Why the Deck is Stacked Against Retail Investors

by Neil Hershberg, Senior Vice President, Global Media
Neil Hershberg

Neil Hershberg, SVP - Global Media

The classic Cole Porter musical, “Anything Goes,” is returning to Broadway this spring.

Retail investors won’t have to wait that long. In practice, “Anything Goes” has become the unofficial mantra of Wall Street, the Digital Age’s equivalent of ‘The Wild West” when it comes to disclosure.

Unfortunately for individual investors, who invariably get the short end of the stick, the folks in a position to end today’s information free-for-all have yet to take action.

At the risk of sounding like the Cassandra of capitalism, here’s why retail investors are swimming upstream:

1. Reg FD’s “level playing field” has become the regulatory equivalent of an ecological disaster area; it is eroding faster than many storm-swept East Coast beaches.

Mega-cap companies with huge investor followings have, for reasons best known to themselves, opted for micro-disclosure, dispensing with broadly disseminated news releases in favor of standalone web postings or similar truncated practices.

Rather than providing simultaneous, real-time information access to all interested investors, these best-practice contrarians have essentially decided to ladle access on a sequential basis to anxious  investors clamoring for corporate updates.

Over the past few decades, we’ve regressed from “trickle down economics” to “trickle down disclosure.”  Unfortunately, retail investors are the ones getting hosed.

Ironically, technology trend-setters are among the most flagrant abusers of acknowledged best-practice disclosure practices. These industry leaders should know better than anyone the inherent technical limitations of the Internet, and why the web’s architecture makes it impossible to meet the complex challenge of simultaneity.

2. Retail investors also are unknowingly getting eaten alive by spiders; these automated creepy crawlers have become a hidden epidemic.

While Bloomberg recently generated headlines when it published Disney and NetApps earnings results in advance of their official release, the real concern for retail investors should be the stealth spidering tactics of traders deliberately seeking to stay under the radar.

The spiders unleashed by Bloomberg and Selerity likely have plenty of company. In all probability, armies of incognito spiders are clandestinely retrieving troves of actionable, non-public data for their trading masters.

Even if these spiders fail to uncover non-public material information, their very use provides an unfair edge if publicly traded companies do not broadly disseminate their news via a service such as Business Wire.

The reason is that spiders are faster than the RSS readers that retail investors rely on for news alerts when disclosure is limited to a standalone web posting. Whereas Business Wire distributes market-moving news simultaneously and in real-time to financial information systems, portals, and media platforms worldwide, standalone web postings create a feeding frenzy for these rapacious spiders.

Retail investors have a legitimate reason to be suffering from arachnophobia; they are at a distinct disadvantage to market players that control these powerful technology termites.

3. There is a well-known saying that in life, “timing is everything.” That is certainly the case on Wall Street, where latency and milliseconds rule the day.

Winning on Wall Street is largely contingent on the ability to access and act on information faster than anyone else.

Institutional investors clearly have the necessary resources and technology at their disposal to triumph in today’s trading environment.

Notice-and-access and web disclosure disproportionately favor the professional investor, who can read – and react (perhaps even robotically) – far more quickly than the average retail investor.

The trading activity following Netflix’s recent web posting of its earnings (January 26 at 4:05 pm/ET) illustrates the high stakes involved.

More than one-third of Netflix’s total share volume for the day, or just over three million shares, traded after Netflix posted its earnings.

In after hours trading, Netflix’s shares were up $19.16 (10.47 percent).

Although individual investors now have the opportunity to trade in the after-hours market, they are being steamrolled by institutional traders, who clearly have the capability to react with more immediacy.

Retail investors are forced to play a bad hand. A recent blog post by Jack Campbell at 24/7 Wall Street, “Ten Ways Wall Street Crushes Retail Investors,” elaborates on many of these same themes: http://247wallst.com/2011/01/26/ten-ways-wall-street-crushes-retail-investors/

The common denominator linking all these examples is access to material information.

Regulation Fair Disclosure, in its original iteration, is clear on this point: all investors should have equal access to information at the same time.

The answer to the disclosure dilemma is obvious: the integrity of Regulation Fair Disclosure must be restored if retail investors are to be equal market participants.

Simultaneous, real-time access to disclosure news is the only solution that will put an end to the emerging two-tier access system that is slowly taking root.

It’s time for retail investors to get the fair shake they deserve.

3 Responses to Why the Deck is Stacked Against Retail Investors

  1. Greg Jarboe says:

    I taught an Online PR course on Friday that is part of the Rutgers Mini MBA: Digital Marketing Program. We reviewed three recent examples of notice-and-access press releases and the one-line-at-a-time reporting of earnings that the major wire services were forced to use. I asked the class what they thought and here are some of the comments:

    “It’s confusing.”

    “As a consumer, it would piss me off. I’m on the e-commerce team at my company, and we know things go bump on our website, so making it the only place to find our earnings could cause problems. And now I have to go to 500 websites four times a year to find out what the earnings of the Fortune 500 is.”

    “Why don’t they just tweet that their earning release is out?”

    “The perception is you are hiding something.”

    “It seems a little sleezy, unethical.”

    When asked the class to vote, 1 person liked notice-and-access press releases, 18 didn’t like them, and 7 said they were in the middle.

  2. [...] Why the Deck is Stacked Against Retail Investors – BusinessWired [...]

  3. [...] the United States, where the term “disclosure standards” is rapidly becoming an oxymoron, Canadians are crystal clear in what constitutes fair [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 590 other followers

%d bloggers like this: