots. Follow the money. Think. Okay, so money is no elixir and as Woody Allen said, it may be superior to poverty for financial reasons only (smile). But in the IR chair (and in politics) you should always follow it, because it’s the line of truth.

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