Why the Deck is Stacked Against Retail Investors

February 3, 2011
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.


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