Investment Research: To Free or Not to Free?

Last week we published a blog in which we attempted to get to grips with some of the important questions that remain around the unbundling of commission for corporate access and trade execution. A Bloomberg articlethat came out around the same time entitled “Wall Street cracks down on free sharing of analyst notes” leads us nicely to the remaining piece of the unbundling puzzle, namely investment research.

The main objectives of the ongoing regulatory scrutiny of both research and corporate access are to eliminate conflicts of interest, increase market transparency and level the playing field. To this end, the revised rules on corporate access are fairly simple: if fund managers want their broker to put them in front of companies, they must pay for it out of their own, and not their clients’ pockets.

Research looks to be heading down a similar path. If, as expected, regulators demand that investors who wish to continue benefiting from broker research must pay an upfront, out-of-pocket yearly fee (which is not linked to trading volume or value), there are 4 possible outcomes:

  1. Brokers will continue to fund research as a loss leader

  2. Fund managers will fund research

  3. Companies will fund research

  4. Investors increasingly conduct and rely on their own research (in 2014 in-house buy-side research increased by 42%)

In reality, all of these things may happen to some extent. In 2000 the US SEC passed Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD) requiring publicly traded companies to disclose material information to all investors at the same time, meaning in theory analysts are free to conduct and disseminate research to whomever they please. In the case of large companies, banks will almost certainly continue to pay as they chase business from companies as well as from investors. But this does raise certain issues.

As the Bloomberg article outlines, the main problem with expecting fund managers to pay for research themselves (besides the fact that they have been passing all costs on to their own clients for years) is that research reports are widely available online or from colleagues or contacts in the industry, free of charge. The sell-side switch away from “blasting out everything it produces” will take time, although it seems that technology will play an important role in restricting access and tracking readership.

One of ESMA’s criticisms of the current model is that buy-side firms are using their clients’ money to pay for research as part of an existing commission arrangement (meaning they basically get the service for free), effectively shutting independent providers out of the market. The regulatory amendments and the likely collapse of the current model should open the door wider for independent research providers, including some of those we highlighted in our previous blog with innovative models such as Stockviewsand SeekingAlpha.

The other likely consequence of limited distribution of research reports will be for analysts to adopt a more tailored, targeted approach. This could be crucial for an industry which is often slow to adopt new practices and technology. It is often the cheaper, more agile, independent providers who are quickest and best placed to respond to technology-oriented opportunities in the market, although as the article highlights, it seems that the big banks are already starting to cotton on to the competitive benefits of this approach.

What impact will this have on company IR teams?

A more specialised, less generic focus will surely bode well for companies across the board but perhaps especially for SMEs and those in emerging markets, who have historically tended to be lost in the sea of free blue chip research reports. Former NIRI national board chair Brad Allen, writing for IR Magazine, advises company IROs of all shapes and sizes to strive to be “the go-to source not just on your company but also on your industry”, rather than relying on analysts and databases to tell the story.

The reality is that while the unbundling of corporate access and research services remains a hot topic in Europe and beyond, it will be a while before legislation is formalised now that MiFID II itself has been delayed. Even in the UK there is a definite air of ‘business as usual’ as brokers, analysts and fund managers wait to see who flinches first.

In the meantime, IROs would surely do well to heed Allen’s advice. In emerging markets especially, a proactive and innovative, technology-friendly approach will help them to address the far more immediate concern of an increasingly jittery investment community. Good IR alone will probably not be enough to stem the current flow of capital out of EMs, but companies who tackle this issue head on now will be well placed to capitalise when the tide finally turns.