Read Any Good Books Lately?

I really enjoyed McKinsey & Company’s piece on what CEOs are reading in 2017, which is a continuation of an annual list going back several years.  Not only did it provide interesting recommendations about what to add to my Kindle library, but seeing what’s in the minds of leaders makes them a bit more relatable.  Not surprisingly, the list is overwhelmingly non-fiction, however, I’d recommend more fiction for a bit of escapism, which is likely needed given CEOs daily demands, and because there are some lessons to be learned from non-fiction storytelling.

Some of this year’s titles include:

  • Serial Innovators: Firms That Change the World by Claudio Feser
  • Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers: 50 Strategic Rules Updated for Today’s Business by Gerald A. Michaelson and Steven W. Michaelson
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.  CEOs surveyed by Fortune named this book “the best business or management book they had ever read.”
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

I suppose I’m not alone in my interest in lists like these, as several media outlets have reported on CEO reading over the years.  Business Insider noted books like The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as being a favorite of Jeff Bezos who once said that he “learns more from fiction than non-fiction” (I’d note here that I pointed that out earlier in this post before I even saw that Jeff Bezos said it).

Tim Cook took the non-fiction path with Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition is Reshaping Global Markets by George Stalk, Jr., and Thomas M. Hout, which he is said to distribute to new Apple employees and colleagues.  The Road to Character byDavid Brooks was cited by Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, as providing an understanding that “building inner character is just as important as building a career.”

Rounding out the recommendations, Forbes recently listed Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen, and Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Louis Gerstner, Jr. as popular CEO choices.

Have you read any of these books?  Others you’d like to recommend?  Let us know in the comments section below.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Frothy Market Prompts Old Tactic with a Twist

wolfThe market was hot, and virtually all participants were making money.

Around the time that the movie, “The Wolf of Wolf Street” was out, folks in the IR industry were rolling their eyes a lot. The hyper, cold-calling brokerage salespeople depicted in the movie—but taken from real life—did almost anything to establish new accounts and sell penny-stocks to unsuspecting clients.

Their tactics usually began by offering shares in a well-established company, as a safe, relatively risk-free investment, helping to establish credibility. Then weeks, sometimes days later, they would call again, touting a sure-bet penny-stock that no one ever heard of, but that they knew was about to go through the roof. The purchase, of course, had to be made on the spot, prior to the stock rising, since it certainly was going to happen very soon. The brokers usually were paid by the issuer or by a stock promoter, in addition to garnering a commission from the unsuspecting mom-or-pop investor.

Another penny-stock, promoter-driven tactic during that era was the use of fancy, glossy-printed fliers, occasionally stuffed into the plastic bags of newspapers that were delivered to thousands of homes.

That was then. What about now?

The market is hot, and virtually all participants are making money.

A few months ago, I wrote about some Wolf-like cold calls I was beginning to receive, on my cell phone, no less. And just last week, stuffed into the plastic package with my still home-delivered Los Angeles Times (OK, I get the New York Times digitally), was a glossy stuffer promotion for a recent IPO, “Now Nasdaq Listed: BHF,” read the heading. Only this was not for a penny-stock.

I was mildly shocked that any stock was being promoted this way, and even further surprised to learn that the company, Brighthouse Financial, is not some sleaze-ball publicly-traded shell with no revenue or earnings, but a real company, an annuity and insurance seller, with $223 billion in assets.

Perhaps this sort of tactic again will become a trend. And in this scenario, because the company is real and not even close to penny-stock status, maybe the tactic will work.

But wait. On the first day of trading, August 7, the shares fell 4%, closing at $60.72. And digging a little further, it is interesting to note that while MetLife still owns 20% of Brighthouse, a filing said it plans to sell all of its holdings “as soon as practicable.” I wonder what they know that the rest of the investors do not. Same ole promotion resurfacing with a twist…at least the issuer has assets.

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Not Your Average Covfefe

Whether investor relations or strategic public relations, or even in politics, we all know that words matter.

Every once in a while, I get stumped, sometimes amused, by simple-sounding, strange words that I have never seen before. Some only have four letters. I jotted down ten real words I read over the past couple of months that I am happy to share with PW Insight readers.

Test yourself and see how many you know. And please send me a quick email if you get even half of them right. Call me immediately if you know them all.

  1. flense
  2. tankles
  3. nish
  4. fob
  5. wheedle
  6. lanx
  7. puce
  8. yeta
  9. peen
  10. pelf

The answers:

  1. to strip blubber or skin from a whale or a fish
  2. a sound louder than a tinkle
  3. nothing
  4. chain attached to a watch
  5. to coax by flattery
  6. a platter for serving meat
  7. a dark red or purple/brown color
  8. awesome
  9. end of a hammer head opposite the face
  10. money gained in a dishonorable way

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Beware of Lurking Wolves

Sometimes, I pick up my own phone at the office. Last week, a friendly caller caught me off guard. The conversation went something like this:

Caller: Hello, Roger, how are you?

Roger: Fine, thanks, how ‘bout yourself?

Caller: I am also fine, thank you for asking. I am calling to let you know that our analysts have started recommending the stocks of several conservative, dividend-paying, major oil companies They are very safe investments, and I would like to start a relationship with you.

Roger: Pardon me?

Caller:  I also want you to know that from time to time we come across the stocks of some smaller companies that our analysts research thoroughly. And within the next week or so, there is one that we will be formally recommending, because of some announcements we believe the company will we making in the next two months.

Roger: Who is this?

Caller: I will give you my full contact information in a minute, but please let me finish.

Roger: May I have your name and the name of your company?

Caller: Now Roger, no one can predict what will happen to the price when those announcements start to flow, but I would like to call you at the right time, so that as a client, you may take advantage of our knowledge. Buying a few shares of a major oil company can establish the account, then we can move quickly on the smaller companies at the right time.

I never got the fellow’s name, since I hung up on him. But his pitch was familiar. It was reminiscent of cold calls that came in prior to the 2013 release of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Almost comedic, but perhaps disturbing, the call was the second one I received—with precisely the same script—in the past couple of weeks. Could the wolves be coming back? Have their prison terms ended? Perhaps it’s the perceived frothy Dow. Or maybe the fake news mantra. Or the newswire upstarts that make it ridiculously inexpensive, and often without traditional controls, to transmit press releases from virtually any source.

Most readers of this blog know better and would not fall for such scam calls. But beware, nevertheless. Hopefully, history is not repeating itself.

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Trump’s Effect on IR

There has been a heap of stories written about President-elect Donald J. Trump’s effect on trade relations and health care, but nary a peep about how his presidency is going to affect our world, meaning investor relations.

Granted, it would be unusual for media to report on how our country’s new chief executive officer will influence investor relations because, um, IR isn’t necessarily something bandied about in the Oval Office.

But consider this: The American people are like investors, and how you treat them in good times and bad will affect the valuation of the country. And depending on how Trump executes his policies, many publicly traded companies and their investors will have to adapt to changing market conditions.

Following is a prognosticator of sorts on how Trump will affect the world of investor relations from an industry perspective. The analysis is based on discussions with the Street and analyst notes.

  • Consumer – Investor relations executives in this sector may experience an increase in inbound calls based on exposure to manufacturing overseas, particularly in China. Trade issues may thwart valuations and likely raise a lot of questions if a company has manufacturing exposure in foreign countries.
  • Construction – Generally, investors should have optimism regarding this sector’s near-term future.  At the same time, more dollars flowing to infrastructure could prompt greater scrutiny of infrastructure companies that aren’t performing.
  • Renewables – This sector has received bipartisan support in recent years, and there is no reason to expect otherwise during the next presidential term. The biggest conundrum for IROs in this space is selling the value proposition of renewable technologies and how soon they can be realized under the incoming administration.
  • Healthcare – With a lot of questions surrounding the future of the Affordable Care Act, many investors and investor relations professionals are likely unsure of where certain business models will stand under the new administration.
  • Technology/media – Hard to say what challenges may surface in this sector. Social media companies may come under fire for alleged fake news practices, as well as influencing the presidential outcome, which could certainly keep IR pros on their toes.
  • Banking – Investors are expecting interest rates to rise, which could bode well for the bottom line in this sector. Loosening up on regulations could also help move more financial services stocks into the black. IR executives will likely have to speak to how banks will enhance their net interest margins once the new administration is in full swing.
  • Aerospace/Defense – With a lot of suppliers in foreign countries, there could be a backlash with respect to manufacturing costs. Even though a Republican administration generally bodes well for this sector, optimism may soon fade if trade relations continue to slide.

– Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Girl Power

Sequoia Capital made news this week when they hired the firm’s first female investment partner in the United States.  This appears to be a 360 degree turn from last year, when, according to The New York Times, Sequoia’s Chairman said the firm did not have female investors in the United States because it did not want to lower its standards.

Women are rare in the highly competitive and cutthroat field of venture capital. According to The Times, research from Babson College showed the percentage of female venture capitalists at 6 percent, down four percentage points from 1999, at the height of the dot-com craze.  The CrunchBase Women in Venture report found that of 100 venture firms studied, 7 percent of the partners at those firms were women, and that 38 percent of the top 100 firms have at least one female partner.  In February, Bloomberg columnist Barry Ritholtz sought to answer the question: Why aren’t there more women in finance?  A possible answer is that “it may be a legacy of what has not only been a male dominated society, but it probably also reflects an industry that is particularly resistant to change,” or that “there are simply not a lot of women in senior positions in all of business, and finance to a great extent mirrors that reality.”

One would think then that there is a perception that women are not as accomplished as men. According to Ritholtz, several studies (Fordham University and the CFA Institute) have found that women in the actively-managed fund industry tend to outperform their male peers.  If true, why are the numbers still so lopsided?

Perhaps the tide is turning for women in business, however. The Los Angeles Times noted that among the largest U.S. companies, women now fill 20 percent of board seats, up from 15 percent in 2005.  In fact, women have made strides recently in other male-dominated professions.  There are now female referees and coaches in the NFL, female play-by-play announcers for major league baseball and female heads of state.  Great news, for sure, but how is that playing out in corporate America?

A 2012 case against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers showed that women and men don’t always play nicely in the sandbox. That case saw a female partner, Ellen Pao, sue the firm for gender discrimination.  She lost the suit in 2015, but during a press conference Pao was quoted as saying, “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”  Pao recently launched Project Include to assist startups and HR departments with recruiting, hiring and retaining a diverse workforce according to Wired.  Project Include also works with venture capital firms whose business is to help startups develop.

There is a lot of work to be done, but it’s my opinion that embracing diversity in the boardroom, on Wall Street and in business can only help improve the variety of opinions, talents and expertise necessary for us to thrive.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Book Review: ‘Flash Boys’

flash-boysMuch is bandied about in financial media on high-frequency trading (HFT) and the implications for institutional and individual investors. The overarching thought is that the capital markets are gamed by high-frequency traders, known as flash boys, and there isn’t anything we can do about it, unless, of course, you’re a portfolio manager who decides to trade on an exchange that is devoted to evening out the playing field. That is what IEX is attempting to do, as the first equity-trading venue dedicated to eliminating the predatory practices of HFT. A new book by Michael Lewis entitled “Flash Boys” provides readers with a glimpse of this esoteric world, and PondelWilkinson’s Evan Pondel reviewed the book for IRupdate in this month’s issue.

PW Participates in IR Certification Exam

First it was the CPA certification for accountants, instituted in 1917.

 

Then in 1963 came the CFA credential, administered by the CFA Institute, for finance and investment professionals, particularly in the fields of investment management and financial analysis of stocks, bonds and their derivative assets.

 

One year later, in 1964, the Public Relations Society of America, www.prsa.org, launched the APR designation as a way to recognize PR practitioners who have mastered the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to develop and deliver strategic communications.

 

Soon, investor relations professionals, courtesy of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), www.niri.org, will have a test of their own. The designation has yet to be named, but development of the Body of Knowledge (BOK) is now underway, and the inaugural exam is scheduled for mid-2015.

 

The BOK is the basis for most certification exams, including the CFA. It forms the base of teachings, skills, and research in a given function, along with details on the essential competencies required of a practitioner based on a set number of years of experience.

 

It is with great honor that I am serving as an advisor to the NIRI committee preparing the first BOK for the investor relations profession.  I will be working directly with editor Ted Allen and a distinguished group of 25 investor relations professionals from throughout the nation who will write the definitive book—one that will represent every element of the requisite knowledge that will be tested in the IR certification exam.

 

It’s a big project and a tall order, especially for a profession whose practitioners require a wide range of knowledge, spanning disciplines that include finance, accounting, capital markets, news media, disclosure regulations, public relations practices and virtually all aspects of communications.

 

Canada and the UK currently have IR certification programs, and two U.S. universities—Fordham and the University of San Francisco—offer graduate degrees in investor relations.

 

While validation of competency through an exam or graduate degree may not guarantee practical success, we at PondelWilkinson are proud to have been asked to participate in this milestone endeavor for our industry.  I’ll keep you posted as the program develops, but please do not ask me for any answers to the exam—none of the BOK committee members will have access to it!

 

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

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Does it Pay to Go Public?

IPORecently, a client pointed me in the direction of a very interesting Inc. article about the case for staying private. The author is the CEO of a privately held, family-controlled tech business, one that has name cache. He notes that being a public company is expensive and time consuming. He also believes that “the most critical benefit of staying private is the facilitation of a true focus on long-term goals.”

It’s not hard to argue that Wall Street is increasingly focused on short-term results, but does that mean that management teams need to adopt the same mindset? Maybe it’s a naïve belief, but some would say that if the stock market is working as it should, a company’s share price will reflect the company’s true value over the long-term.

The New York Stock Exchange predicts a busy year for IPOs in 2014, with about 150 to 200 new issues expected. Reuters points to first quarter IPO activity of $47.2 billion, a nearly doubling from this time last year and “the strongest annual start for global IPOs since 2010.”

Clearly, there are CEOs who still believe in taking their companies public, many in the technology sector. Perhaps they are in it for a large personal pay day, but perhaps they realize that it could be easier and less expensive to raise capital to realize their growth plans. Or perhaps, their Fortune 500 client base requires audited financials as a condition for doing business together.

The decision to go public is not an easy one, and it’s a decision that every company must weigh very carefully. If you’re contemplating an IPO to become like Hooli, the fictional tech company featured in the new HBO series “Silicon Valley,” it may not be the right move. But if you’re doing it to build something that can have a lasting impact, it might just be. Just make sure you surround yourself with good advisors to ensure a smooth process.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Beware ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Focusing on con artists and greedy hucksters selling dreams that rarely come true, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining, well-acted, comedic, and sadly, reasonably accurate film.
 
Although intensely exaggerated, the highly successful Hollywood extravaganza epitomizes the classic bucket shop investment bank, selling mostly worthless penny stocks via high pressure telephone solicitations, principally to unsuspecting individual investors, and tantalizing entrepreneurs who want to take their very small companies public.
 
From Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff, there is a long history of questionable behavior on Wall Street. The wolf, or rather wolves, never really left. In fact, the sordid creatures may be creeping back into the hood with the stock market’s stellar performance. According to one law firm, DLA Piper, even though 2013 saw the lowest number of SEC enforcement actions (68) in the past decade, word has it that this year and beyond, the SEC plans to bring record numbers of sanctions using new tools and resources.
 
In a bulletin to its clients and prospects, the law firm noted that whistleblower bounties and tips are on the rise and that the Dodd-Frank whistleblower bounty program is gaining steam, with informants potentially receiving as much as 30 percent of any monetary recoveries. On October 1 last year, the SEC awarded its largest bounty to date, $14 million, which itself may drive the number of tips higher in 2014.
 
Mid last year, the SEC’s enforcement unit announced it had formed the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force, comprised of lawyers and accountants throughout the United States tasked with identifying issuer violations. This august group has a tool in its arsenal, affectionately known as RoboCop, which allows it to determine whether an issuer’s financial statements stick out from the pack. Other tools are supposedly in the works that will analyze text portions of annual reports for potentially misleading disclosures.
 
According to the bulletin, with the amount of new resources and tools the SEC is devoting to detecting financial reporting violations, an expectation is growing that the agency will bring a greater number of enforcement actions in the future. In June of last year, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said that in certain cases, the SEC will not settle unless the defendants admitted wrongdoing, so more companies, officers and directors may be testing the SEC’s allegations and legal positions by litigating and going to trial.
 
The largest number of enforcement actions in any one year during the past decade was 219 in 2007. We’ll see what happens in 2014. But wolves everywhere, beware.
 
– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com