Wall Street Jobs Picture Improves Modestly In May

June 9th, 2014

Wall Street firms experienced a modestly improved jobs picture in May as fewer layoffs were announced due to a slowdown in the recent rightsizing trend among investment banks.  However, this does not portend a rosy outlook for the financial services industry since banks remain cautious about bringing on new staff.

May Challenger, Gray & Christmas Report

According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas’ monthly Job Cuts Report released last week, the financial services industry announced a drop in planned layoffs during May of 1,151 jobs.  This is a 72% decrease from the 4,124 planned job cuts announced in April.  However, the number of planned job cuts last month remains 390% higher than the number of layoffs announced in May of 2013.

Another piece of evidence that the jobs picture is improving on Wall Street is the fact that financial services firms have announced 41% fewer layoffs on a year-to-date basis — 20,581 layoffs so far this year compared to 35,091 during the same period in the previous year.  This suggests that the pace of right sizing in the financial services industry might finally be turning around.

Despite this improvement, planned hiring at financial services firms fell 100% in May as no new hiring was announced during the month from 350 new jobs announced in April.  In addition, the number of new May hiring plans represents a 100% drop from the meager 69 new jobs announced in May of the prior year.  This weakness is borne out by the fact that year-to-date hiring plans in the financial services industry remain weak as 54% fewer new jobs have been announced so far in 2014 when compared to the same period in 2013.

Major Industry Moves

As we warned last month, Barclays Plc’s eventually announced that it plans to slash 7,000 jobs at its investment bank between now and 2016, signaling that its effort to build a global bank has come to an end.  This is in addition to the 12,000 job cuts that the lender announced it would make in February of this year.

In May, the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC announced that it would slim down its trading operations at its Stamford CT headquarters, cutting costs and refocusing its business on its home UK market.   RBS is planning to shed 400 jobs across its US business over the next 18 months in order to prepare for new banking regulations which are expected to go into effect over the next year.

Although no job cuts have yet been announced, a number of bank analysts have warned that JP Morgan Chase, which currently employs over 250,000 worldwide, could announce massive layoffs in the next few months due to increased regulatory pressure and a squeeze on bank profits.  Some suggest that CEO Jamie Dimon could announce a new round of layoffs totaling as many as 10,000 jobs.  These analysts also surmise that Dimon may decide to throw in the towel given the extensive regulatory oversight that the industry is facing, and that JP Morgan has had to deal with in the past year.

Bullish Developments for Industry Employment

Despite the negative impact of new regulations, a few developments should be seen to be constructive for Wall Street’s near-term employment outlook.

Globally, business conditions continue to improve and corporations are holding significant cash reserves so M&A activity is likely to continue to increase, supporting increased staffing at investment banking departments.  In addition, the regulatory changes which are pressuring banks, have also boosted the hiring of compliance and risk management professionals by banks, broker-dealers, and hedge funds.

Relevance for the Research Industry

While improving, the employment outlook on Wall Street is nothing to get excited about – at least not for the research industry.  Improvements seen in firms’ cash equities business earlier this year, and a pickup in M&A activity should support existing research staffs.

However, despite a rising equity market, trading volumes were extremely weak in May.  A continuation of this slowdown, on top of the regulatory pressures that banks are facing, could keep a lid on new hiring of analysts or research sales staff.

As a result, we remain cautiously optimistic about the employment outlook in the research industry. Unfortunately, the fundamentals of the market don’t look like they will support a robust pickup in hiring anytime soon.

 

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Autonomous UK Business Surges, But…

June 4th, 2014

Autonomous Research, a UK-based independent research firm, reported that its UK business surged in the fiscal year ending March 31st to exceed £25 million for the first time.  Unfortunately, some recent developments could pose future problems for Autonomous and other successful independent research firms.

2014 Financial Results

Founded in 2009 by former Merrill Lynch bank analyst Stuart Graham, Autonomous Research reported that the revenue for its UK research business rose 19.7% to £25.6 million (approximately $43 million) in the period ended March 31st, 2014 from £21.4 mln in the prior year.

Administrative expenses rose 26.5% from £7.1 mln to £9.0 mln in the most recent twelve month period.  Consequently, the firm’s operating profit reportedly rose 15.5% to £16.5 mln ($27.7 mln) from £14.3 mln during the same period.

These results do not include the performance of Autonomous’ rather significant US business which currently employs almost two dozen staff.

Growth in Trading

Besides the robust growth seen at the firm in 2014, another interesting insight seen in Autonomous’ recent financial report is that the way buy-side clients are paying for their research is shifting.

For example, in 2013 47% of the firm’s business was paid for using CSA’s, 37% of revenue came in the form of direct equity trading, and 13% came from direct fixed-income (credit) trading. However, in 2014 the percent of clients paying for Autonomous’ research with CSA’s fell to 40%, the percentage paying by executing equity trades with the firm stayed unchanged at 37%, and the percentage paying for the firm’s research by trading with them in fixed-income securities surged to 22%.

Clearly, in 2014 Autonomous’ customers were more interested in paying for their research by trading directly with the firm rather than directing other brokers to pay them using Commission Sharing Arrangements.

Potential Impact of Regulatory Changes

Of course, the obvious question we ask ourselves after reviewing these financial results is how the FCA’s recent policy changes regarding the use of commissions to pay for corporate access and investment research might eventually impact a successful independent research firm like Autonomous.

Obviously, going forward UK asset managers will not be able to pay a research firm like Autonomous for the corporate access services it provides using client commissions (either trading or CSAs).  Instead, they will have to pay Autonomous for this service using hard dollars – a move that many asset managers will be loath to do.

In addition, we expect that the FCA’s recent policy pronouncements around the use of client commissions to pay for research will prompt most UK asset managers to become more cautious in their use of “bundled commissions” to pay for research as they will have to justify their commission spending.  In our mind this could prompt a reversal in the recent trend seen at Autonomous where a greater percentage of their revenue comes in the form of direct trading commissions.  Clients will likely use more CSAs or hard dollars to pay for the firm’s research in the future.  The real question is whether this will translate into reduced revenue for the firm.

Summary

Autonomous Research’s UK operations posted an extremely bullish financial report for the twelve months that ended March 31st, 2014 reflecting the continued success that the firm has been able to experience since its founding five years ago.

Unfortunately, recent regulatory developments in the UK could create headwinds for an independent research firm like Autonomous which has historically been able to produce a highly desirable research product, and which has built the infrastructure to enable clients to pay for their research the way they preferred.

The management team at Autonomous Research (and at most other investment research firms) will need to start reevaluating their business models and decide how best to grow their research businesses given the new rules of the game.

 

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New UK Regulation Has Big Impact

June 2nd, 2014

Today marks the UK deadline for the ban on the payment of corporate access with client commissions and a broader set of new commission requirements.  Asset managers have been scrambling to comply with new regulatory language requiring a more thorough valuation of research, in addition to other changes.  Investment banks, after their initial shock, have been revamping their corporate access services.  Meanwhile the UK regulator threatens more actions later this year.

Short deadline

When the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) published its new guidance on research commissions it set a deadline giving less than a month for implementation with the haughty statement “We believe firms that are already compliant with our existing rules and have sufficient systems and controls to demonstrate compliance should not need to make material systems changes under the amended provisions.”

The reality is that even the most diligent asset managers were blindsided by the extensive new provisions requiring asset managers to proactively value research services, including bundled research from investment banks.

Additional requirements

Under the new guidance, investment managers are encouraged to perform “fact-based analysis” to price research services. This includes comparing unpriced bundled services to priced services such as independent research and/or estimating the cost to internally perform the service.

The FCA also ‘reminded’ asset managers of the duty under general regulatory provisions to keep commission management records, ‘clarified’ the definition of research by requiring that it be substantive, and nixed corporate access as research.

A mad scramble

Asset managers are grappling with questions such as whether every piece of research needs to be ‘substantive’ or whether is sufficient if the overall service is ‘substantive’.  One asset manager has reportedly implemented a regime to label whether each piece of research is substantive or not.

Many asset managers are reviewing all their research services to ensure that they meet the new ‘clarified’ definition of research.  We are told that some international long-only firms are planning to implement the UK guidelines globally.  Large European-based asset managers are also querying whether to adopt the UK guidelines.

No wonder then that the buy-side trade association, the Investment Management Association (IMA), is reportedly miffed, particularly after its close collaboration with the FCA during the rule making process.

Corporate access

The IMA’s annoyance pales in comparison to the shock experienced by the investment banks, which expected the FCA to soften its final rules in response to numerous meetings and comment letters.  Instead, the FCA tightened the final provisions further, adding language which pressures banks to begin pricing their research services.

For corporate access, the bank response is damage control.  All research providers have been bombarded with client letters requesting that if they are charging for corporate access, stop doing so.  The investment banks still intend to offer corporate access, since it is an important part of relationships with issuers.  However, the direct costs will need to come down, which will mean downsizing teams dedicated to UK corporate access.

Pricing problems

Even so, there is a gaping bid/ask spread between what banks expect to be paid and what asset managers are willing to pay out their own pockets.  As we have reported in the past, the going rate in the US for management access is around $4,500 for access during a conference and $7,500 to $10,000 for non-deal roadshows.  That varies with the scarcity of the senior management, and, as the Financial Times has breathlessly reported in the past, it can go as high as $20,000 for hard-to-get executives.

UK asset managers have a different perspective now that the money comes out their pockets.  The values they are offering are reportedly an order of magnitude less than what the banks expect.  One asset manager is said to be sending out checks for £100 after each meeting to prove to regulators it is paying out of its own pocket.  The checks barely cover the cab fare.

Innovation

Some banks have put a moratorium on UK corporate access, shepherding their corporate clients to other domiciles.  Others are exploring workarounds.  Unlike corporate access, conferences appear to meet the ‘substantive’ guidelines (as we have noted, the average fee for conference participation in the US is $35,000.)  Banks are organizing virtual conferences with 5-6 issuers and around 15 investors, with analysts acting as moderators.

As we suggested earlier, technology will also play a role.   Video conferencing reduces the costs for all involved, as well as allowing UK managers to piggyback on meetings organized by colleagues in other domiciles.  Technology also offers the possibility to dis-intermediate the banks altogether, although we don’t expect to see this happen anytime soon.

Threats

The FCA has made it clear that it may take further steps to reduce or eliminate the ability to pay for research with client commissions.  It is reportedly waiting until November to release the results of its recently completed thematic review of commission practices, to give time to monitor asset manager compliance with its new guidelines.

Asset managers are also concerned with regulatory fallout from MiFID II, which is currently addressing provisions which will impact research commissions.  The FCA is a party to those negotiations.

Conclusion

The new FCA guidelines are much more than a mere clarification, and are causing turmoil for asset managers and investment banks.  The FCA expects research commissions to decline on the order of £500 million (US$800 million) which is its estimate of corporate access spending by UK managers.  We doubt spending will shrink that much, but the FCA’s focus on the bottom line will keep pressure on asset managers to better manage their research budgets.

Corporate access will continue, albeit in truncated or virtual forms.  Similarly, investment banks will continue to offer waterfront research coverage.  There may be more pricing transparency on the order of service levels (platinum, gold, etc.) with ample opportunity for negotiation on what is included in each level of service.

Some observers expect independent research firms to benefit from the changes.  It is true that independent research is a useful benchmark as asset managers try to value bundled research.  And it is also true that the cost of independent research is frequently an order of magnitude less than what investment banks are typically paid.

Independent research firms also know, however, that uncertainty and confusion are not ideal sales environments.  And then there is the ongoing fear of further regulatory restrictions which may impact all research firms, independent or not.  The frenetic scramble to comply with PS 14/7 may only be a start of a long slog for UK asset managers.

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A Kinder Gentler Anonymous Analytics

May 28th, 2014

Hacktivist-affiliated Anonymous Analytics just released a new research report: a high conviction buy recommendation on Demand Media (DMD). In a statement made to Integrity Research, Anonymous Analytics says it is “trying to find our boundaries” as it tests whether the Muddy Waters business model of profiting from positions taken before a report’s release works as well for long positions as it does for shorts.

Demand Media

Demand Media is an under-followed small cap stock with a current market value of $400 million.  According to Thomson Reuters First Call, it is followed by 6 sell-side brokers, and the average rating is ‘Hold’.  Analysts following DMD have generally given up on the stock since Google changed its search algorithm to thwart DMD’s initial strategy of generating low-cost (and low-quality) content geared to gaining high search rankings.

Anonymous Analytics argues Wall Street is overlooking improvements in DMD’s fundamentals and external catalysts to growth.  Consistent with its past reports, the new 34-page analysis is well-researched and thorough.  It makes the case that DMD will profit from a new ICANN program to expand domain name extensions and cites web statistics suggesting that DMD has turned around its content strategy in the wake of Google’s smackdown.  

Muddy Waters Business Model

Taking a position in a stock before you issue a report is a business model adopted by a handful of firms, Muddy Waters perhaps being the best known.  However the model should rightly be called the Andrew Left business model, since the founder of Citron Research (formerly StockLemon.com) pioneered the approach in 2001.

The model can be lucrative.  Former Muddy Waters contributor Jon Carnes, who subsequently started his own website www.AlfredLittle.com, has claimed that he and his contributors made about $10 million shorting Chinese companies.

The downside is increased risk of lawsuits and regulatory actions.  Canadian regulators accused Carnes of producing a fraudulent report on Silvercorp Metals Inc. (SVM) and one of Carnes’ researchers was jailed by Chinese authorities (who allegedly were assisted in their investigations by Silvercorp).  Andrew Left of Citron has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and was disbarred for three years by the National Futures Association for allegedly having made ‘false and misleading statements’.

But then again, any short-oriented researcher risks the legal wrath of its subjects, as Gradient Analytics (née Camelback Research) found when sued by Overstock and Biovail.

Shorts v. Longs

According to its disclaimer, Anonymous Analytics itself holds no direct or indirect interest or position in Demand Media.  The disclaimer also says:

“However, you should assume that certain contributors to this report, as well as their members, partners, affiliates, colleagues, employees, consultants, muppets clients and investors, as well as our clients have a long position in the stock or debt of Demand Media (“DMD” or “the Company”) and/or options of the stock, and therefore stand to gain substantially in the event that the price of the stock increases.”

As Anonymous Analytics suggested in a statement made to Integrity Research “This report is more of an experiment to see if anyone cares about long ideas coming from us.”  Short ideas are attention-grabbing and controversial, making them more media-friendly.  Good news is an oxymoron, hence, other than this obscure blog, you are unlikely to see much written about its DMD call.

Similarly, the market impact on DMD is likely to be more muted.  DMD closed up 2.8% after Anonymous Analytics’ report was released.  In contrast, short calls often have immediate double-digit impacts.

In its statement to Integrity, Anonymous Analytics indicated that short ideas are stressful: “Most people don’t appreciate the time, resources and emotional fatigue that go into a fraud report. If you’re calling a company out as a fraud, you need to come correct – there is no room for error. It’s challenging and there are lulz to be had, but the pressure can also be soul-sucking.”

Acquiring Information through Unconventional Means

We also asked Anonymous Analytics about its tagline, inquiring about the ‘unconventional means’ it uses to acquire information.  Anonymous Analytics insists in its disclaimer that all information used in its reports is publicly available.  It defines ‘unconventional means’ as more thorough due diligence than is typically practiced by Wall Street analysts:

“So, Sino-forest was taken down entirely on public information. But just because something is legally defined as public information does not mean it’s public knowledge or it’s easy to access.   SAIC filings, web traffic, daily number of trucks leaving a manufacturing plant –technically this is all public info, but very few people can or have the ability to get it and/or interpret the data in a meaningful way. That’s the type of stuff we specialize in, and it’s very different from the traditional sell-side research we’ve all come to know and love.”

Conclusion

Investment research is a tough business, largely subsidized by client commissions.  It is hard to differentiate your research from the crowd, hard to get in front of clients, hard to get paid.  For a handful of research firms, the so-called Muddy Waters business model is a viable option, albeit fraught with legal risks.

What is interesting is the application of this model to long ideas: lower legal risk but will the rewards be there?  If so, the business model may be one more approach to filling the void in small cap stock coverage we discussed yesterday.

Nevertheless, don’t assume Anonymous Analytics has given up on short ideas.  Their last words to us: “But don’t worry – we still got a lot of frauds left to blow up.”

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On The Other Hand: A Growing Research Void

May 27th, 2014

In recent weeks we have written a few articles about the improving outlook for cash equities and the equity research business.  And while the research business has clearly been on the mend in the past few quarters, some trends – like a growing void in small cap research coverage – suggest that the underlying health of the research industry may not be so robust.

Weak Market Conditions & Regulatory Changes

The five years between 2007 and 20012 were not been banner years for the cash equities and the equity research businesses.  Most financial market participants agree that the equity commission pie shrunk 30% to 50% over this period.  While Integrity’s estimate for the drop in global equity commissions over this time frame is not quite so sharp, we estimate that buy-side spending on global equity research dipped 20% during the same period.

As we have mentioned in recent articles, equity commissions have rebounded higher over the past 6 months.  Despite this improvement, there are some storm clouds on the horizon which don’t bode well for the business – at least in the UK and Europe.

The FCA’s announcement earlier this month that “investment managers should use client dealing commission only to pay for substantive research or costs related to executing trades” will prohibit UK asset managers from using client commissions to pay for management access.  Some believe that a similar regulation may also be adopted in Europe.

One consultant, Richard Phillipson of Investit, suggests that this could reduce the amount that UK asset managers pay for investment bank research by 50%, as a considerable amount of the commission pie is currently spent to pay banks for corporate access.

Impact on Capital Markets

The negative impact of these developments has been significant over the past few years, and could continue to hamper the capital markets in the future.  One obvious effect of the weakness in the equity commissions from 2007 to 2012 has been a deep cut in the number of equity analysts employed by sell-side firms.  Some suggest that the number of equity analysts actually fell by 50% during this period.

The consequence of these layoffs has been a drop in the number of companies that receive research coverage.  As of December 31, 2012, Keating Investments published a white paper revealing that nearly 29% of all exchange listed companies had zero or no meaningful analyst coverage of their stocks.  This, however, understates the impact on small or micro-cap stocks as 55% of companies with market caps of less than $250 million have little or no analyst coverage.

Unfortunately, the lack of research coverage has a proven negative impact on the cost of equity capital, meaning the equity prices for stocks with no coverage are generally lower than the price of similar sized companies in comparable industries.  Ultimately this could hinder the growth prospects of these uncovered or under covered companies and negatively impact their willingness to invest and hire.

This issue has not gone unnoticed by regulators and lawmakers.  The European Commission is considering what to do to encourage research coverage for small and mid-sized companies.  This concern also prompted the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, signed into law on April 5th 2012.

The JOBS Act specifically allows investment bankers and research analysts to formally collaborate on an IPO for a smaller “emerging growth company” (although appropriately retaining the independence safeguards designed to protect investors), and it allows equity research to be published immediately after the IPO, instead of waiting 40 days.

Possible Solutions

Although the public sector is rightfully concerned about the negative economic impact of declining research coverage and is considering possible options, a number of market-based solutions are available.  For example:

  • Issuer sponsored research: Some uncovered or under covered public companies choose to directly pay research firms to cover their companies.  These issuers have made the commercial decision that the benefit of research coverage greatly outweighs the cost of that coverage and the market perception that this type of research is biased.  However, a limited number of high quality issuer sponsored research firms, and the credibility concerns some investors have with this type of research, has kept it from gaining considerable traction in the marketplace.

  • Exchange “fee based” research: Over the past decade, a few third-party initiatives have sprung up to try and address the credibility issue associated with issuer sponsored research.  Most of the programs that have gained the most traction have been run by stock exchanges which directly hire research providers to write the research on behalf of uncovered listed companies thereby removing the economic incentive on the part of the research firm to write overly optimistic research because they are being paid directly by the corporate issuer.  The London Stock Exchange, as well as exchanges in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and India have all developed similar “fee based” research programs.  

  • Increased buy-side coverage: Some market participants suggest that the real answer to the problem of declining sell-side research coverage is to have asset managers increase their own internal research efforts to cover more public companies.  And while some buy-side firms have expanded their research departments to address this issue, the cost to do so is normally quite high prompting these firms to pass on these costs in the form of higher fees to their clients.  Also, this approach is inefficient as it would require buy-side firms to duplicate their efforts as they would cover many of the same companies.  

  • Alternative research: A more economically rationale approach to addressing declining sell-side research coverage is for buy-side firms to pay alternative research providers to undertake this research.  Not only can most alternative research firms produce this research at a lower cost than buy-side or sell-side coverage, but an alternative research firm can spread the cost of this coverage across a number of buy-side clients.  Unfortunately, most alternative research firms find it hard to justify covering small cap companies as investors are interested in a wide range of different stocks, thereby making the demand for research coverage on any single company limited.

Summary

We clearly see evidence of a rebound in the cash equities and equity research business over the past few quarters.  However, this doesn’t mean that the research industry is healthy and robust.  You certainly would not believe this if you were the CFO or CEO of a small or mico-cap company that did not have research coverage, or a small-cap money manager looking for research on the hundreds of names in your interest list.

Unfortunately, recent regulatory developments, like the FCA’s announcement that UK asset managers cannot use client commissions to pay for corporate access is likely to make it even more difficult for small-cap UK (and potentially European) companies to get sell-side research coverage.  Many UK investment banks will probably experience a significant drop in equity commission income, prompting fewer analysts on staff and less research coverage.

In our assessment, small cap public companies will probably have to look for research coverage in less traditional ways, like from issuer sponsored research firms or from exchanges with “fee based” research programs.  Buy-side firms, on the other hand, will either need to increase their internal research departments or they will need to procure more alternative research to fill the growing research void.

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Cash Equities Volumes Open With Strong First Quarter

May 21st, 2014

Cash equities trading in the US and Europe remained robust in April, continuing a strong start to the year.  European trading volumes increased on aggregate by 18% during April compared with a year earlier, according to an analysis by UBS cited by Financial News.  April volumes decreased 5% from March’s levels, but remained significantly higher than year-ago figures.

US equity volumes told a similar story.  Combined cash volumes for NYSE, Nasdaq and regional exchanges remained at higher levels than the third and fourth quarters of last year, but eased slightly in April from the first quarter.

US cash equities volumes dropped 3.7% from March and were off 1.2% from the previous April.

The April volumes come after the biggest first quarter for European equities volumes since 2011, with shares worth over €2.5 trillion traded across European markets.

The first quarter was also positive for US cash equities volume which was up 10.8% relative to the first quarter of 2013 and up 1.4% from the fourth quarter of 2013.

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Traders Pocket $250 mln From Fed Leaks: Study

May 19th, 2014

According to a recent academic study, some investors may have pocketed between $14 mln to $256 mln in profits by getting early word on Fed policy changes between 1997 and 2013.

Study Background

The study, written by Gennaro Bernile, Jianfeng Hu and Yuehua Tang from Singapore Management University, called “Can information be locked up? Informed trading before macro-news announcements” revealed statistically significant price movements and imbalances in buy and sell orders that were consistent with the subsequent surprises in the Federal Reserve’s announcement of whether it was tightening or loosening its monetary policy.

The unexpected market moves took place before and during the period that journalists had information about the upcoming Fed policy announcements, but before they were officially released called the “lock up period”.

The authors analyzed whether the E-mini S&P 500 futures contract, E-mini Nasdaq 100 futures, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, and the PowerShares QQQ ETF tracking the Nasdaq 100 index moved before the FOMC release.

Robust Evidence

What the researchers found was “robust evidence” that significant order imbalances that accurately predicted the post-release market reaction tended to arise in the E-mini S&P 500 futures market between 10 minutes and 20 minutes before the scheduled release of the FOMC’s policy statement.

In the 10 minutes prior to the release of the statement, E-minis rose on average 0.2% more on days when the announced policy decision was a surprise, compared with days when the decision was in line with the market consensus, the authors said.

The study concluded that the impact of early access to Fed policy decisions when the announcements were unexpected totaled roughly between $14 million and $256 million.

Lock Up Process

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) regularly releases statements announcing the Fed’s decision about policy including where they are setting short-term interest rates, what their targets are for the money supply, and other actions to stimulate or reign in the economy like purchasing Treasury or mortgage-backed securities.

Historically, the Federal Research released a statement of the FOMC’s policy decision in the U.S. Treasury Department press room approximately 10 minutes before the official release time.  This gave journalists from accredited news organizations time to write their stories.  Once the embargo time was reached, journalists were allowed to submit their stories for publication.

Unfortunately, this process was not terribly strict. While journalists promised to respect the embargo, computer lines weren’t blocked enabling them to surreptitiously communicate with the outside.

Fed Changes

Issues with the Fed’s process for releasing the FOMC policy statement came under attack after trading in gold futures and exchange-traded funds linked to gold on the New York and Chicago commodity exchanges took place within one millisecond of the 2 p.m. ET embargo time for the FOMC release on September 18th, 2013.

This prompted the Fed, starting with its FOMC policy statement release on Oct. 30th 2013, to tighten up its regulation of the lockup.

Under new procedures, journalists gather in a room at Fed headquarters in Washington. They are forbidden to carry phones into the lockup, and lines connecting their computers to the Internet are blocked.

Journalists are given the FOMC statement 20 minutes before its release to the public, enabling them to prepare their stories. When the embargo time is reached, lines of communications are opened and journalists are allowed to transmit their stories.

Other Government Releases Clean

The Singapore Management University study found no evidence that investors were getting early access to other US government releases, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly employment, wholesale inflation, or consumer inflation reports.  In addition, there didn’t appear to be any evidence that the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ quarterly GDP report was being leaked to certain investors.

 

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The Future of “Big Data” and Other Musings

May 14th, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, at the Intelligent Trading Summit held in New York City, I moderated an insightful panel on the growing use of big data and data driven analytics in the buy-side research process.  The panel of experts discussed a number of interesting topics including what they see as the future for “big data” on Wall Street.

Big Data Panelists

Members of this panel included Harry Blount, CEO of DISCERN, Brian Lichtenberger, Principal & Co-Founder of 7Park Data, and David Kedmey, President of EidoSearch.

DISCERN is an institutional investment research firm which conducts statistical analysis of huge amounts of structured and unstructured data to identify unique investment signals.  The firm then overlays this data analysis with contextual insights generated by experienced sell-side analysts to identify potential investable opportunities.  Discern provides a wide range of unbundled services, including allowing buy-side clients to license its data, the predictive signals it has developed, or the extensive research it generates.

7Park Data is a boutique data and analysis firm that sources exclusive structured and unstructured data from third-party providers, cleanses and stores it utilizing big data technologies, and develops predictive analytics based on this data to generate investment insights.  7Park markets these data driven research and information products on a subscription basis to institutional investors world-wide.

EidoSearch is a Financial Technology firm that applies pattern search technology to an extensive historical database of market data to generate predictive analytics and return projections for stocks, futures, currencies and other market indices.  EidoSearch quantifies the way investors are likely to respond today by studying their behavior when similar price patterns and market environments occurred in the past, providing a historical backdrop for every trade and investment decision.

Shouldn’t It Be Called “Big Analytics”?

Warehousing huge volumes of data is really irrelevant to analysts or investors.  Instead, the real key to driving value from “big data” initiatives is the development of predictive analytics at scale.  When asked how their various solutions address this issue, Harry, David and Brian explained the following:

Harry explained that DISCERN sells signals as a service.  What this means is they try to increase the signal to noise ratio, thereby enabling them to discover weak signals from the structured and unstructured data they collect. Consequently, the team at DISCERN is all about developing analytics which can identify these patterns or signals which could identify possible investment opportunities for their clients.

David noted that their clients are under tremendous pressure to sort through vast amounts of time series data in order to make better investment decisions.  He explained that EidoSearch harnesses the power of pattern recognition technology, applies this to decades of market data, and generates a series of possible forecasts for the future of a security price based on how investors have reacted to similar securities in the past.  This enables investors to make better informed trading and investment decisions.

Brian commented that his real business at 7Park Data is delivering insights to clients which result from the analytics they develop.  However, he warned that you can’t generate investment ideas from all data sources.  That’s why 7Park spends considerable time and effort finding unique and exclusive datasets.  Once that is accomplished they spend an equal amount of effort developing quantitative analytics which produces the predictive insights their clients are really looking for.  

Big Data and the Human vs Computer Debate

Most traders and analysts have traditionally relied on human judgment to make investment or trading decisions.  Big data is pushing investors to rely more on computer generated signals.  When asked how they see users integrating these two approaches, our panelists replied in this manner.

Brian explained that their job at 7Park Data is not to replace human input to the research process, but rather to take on many of the mundane and time consuming tasks many buy-side analysts perform today.  He contends that this will give investors more time to make thoughtful investment decisions.  Ultimately, Brian noted that their team works with buy-side clients to conduct the analysis they are interested in.  Brian acknowledged that the only person they might be replacing in the investment research process is the sell-side analyst.

David commented that some clients could use EidoSearch to generate computer trading strategies.  However, he saw most clients using a tool like EidoSearch to conduct an analysis which would require human decisions and insights to make actual trading or investment decisions.  For example, David explained that clients might decide to eliminate certain time frames or securities from the historical analysis based on their own experience or insight.

Harry noted that the DISCERN platform is not just about generating investment ideas, but it is also about helping a client get answers to all the follow on questions they are likely to ask as a result of that answer.  Harry felt the relationship between their platform and the client was symbiotic where their system learned what matters to that client over time.  In other words, Harry felt that the DISCERN platform didn’t replace human input or insight, but required it to work most effectively.

The Future for Big Data on Wall Street

As is the case with most panel discussions, we ended the session by asking the panelists to share their visions of the future of the “big data” landscape for investors in 3 to 5 years.

Brian commented that in the next few years, a small number of the largest mutual funds and hedge funds will have built their own in-house “big data” programs which would serve internal users such as analysts and portfolio managers.  He expects these groups will act much like quantitative investors, consuming unique data sources and generating their own proprietary analytics and signals.  However, he expects the rest of the market will look to external providers like 7Park or DISCERN to help them conduct analysis on big datasets to generate unique investment ideas.

David felt that the big data trend will likely have a significant impact on a number of major vendors to the buy-side, but the one player he thought would be impacted most would be the market data providers.  He explained that these vendors would need to switch from providing just data, to providing a platform where clients could generate real unique insights.  As a result, David thought that market data vendors would either have to develop a “big data” strategy or else they might lose relevance in the marketplace.

Harry’s vision was probably the most expansive.  He explained that in the future, corporations or institutional investors who did not have a big data strategy in place would be at a severe competitive disadvantage.  He expects the firms with a working big data program will be able to better identify new trends quicker and take advantage of these trends, whereas firms without such a program will be forced to react to developments – a fact that could lead some of them to go out of business altogether.

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FCA Bans Commission Payments for Corporate Access

May 8th, 2014

The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) released its updated rules on payments for investment research, eliminating payments for corporate access with client commissions.  Moreover, the rules go into effect in less than a month, reflecting the FCA’s view that the rules are simply a clarification, and that investment managers should have been following them all along.

The full text of Policy Statement (PS) 14/7 can be found at http://www.fca.org.uk/your-fca/documents/policy-statements/ps14-07.

Corporate Access

The FCA is implacable in its aversion to corporate access as a form of research. The FCA received 62 comment letters and met with investment managers, investment banks and corporate issuers prior to issuing its final rules.  In the end, the FCA did not make major changes to the proposed rules.

Some respondents argued that the definition of corporate access was too broad.  Nevertheless, the FCA held to its definition denoting any service of arranging or bringing about contact between an investment manager and an issuer or potential issuer.

The FCA also pointedly addressed the issue of bundling corporate access with other services, such as conferences or analyst input.  Investment managers will need to explicitly disaggregate the research portion and make a ‘fair assessment’ of the charge to pass on to their customers.

It will also scrutinize situations where the corporate access is deemed a ‘free good’.  Effectively, investment managers will need to fully justify any other payments made to a broker arranging corporate access as a non-monetary benefit and demonstrate that corporate access is not being subsidized by other payments.

Bundled research

With or without corporate access, investment managers will need to scrutinize unpriced bundled services more carefully.  The FCA expanded the final rules to place more emphasis on the need for investment managers to proactively value bundled services, whether or not investment banks are cooperative.

Investment managers should do “fact-based analysis” of bundled services. This would include comparisons to priced services such as independent research (which is often an order of magnitude less expensive).  Asset managers are also encouraged to estimate what it would cost them internally to perform the service. Or determine what they would be willing, in good faith, to pay for the service.

The FCA seems unsympathetic to the investment manager lament that investment banks are not forthcoming in providing pricing for their services:

Where an investment manager feels they need information from the broker or third party provider to assist them in a valuation process, we would expect a reasonable level of transparency to be present as part of any commercial arrangement. This could include the nature of a good or service provided, and the extent to which it has been used.

Primary research

FCA singled out corporate access but is less clear for other forms of research, leaving it up to investment managers to justify whether primary research meets the test.  Primary research providers were particularly troubled by the definition that research needs to “present” meaningful conclusions.  The FCA stuck to its guns on this point, arguing that the phrase ‘meaningful conclusions’ has been part of the UK’s definition of eligible research since 2006.  Moreover the FCA “would not expect an investment manager to accept as substantive research a good or service that only has a purely ‘artificial’ conclusion added by a broker or third party.”

On the plus side, the FCA says it does not intend to rule out “research that is used by the investment manager to feed into their own further research or assessment of investment and trading ideas.”  However, it concludes that eligible research must meet its cumulative definition of research, including presenting meaningful conclusions:

In the UK, the ability to use dealing commissions to acquire research is not intended to cover all non-execution related inputs into the investment manager’s decision-making process, but only additional third party research that can met our cumulative evidential criteria.

Conclusion

Those firms hoping the FCA would moderate its position will be disappointed in the published rules, which, if anything, are tougher in their final form.  PS 14/7 sends the signal that the FCA will err on the side of less rather than more eligible research, and none of the arguments presented to date seem to have softened their position.

Investment banks will be hardest hit by the new rules.  The FCA intends to erase £500 million (US$800 million) in commissions it estimates are spent on corporate access in the UK.  Most of that goes to investment banks.  However, if the FCA succeeds in pressuring investment managers to put a fair value on bundled investment bank research, the damage could be larger.  Priced independent research is generally significantly less than what investment banks have traditionally been paid for their research.  Or to use the other metric suggested by the FCA, investment managers could hire a lot of internal staff with the amounts paid for bank research.

The FCA has not only been fielding comments to CP 13/17.  From November 2013 to February 2014, it conducted a thematic supervision review examining both asset managers and sell-side brokers to review current market practices and business models linked to the use of dealing commissions.  Reading between the lines, it does not appear that this review relaxed the FCA’s perspective.   The FCA promises to report on this review later this year.

The Damoclean sword over everyone’s head is the MiFID II, which could result in an outright ban on paying for any research with client commissions.  As the FCA puts it, “MiFID II has the potential to impact the ability of portfolio managers to receive third party inducements, which may include research acquired in return for dealing commissions linked to execution services.”

The FCA is a party in the MiFID II discussions, but, judging by PS 14/7, a ban on research commissions would not break its heart.

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A Vision for Big Data

May 7th, 2014

Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…

To help those of us innocent to thrills of big data, we’ve asked Harry Blount, founder of DISCERN, to share his views in this guest article.  Harry Blount was a member of the Committee on Forecasting Disruptive Technologies sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, and since 2009 has been running an investment research firm dedicated to harnessing big data insights.

As a technologist, Blount has focused not only in gathering big data sources but also on developing analytic tools to help process them.  By comparison, Majestic Research, now part of ITG Research, ended up hiring analysts to interpret the data and provide insights.  Here is Blount’s perspective, which we have excerpted from a DISCERN white paper, “Big Data for Better Decisions”, which can be obtained at http://www.aboutdiscern.com/white-paper.

A vision of the big data future

It is 2015. Acme Commercial Drones has launched its private drone fleet following a 2013 congressional mandate ordering the FAA to integrate drones into commercial U.S. air space. Acme has begun conducting daily flyovers over the major U.S. ports counting the number of cargo ships manifested to carry corn to foreign ports. The average ship is floating 2-3 feet lower in the water than the prior month, suggesting higher than expected corn exports. Another Acme drone flying over the U.S. corn-growing region registers a subtle and non-trendline shift towards rust coloration on the crop suggesting that the late-growth corn season may not be as robust as consensus expectation. Finally, live camera feeds from the newly opened “New Panamax-class” locks at the Panama Canal show that a cargo ship has damaged one of the hydraulic gates, slowing transit to a fraction of capacity.

The purchasing officer of a large soft-drink company uses DISCERN’s Personal Analytics Cloud (PAC) to monitor the global corn transport infrastructure and major corn-growing regions. His PAC generates signals notifying him of these non-trendline events. He immediately executes purchase orders to secure longer-term contracts at current spot prices anticipating that the price of corn is about to spike. His fast action locks in a six-month margin advantage over the competition, allowing the company to report record profits.

What is Big Data?

The phrase “Big Data” refers to massive bundles of datasets, allowing for powerful aggregation and analysis at unprecedented speeds. Some 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data are created every day2. Mobile devices, RFID readers, wireless sensing networks, video cameras, medical organizations, government entities – to name just few – are collecting an ever growing torrent of data.

Source: BigData-Startups.com

It is our belief that most decision-making tools, analytics and processes commonly applied to business have not kept pace with the aggressive explosion of data and the visualization capabilities of big data aggregation engines. Just as there is a growing digital divide between those with access to the internet and those without, we believe there is an equally important analogue for organizations with big data strategies in place, and those without.

One of the more popular definitions of big data is encompassed by the 4Vs – Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity. They sound more like bullet points in a brochure advertising high-end sports cars than in a comprehensive description on what your big data package should bring to the table. While the 4V’s may help a vendor sell data feeds and speeds, nowhere does this definition speak to the customer’s need for more insights earlier and more often.

Evaluating Big Data

The real question is – “How can you get more insights more often from big data?” In our opinion, the most critical aspect organizations need to assess when selecting a big data vendor is in the vendor’s ability to convert noise to signals. Said differently, most big data technology vendors will be able to bring you “the world of data” via a big data aggregation platform, but only a few will have a process capable of delivering you the all the relevant data (e.g. structured, unstructured, internal, external) in deep context in a way that is personalized and persistent for your requirements.

In analyzing a big data vendor, it would be wise to ask a few questions:

1) Can the vendor deliver a solution without selling you hardware and without expensive and extensive IT configuration?
2) Does the vendor aggregate data of any type – internal and external, structured and unstructured, public and commercial?
3) What is the data model for organizing the data?
4) What is the process for providing data in its original and curated context?
5) Can the vendor deliver the data in accordance with the context and unique needs of individual users within the organization?
6) Is the data accessible from any browser-enabled device?
7) Does the solution fit into your existing workflow?

Conclusion

During my involvement with the National Academy of Science study “Persistent Forecasting of Disruptive Technologies“, I came to strongly believe that in most cases, all of the information required to make an early and informed decision was available in the public domain or from inexpensive commercial sources. However, there simply was not a tool or service that was optimized to persistently scan and process the data to surface these insights to decision-makers.

We believe human interaction will always be critical to the decision-making process. However, too much time is spent searching, aggregating, cleansing and processing data, and not enough time is spent on value-added activities such as analysis and optimization.

We believe the emergence of big data tools such as DISCERN’s personal analytics clouds (PACs) and other persistent and personalized decisionmaking frameworks have begun to gain traction because they are able to address the shortcomings of traditional tools and processes. These platforms combine the power of big data platforms with the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of advertising networks and on-line shopping vendors.

Harry Blount is the CEO and Founder of DISCERN, Inc., a cloud-based, big data analytics company that delivers signals as a service to decision-makers.  The vision for DISCERN was inspired, in part, based on the work of Harry and Paul Saffo, DISCERN’s head of Foresight, during their tenures as members of the National Academy of Science Committee for Forecasting Disruptive Technologies.  Prior to founding DISCERN, Harry spent more than 20 years on Wall Street, including senior roles at Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse First Boston, Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, and CIBC Oppenheimer. Harry has been named an Institutional Investor All-American in both Information Technology Hardware and Internet Infrastructure Services, and The Wall Street Journal has recognized him as an All-Star covering the Computer Hardware sector.  In addition, he is Chairman of the Futures Committee for The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California and is on the Silicon Valley Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Club. Harry graduated from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 1986 with a B.S. in Finance.

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