Analysts cause crisis for firms

When share prices are rising, investment analysts will do almost anything to avoid writing a 'sell' note on a company. If they really detest a business, they might at a pinch downgrade shares to a 'hold'.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

But little short of the chief executive going to prison or the company filing for bankruptcy brings out the seller in them.

It is not that the analysts are particularly venal or incompetent - well, not the latter anyway. Rather, they are part of a business that in good times gets more of its fees from companies than from investing institutions. So it makes better commercial sense to find favour with the companies rather than with the investors. In essence, this so-called investment analysis is part of the PR drive by analysts' employers to keep on good terms with corporate clients, solicit new ones and get on the pitch list for any forthcoming corporate activity.

But things have changed. Corporate activity has dried up and there are no advisory fees for investment bankers to earn. The stock market is falling too. We are flooded with bearish analysis that casually writes off companies and whole sectors as little better than worthless. Where once there were only bullish reports from the analysts, now there is only bearishness.

Companies as a result are frequently facing a huge PR challenge, as without warning their share price is trashed by a wave of selling sparked off by a negative report they did not even know was coming. Recovering the situation is tough because in these markets no-one actually reads the full report, but only picks up on the short summary or conclusion and acts on that.

Therefore, before the PR response can pick holes in the analyst's logic, it has to explain the detail of why the analyst was sceptical in the first place and then why he or she was wrong - by which time the damage is done.

So consultants are often advising clients to ignore the trashing because it is so difficult in these markets to correct things. Why waste time shouting into a hurricane? Better to wait until the storm passes.

Yet, while that may be practical advice, it is asking a lot of a chief executive who sees the share price as a kind of virility symbol to stand back and do nothing.

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