Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Equity analysts (and their lunch breaks) force firms to look and act alike

The inclination to imitate others is part of human nature. We imitation our peers’ habits, speech, behaviour, taste in clothing and music, and so on. Top executives, making decisions on the strategies of their corporations, are no different. There is evidence from research that companies imitate each other when it comes to the choice of organizational structure, CEO remuneration, acquisition premiums, plant location, foreign market entry decisions, and so on.

As a consequence, in many industries, we end up with a large number of firms doing pretty much the same things, and in the same way. However, this inclination to imitate does not only stem from top executives’ personal propensities and uncertainties; sometimes companies are forced to do similar things and act in similar ways, even if these ways are detrimental.

Forced to act alike

For example, research by professors Benner from the University of Minnesota and Tushman from the Harvard Business School showed that the implementation of ISO9000 (a quality management system) could be detrimental to firms (because, in the long run, it killed off innovation) but even if a firm did not want to implement the system, it was often pretty much forced to do so by various external constituents.

That is because not implementing the popular practice would make a firm look “illegitimate”. As a consequence the company will be likely to get downgraded by analysts, may find it harder to find customers or financiers, and even the firm’s own employees might start to ask questions why the firm is “lagging behind” and not doing what others do. Eventually, top management may decide to implement the practice after all, even if they have doubts it is actually effective.

One powerful group of external constituents in our society who often force firms to act alike (even if it is to their detriment) are equity analysts. The influence of equity analysts in our business society is very substantial. That is because – as research has confirmed – the impact of their stock price recommendation is very real and significant. Thus, they determine the amount of financial resources available to a firm. However, their impact actually goes quite a bit further than that; because of their power to determine a company’s access to financial means, they also have a substantial influence on what sort of strategy the firm is pursuing in the first place. A good setting to illustrate this is firms’ strategic decision regarding corporate diversification and their choice of in what combination of businesses to operate.

The influence of analysts (and their lunch breaks)

In general, where in the 1960s many firms operated in a diversity of businesses, since the 1990s we have witnessed a reversal in that trend towards de-diversification. There might be good economic reasons for that – shareholders are not fond of diversification because they can diversify their stock portfolios themselves; they don’t need companies to do that for them – but sometimes it does make sense for a firm from a strategic, value-creation perspective.

For example, a company like Monsanto sort of had to operate in pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and agricultural biotechnology because their expertise bridged these different areas and therefore it was advantageous to operate in all of them. Hence, sometimes diversification might make sense. But that something makes sense from a strategy perspective doesn’t mean it makes sense in light of an analyst’s lunch break. What do analysts’ lunch breaks have to do with any of this, you might wonder? Well, it is very important for listed firms to be covered by analysts. We know from ample research that firms who receive less coverage usually trade at a significantly lower share price. Now consider this quote, from an analyst report by PaineWebber in 1999:

“The life sciences experiment is not working with respect to our analysis or in reality. Proper analysis of Monsanto requires expertise in three industries: pharmaceutical, agricultural chemicals and agricultural biotechnology. Unfortunately, on Wall Street, these separate industries are analyzed individually because of the complexity of each. At PaineWebber, collaboration among analysts brings together expertise in each area. We can attest to the challenges of making this effort pay off: just coordinating a simple thing like work schedules requires lots of effort. While we are wiling to pay the price that will make the process work, it is a process not likely to be adopted by Wall Street on a widespread basis. Therefore, Monsanto will probably have to change its structure to be more properly analyzed and valued”. (Adopted from Tod Zenger, Professor of Strategy at Washington University.)

Wait a second, you might think, did they just suggest that Monsanto should split up because it requires three (industry-specific) analysts to cover them and these three guys cannot find a mutually convenient time to meet?! Yes, I am afraid they did. Analysts prefer firms who follow their own internal division of labour and if firms do not conform to this requirement, they will downgrade them or stop covering them altogether.Along similar lines, in a large research project, Ezra Zuckerman, professor at MIT, found that firms divested businesses, split up or demerged in order to make themselves easier to understand for analysts. Those firms who, for one reason or another, comprised an unusual combination of businesses in their corporation and therefore were “more difficult to understand” for equity analysts traded at a significantly lower price.

They could try to explain their strategy at length but after a while the only thing left for them to do was to split it. Arthur Stromberg, then CEO of URS Corporation, who initiated its spin-off, declared: “I realized that analysts are like the rest of us. Give them something easy to understand, and they will go with it. [Before the spin-off,] we had made it tough for them to figure us out”. Security analysts usually specialise in one or a specific combination of industries. If a firm does not conform to that division of analyst labour, they are more difficult to understand and analyse, which is why they will trade at a lower price. It then makes sense to give in to the analysts’ whims, and focus and simplify, even if that would make you weaker in a strictly business sense.


Hence, analysts rule the (diversification) waves. And their lunch break will determine your stock price. But is this influence really beneficial for companies and society as a whole? I guess one could speculate whether the unifying influence of external constituents on firm strategy in general is a healthy thing; after all, they help both the spread of good and bad management practices.

However, it seems evident and beyond debate that the barriers erected by equity analysts for firms to follow original, contrarian strategies – because it does not suit their lunch schedule and division of labour – is less than positive. That is because such contrarian strategies that cut across different businesses are often the most innovative ones, creating most value for companies, shareholders and society as a whole. Hence, figuring out a way to restrict this detrimental influence of equity analysts seems to anyone’s benefit.