Beware business leaders bearing a nervous tic
A nervous eye twitch, a loosening of the collar, shifting in one's chair - the body language of dishonesty or evasiveness. The science of detecting misinformation or recognising omission can be lucrative.
Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network anchored a successful television series around the character of psychologist Cal Lightman, whose clients are typically government agencies who analyse physical mannerisms to detect emotions such as fear, anger, joy and dishonesty.
It's not just a Hollywood creation. This TV show is a good example of art (I use the term loosely) imitating life.
In the US a consulting group, Business Intelligence Advisors, offers just this type of service to analysts and investors. Its consultants are typically drawn from US intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the FBI and their skill is to educate those in the financial information business to better interpret messages from companies in which they invest or which they analyse.
The group is making quite an impression, having been the subject of a Harvard Business School study, and a bit on the international speaking circuit discussions about "the hidden meaning in corporate disclosure".
It's not that surprising. Getting the edge on the quality of information allows better investment calls for analysts and shareholders. Information equals power equals money.
On the other side of the coin, the investor relations professionals and public relations practitioners who manage the communications process for listed companies are growing disciplines whose services are increasingly relied on. Presenting and managing the message is a large part of the game in the corporate world. This explains why the allegations around selective leaks by gold company Newcrest a few weeks ago has gained import and momentum.
The investor relations industry is paranoid about the image it projects and even more nervous that any backlash could involve the prohibition of individual briefings with investors or analysts.
Behind the scenes, the investor relations industry is keen to present Newcrest as more of a one-off botch-up than evidence of any systemic problem with the information relationship between companies and analysts or large investors.
Newcrest briefed a number of investment banking analysts in the week leading up to a general ASX announcement on a profit and production downgrade.
This hamfisted attempt at massaging market expectations was at the extreme end of poor communications management and prompted one investor (who was tipped off by an investment bank before the Newcrest announcement) to complain to the company. A copy of the fund manager's email was published in The Australian Financial Review.
The tip-off was so explicit it's worth repeating .
The email recommended that Mr [Prasad] Patkar "stay short" on Newcrest on the basis that the banking contact's colleague had "met with mgmt [management] to gain siting (sic) on potential FY2014 production outlook. Bottom line: FY2014 production downgrades".
Also detailed was the fact that production next year was likely to be about 2.25 million ounces of gold, instead of the 2.6 million ounces the market had been expecting, and net profit would fall by 15 per cent to 20 per cent.
How much more smoke does the regulator need to see from that gun?
Apparently this is still not enough, which means the Australian Securities and Investments Commission doing something about less overt and more routine hosing down of profit expectations will for it be a bridge too far.
Instead ASIC has decided to undertake spot checks on analyst meetings, at which clearly none of the participants will be inclined to stay close to the line. Apparently ASIC already sits in on some broader briefings so its announcement this week seems all the more tepid.
The regulator is also said to be undertaking an investigation but experts don't hold out much hope this will come to anything.
Newcrest is doing an internal investigation but its chairman has already declared the company has done nothing wrong, so I guess we know the outcome already.
Investment banks that have large compliance divisions are the most likely to react to the potential breaches of disclosure. Passing on price-sensitive information could leave them vulnerable to allegations they were tippers under the insider trading provisions.
Not all selective briefings are a problem and many companies take compliance duties very seriously.
To be fair companies can find themselves in a dilemma when there are outlying analysts on consensus forecasts. A company is allowed to point an analyst to publicly available information that he or she may have missed, but telling individual analysts that their forecasts are too high is not allowed.
The investor relations lobby is now pointing a finger at the investment banks as the weak link in the communications chain, saying the sackings in the past three to five years has resulted in analyst churn and inexperience. It also says ASIC crashing meetings would harm communications between investors/analysts and companies.
Maybe ASIC should sign up for a session with the experts from Business Intelligence Advisors so they can read the furrowed brows or folded arms while it is interviewing those in the Newcrest bungle.