June 22, 2010

IROs, Own Your Market Structure

“The CFO wants to know why our stock is down when it should be up.”

That’s the essence of conversations I had yesterday with two investor-relations officers. It’s tempting to suggest asking Al Gore about why things that should be up are instead down. But that’s an old joke. And it won’t make you more valuable in the IR chair.

What will enhance your value is knowing what to tell the CFO and how best to do it. Whether you provide a daily, weekly or quarterly update to management about factors behind your stock price, you should incorporate comments on your market structure. Not just the old conventional stuff.

Think of market structure this way. If you operated a retail store, and each week you summarized the state of things in your store for headquarters, you’d talk about financial performance, products moving off shelves, the traffic driving sales, and trends. Something like that, anyway.

Same with your stock’s “market structure.” There’s only one product, your shares. But otherwise, you’re assessing behaviors and measuring them to understand how your store serves its market. If you measure only one behavior or one group of customers, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s happening, and it’s bound to lead to head-scratching and questions like, “How come our stock is down when it should be up?”

What do you tell your management team about market structure? Well, say you’re providing a weekly brief on trading activity. First define your metrics – the things you’ll track. For a weekly report, you don’t want to bury them in mind-numbing data. You want a small set of consistent measures. Begin with things like the percentage premium or discount in your closing price for the week versus the trailing 20-day average price. Volume versus 20-day average. Daily average trades and shares per trade, and daily dollar flow – that is, average daily price multiplied by average daily volume.

In time, you can provide a forward-looking expectation from data – but you must accumulate metrics first. As your management team becomes accustomed to market structure information, move to simpler but more compelling information, derived from your data: What’s setting our price? What do investors think? What are traders and risk managers doing, as opposed to what investors think? What’s likely to happen to our price next? These conclusions are extrapolated from data.

Before you know it, you’ll own your market structure. You’ll be the expert on matters related to your trading. This is the first step in a larger process of making a home for market structure in the IR department just like corporate governance has become an IR bailiwick.

Why must you own your market structure? Because roughly 90% of volume today BEHAVES either according to market risk or in response to speculative opportunity, and only a small amount is rational, or seeking long-term returns. If IR spends 90% of its effort on 10% of the market, well, at least something should be known about the rest. Or else, how can you draw accurate conclusions about stock performance, or even investor sentiment?

It’s up to IR to set that agenda and drag management kicking and screaming into the 21st century of how trading markets work.

To conclude, a challenge for you IR readers: Look up the DXY – the dollar index futures contract – and compare it to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, over, say, the past year, or the three months around the May 6 Flash Crash. What does it show you?

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