Research Regulations: the Quest for Clarity

More than 200 investment professionals gathered last month at the Institute of Directors (IoD) in London for a series of panel discussions on investment research, and how it should be provided and paid for. With corporate access now formally ‘unbundled’ from trading execution services in the UK (meaning fund managers must pay brokers to organise meetings with company management separately and out of their own pockets), the focus has shifted to research, which the FCA decided not to touch the first time around.

CSAs (commission sharing agreements) already exist to keep fees for execution separate from fees for other services such as research and corporate access, although the precise value of each remains somewhat unclear. Now faced with the prospect of potentially having to pay for all research themselves, rather than passing the cost on to their end clients, fund managers (and regulators) are taking more of an interest than ever in its cost and value.

At the IoD there appeared to be broad (although not unanimous) consensus that ‘something needs to be done’ to resolve the cost/value question, although there was some difference of opinion on exactly what and how.

What is wrong with the current research model?

Regulatory scrutiny is centring on:

  • the use of research as an ‘inducement’ (so investors will execute trades with the broker publishing the report)
  • the fact that the current model discourages competition
  • the lack of transparency around both cost and benefit

The FCA’s main goal is to ensure a fairer, more competitive, more efficient market. The key to this is transparency. CSAs were introduced to bring greater clarity to the whole commission payment structure, although the feeling is that they actually tend to muddy the waters, encouraging brokers to juggle commission between services to ‘reverse engineer’ fees.

Thus one of the regulators’ top priorities is to cut the strings that are attached to ‘free’ research and encourage greater competition for individual sell-side services.

How much should investors pay for research?

On the face of it, imposing arbitrary prices on research reports would seem to make little sense and in any case is almost certainly beyond the remit of regulators. The popular view seems to be to let the market decide.

Most investors agree that the aim of regulation in this case should be deregulation: once you remove all barriers to transparency and competition, the free market will determine the price through simple supply and demand economics.

In most cases it is still the end users who are paying for research and other services (through trading commissions), although making fund managers cover these expenses out of their own pockets should help to close the gap between price and value and stem the tide of ubiquitous ‘free’ research.

How is research currently consumed?

The vast majority of institutional investors undertake a quarterly voting process to evaluate and rank the quality of the sell-side research offered by the various providers. Once rankings are determined, budget is allocated accordingly (different services carry different weights).

Investors also rely to a varying extent on their own research and more often than not, on the sea of reports which are available either from one of the major data providers or through analyst connections. Many supplement ‘bundled’ sell-side research with reports from trusted, independent providers. When the budget is spent, they go ‘execution-only’.

The potential rule changes are forcing investors to think long and hard about what they actually need and whether the research they currently consume is worth what they might have to pay for it. As a result, fund managers are being encouraged by their firms to use whatever tools are at their disposal to more closely monitor consumption and assess value.

In recent years there has also been a growing tendency for buy-side firms to bolster their own in-house research capabilities, thereby reducing their reliance on potentially expensive sell-side services. This of course requires time, money and expertise, but the potential benefit for individual firms in cultivating their own proprietary investment ‘edge’ is obvious.

How would rule changes affect the market?

Opinion seems to be divided on how potential changes would affect the market. Below are some of the main advantages and disadvantages to unbundling research raised at the conference:

Potential advantages

  • Execution services would move more freely
  • Research would become more specialised
  • Independent research firms would benefit from a level playing field (one attendee suggested consumption may triple from its current level of 8% per firm)
  • Similarly, sell-side firms who produce research reports in markets where they do not execute trades (e.g. Standard Chartered in Russia) would not be unfairly excluded
  • A growing culture of in-house buy-side research would help to differentiate firms

Potential disadvantages

  • There may be a reduction in the depth and breadth of sell-side research
  • Small- and mid-size firms may be excluded from sell-side research distribution
  • Boutique sell-side firms may lose out

These discussions are likely to continue until the respective regulatory bodies can provide some clear guidelines on rule changes and timescales. Many at the IoD expressed growing frustration that, having taken the lead on this issue, the FCA seems now to have backed away; the recently announced delay of MiFID II has also left a number of important questions unanswered.

Some are putting their faith in the market to resolve these questions, the idea being that if a large minority of asset managers lead the way then the rest of the market will follow. There are already signs that this process is underway, with a number of firms reaching into their own pockets to cover not only corporate access, but also research. One of the more interesting quotes of the day came from a fund manager who said “If there is a distribution platform that works, research will unbundle itself”. Healthy markets have always been founded on efficiency.

The need for change is apparent, and now finally it seems the appetite is too. Hopefully 2016 will bring a new sense of purpose and clarity to an issue which continues to create uncertainty for investors, brokers and companies alike.

What does this mean for company IR teams?

Should the regulators decide to fully unbundle research, there would likely be a decrease in the amount of sell-side reports written and distributed, particularly on non-blue chip companies, as analysts begin to take a more focused, tailored approach. Investors would be forced to rely more on their own in-house capabilities and on information directly from the company. In both cases the role of investor relations takes on extra importance as fund managers are less willing to invest their own money in the expertise of brokers.

The likely growth in buy-side consumption of independent research would present an increasingly attractive option to companies looking to reach a wider audience of investors. There would be an opportunity for technology start-ups to follow in the footsteps of companies like Stockviews and SeekingAlpha to fill the gap left by free, ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all sell-side research.

As discussed above, regulatory changes are still some way off, so the best thing IR teams can do at this stage is to stay on top of developments and maintain best practice IR, strengthening connections with both sell-side and buy-side.

277 thoughts on “Research Regulations: the Quest for Clarity”

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