Category Archives: broker

Future of online trading: App stores for investing

It’s been a truism that the secret to runaway success in technology has PlatformLeadershipBookalways been in platform building.

I learned about the intricacies of building platform leadership from a book by the same name, “Platform Leadership” which I read during my MBA. The book by Gawer and Cusumano detailed how Cisco, Intel and Microsoft drove industry innovation by building a robust, standardized technology platform other leading-edge products could plug into.

The premise of the book was powerful: companies that could create products/services that served the center of a powerful ecosystem of ancillary items built on top of these products become extremely valuable.  Think Intel Inside and Microsoft’s dominance of the OS.  Presently, think of what Salesforce.com is doing with its platform as well as Apple’s iPhone App Store.  By creating a platform around which 3rd party developers are incentivized to design and build products, these companies have created something much more valuable and harder to displace than a mere product.  They’ve created a platform.

Investment field riddled with platforms

The investment field is riddled with platforms, too.  Bloomberg runs an empire based on an install-base of thousands of terminals in most of the leading investment institutions around the world.  You want to reach institutional investors with financial content? Gotta work through Bloomberg.  Yahoo Finance is the granddaddy of financial websites, far and away seeing more pageviews than any of its competitors.  You want to reach the retail investor, gotta get on Yahoo Finance.

Platforms provide necessary structure to certain markets.  In the investment field, platforms like Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance serve to

  • Aggregate content: investors don’t have to hunt down information by doing hundreds of Boolean searches on the Internet.  By serving as content aggregators, the platforms serve as a clearing house and central node to consumer info.
  • Establish an orderly market: Platforms create order by creating certain standards for their products and partners.  Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance established syndication guidelines via which partners must comply to be on the platform.
  • Create viable business models: It’s not clear to me that many investment research products could survive on a standalone basis.  Investors don’t like to pay for content and by aggregating pageviews on a single site, Yahoo Finance actually creates a viable business model for their partners and shares it out with them.
  • Consolidates usage to make single a jumpoff point to reach users: By consolidating the market, making it orderly and putting viable financial metrics behind it, finance platforms are the gateway to the users.  It’s too hard, complicated and expensive to reach investors directly.  These platforms act as market makers for the investment content bringing suppliers and customers together.

Online Brokerages as Investment Platform

While reviewing a recent product/service that E*Trade launched last week, I stumbled upon the realization that online brokerages are doing the exact same thing that Apple is doing around the iPhone.

In fact, it’s a HUGE misnomer to call these firms “online brokers”.  What were once merely online trading systems, companies like Ameritrade and E*Trade are actually now in the platform business.  As this evolution develops away from just trading toward the development of a true investment platform, these firms are creating something so much larger than just online trading or banking services.  I like the term “investment platform”.

Ameritrade’s Premier Partners

platformpartners

Check out what Ameritrade is doing with its partner platform.  This page lists a handful of 3rd party applications that run on top of Ameritrade for clients to receive trading alerts, Jim Cramer’s wisdom, ongoing advice about when to sell and some nifty charting.

None of these services are completely groundbreaking in and of themselves, but Ameritrade is establishing itself as the nucleus of the investment ecosystem.  By allowing developers to build tools and hook them up to Ameritrade’s API, the firm is concretizing its position as the investment platform of choice.

You want to reach investors?  Gotta get on the platform.

While the platform provider has an unbelievable amount of power, on the other hand, having a platform enables software/services developers to effectively reach the investor smack dab in the middle of the investment process — something heretofore impossible to do.  Look to see a lot of services develop around this ecosystem.

It’s like milk — for everyone

It’s a boon for Ameritrade — they can provide more services for their client base without developing them in-house.  It’s a boon for consumers because they no longer have to wait on their broker to provide new services.  It’s a boon for software developers because a move toward a platform puts them in business.

Maybe this was self-evident.  Maybe others understood that this evolution was unfolding right in front of us. In fact, both Ameritrade and E*Trade have allowed 3rd party financial advisors access to their platform, technology, services and clients for years.  Yet, I think this is a huge breakthrough in the understanding of what the future holds for these particular firms, their clients and technology development. It’s the financial industry’s equivalent of a mash-up.

Exciting.

Additional Resources

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WSJ is wrong about the future of investment research

Very interesting article yesterday at the Wall Street Journal.  Entitled, “Stock-Research Reform to Die“, the article describes what’s happened in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s landmark settlement against Wall Street brokers in 2003.

StockResearchUnderusedByRetailBrokerageAccording to the WSJ, this settlement was part of a wider Wall Street wrist-slap against ingrained culture that issued “overly optimistic stock research in order to win investment banking business.”

One of the results of the settlement required major brokerage houses to spend $460+ million on independent stock research for their clients.

The WSJ’s conclusion: six years later and almost no clients are using independent research.

At Credit Suisse, which has mostly institutional clients, the number of times retail clients accessed independent research from the firm’s Web site ranged from 16 during the third year of the settlement to 110 the first year.

At the old Salomon Smith Barney — now part of Morgan Stanley’s Morgan Stanley Smith Barney — its roughly 4 million retail households accessed about 12,000 reports each month. Less than 2% of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Private Wealth Management clients likely downloaded a report each month, according to data from the public reports.

The WSJ mentions 3 reasons why investors haven’t taken up independent research at their broker:

  1. investors rely upon their brokers to act as a screen:  While 11% of brokers consumed independent research at least occasionally, they typically don’t send independent research out to clients.
  2. investors don’t rely as heavily on stock research today as they used to: “In the late 1990s, a positive report from a hot analyst could send a stock soaring. That effect is more muted today.”
  3. structural changes away from brokers to advisors: Commission-based business is old-school.  It’s been replaced by fee-based professionals acting as advisors.  There is less emphasis on trading at the retail level and less need for this type of research.  Combined with chinese walls going up between brokerage and investment banking, banks are cutting back on research teams as research becomes harder to monetize without the tie-in with banking.

Just wanted to chime in with a couple of comments:

  • I agree that full-service brokerage clients rely upon their brokers to act as screens.  That’s why they pay them and why they work with an advisor.  The vast majority of clients do not know how to read research or want to be bothered.  They want a quick synopsis why they should own a particular stock and for that, the broker acts as a type of well-heeled Cliffs Notes.
  • Maybe investors weren’t even aware that independent research was an option?  Do they know why it’s important?  Are investors aware of the biases which still exist in sell-side research?
  • Why depend on the guilt party to distribute the cure to the sickness?  That’s nuts.
  • Totally disagree with the fact that investors don’t rely on research. I would say that it’s more accurate to say that given historical conflicts of interests, investors no longer trust institutional research.  Given the gaping void left by Wall Street and the rise of financial bloggers and aggregation sites like SeekingAlpha,  many investors are actually consuming more research on more companies than ever.  We’re in a Renaissance/Gold Run/Bull Market for investment content — it’s institutional research that’s not finding its footing.
  • It’s hard for brokers today. Without an edge in research or asymmetrical information, it’s hard to push stocks and get paid for it.  That’s why many brokers have become mere wolves-in-sheeps-clothing: they’re still brokers but get paid as advisors.  We’re also seeing the emergence of true financial fiduciaries who work extremely hard for their fees and performance for clients, in up and down markets.   These advisors are doing real research or hiring people who do and they’re the ones consuming the research, not clients.
  • I think we’re seeing the investment field changing so quickly before our eyes.  On one hand, we’re seeing investors go boutique and sign up with independent financial advisors.  This is like more full-service than full-service.  On the other hand, we’re seeing investors retake the reins of their portfolios and managing things on their own — classic DIY investing online.  There is also a middle ground of investors who want more control but also want professional advice to support them along the way.  Regardless of the model, someone is consuming research, whether it’s the client or the advisor.
  • We need new business models to foster more independent research to fill the gap left by Wall St.’s void.  Tools to rate accuracy and trust-worthiness.  Performance.  From individual positions in a portfolio to the dynamics of portfolio management in general.

Interesting to see that most of the firms polled in the WSJ article were not planning on continuing distributing independent research.  Some have jettisoned research while others are bolstering their efforts.  That still leaves a tremendous opportunity out there for anyone who can provide actionable advice to the majority of investors out there.

Additional Resources

E*Trade further blurs lines between full-service and DIY investing

Full(er) Service and DIY Investing: Investor Fork in the Road

There is no doubt we are witnessing a wholesale exodus of assets out of full-service brokers like Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney. These assets seem to be finding two very different types of homes:

  1. boutique investment advisory houses: Built by brokers/advisors who themselves have defected from the large wirehouses, these firms take service and advice very seriously. In some sense, they’re a further move into full-service. They are competing head-on with traditional brokerages by upping the ante on technology, service and investment advice.  Investors who feel slighted by their advisor and want the extra hand-holding find this model really attractive.  It’s interesting to note that many of these firms are being founded/built by traditional brokers evolving to this model.
  2. online brokerages: Firms like E*Trade and Ameritrade are taking the bulk of this business.  In the wake of the financial tsunami, some investors are looking to take back investment decisions and don’t want to pay someone else for underperformance.  Proof of this is in capital flowing to online brokerages.  E*Trade reported that it had net new accounts of almost 30,000 in the first quarter of 2009 with $3.5 billion in net new customer assets.

I’ve written about the emergent trend towards high end investment advisors and how traditional stock brokers are resurrecting themselves and building smaller, nimbler firms with their billion-dollar books of business.  I’ve spent less time discussing how online brokers are luring assets.

Online Advisoretrade_onlineadvisor

I had the opportunity last night to have a guided demo of a recently-launched E*Trade product, Online Advisor, with E*Trade’s Liat Rorer, VP of Investment Products.  Online Advisor, developed as part of E*Trade’s newly-minted Investor Resource Center, is a nifty little financial planner-in-a-box.

In a quick and easy 4-step process, Online Advisor: Continue reading

Wither financial guidance when we need it most

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this financial crisis was totally avoidable.

No, not the popping of the Greenspan debt bubble — that was inevitable — but the slamming of the stock market in its wake.  This recession and destruction of financial firms was certainly probable – if not likely – and it caught most publicly traded companies completely off guard.

Financial advisors are paid to manage portfolios for any eventuality (hopefully).  If there is an X% chance of Y happening, the portfolio should take this into account and reflect a particular stance.

So, too, Investor Relations.

Financial communications to investors should be managed with the same risk management that people managing investments employ. There’s too much finger-pointing, sitting on hands and pulling back in financial communications — especially during these crazy times.

Ultimately, all this means that investors are left holding the proverbial bag — and the bag is certainly a lot less full than it was 12 months ago.  And what’s worse is that companies are retracting their lifeline with the investing public just when we need it most.

The National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) does periodic polling of their constituents.  Check out its press release (.pdf) published yesterday.

Couple of salient data points:

  • 60% of respondents provide earnings guidance compared to 64% in 2008.
  • The primary reason cited for ceasing earnings or other financial guidance within the last 12 months was due to a change in visibility / forecasting ability of business. (emphasis mine)

While a 6+% year-over-year drop in companies offering earnings estimates is not catastrophic, it’s not encouraging either, especially giving its timing.  It certainly is harder to communicate guidance during tumultuous times because guidance becomes so much harder to gauge.  But the same NIRI survey also shows there’s been a pullback in all types of guidance, including non-financial guidance.

With banks cutting their research staff, newspapers going under, and ad-supported financial content having a harder time of it, investors are left with at least one traditional, valuable source of information — companies themselves.

It really is an opportunity for companies to distinguish themselves by providing straight information, timely communications and no-nonsense bull.  Investors deserve it.

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How will investors behave with no newspapers?

stock quotesSlow death of the newspaper and how investment decisions are affected

While news and the proliferation of information is booming, clearly the newspaper industry is on its way out.  Its current revenue model just can’t support a quality newsroom in the face of widely available free information on the Internet.

Numerous industry analysts continue to discuss the evolution of the news business (see Jarvis and Rosen as two of the best) but no one seems to be discussing the fact that beyond local news,  many investors who are less Internet savvy still receive much of their investment ideas/information from the old-school paper.

Older investors disproportionately hurt

While my 96 yr. old grandfather learned how to use Yahoo Finance before his death two years ago, I think older investors are hurt the most  by the demise of the paper.

This affects more than just getting stock quotes from your local Sunday edition.  This is about generating new ideas and monitoring stocks in existing portfolios.

Given the fact that we know investors are totally prone to home bias, that is over investing in domestic and even local firms in spite of knowing that investing more abroad lowers risk, the loss of a local paper can be really detrimental in both the discovery and analysis phases of investing.

5 things that need to happen for investors in a post newspaper world

I wanted to use this post to explore some ideas how investors can make better, more informed investment decisions in a post-newspaper world.

  1. More Internet consumption: I know this sounds so intuitive but there really has never been anything to compete with the level of breadth and detail on stocks, mutual funds and ETFs that the free Internet offers.  We have to help investors migrate away from newspapers as sources of financial information and hook up to their digital counterpart.  This is happening anyway as younger generations cut their teeth on Internet tools but we’re still a long way away from general literacy in using financial tools on the Internet.
  2. Financial tools education: This will require new sorts of financial education on how to use such tools.  This education should address both older investors who are not as generally familiar with the Internet, as well as younger investors who live and work on the Internet but need some more hand-holding in terms of learning how to access financial information.  I give monthly investing seminars and am always interested to see how familiar average investors are with what’s available.  Generally, they are open to help and can use it.
  3. Evolution of the investment newsletter: As the ad-based model of media also suffers from a depressed advertising cycle, I predict investors will turn more to premium, subscription products.  Unfortunately, much of the financial newsletter industry is based on unsubstantiated hype.  Performance is important but so is fitting investments into an overall plan, managing risk, explanation, and creating an investment system that jives with investor lifestyle (people working 60 hr/wk should not be daytrading). Investors need to see:
    1. Audited performance metrics: New web firms like Covestor allow investment advisors to audit their risk-adjusted performance.  Investors need to better understand the power of these tools and how to use them in terms of do-it-yourself investing or hiring a professional.  Mark Hulbert has been monitoring the industry for years.  We need more.
    2. More types of newsletters: Most newsletters take a trading focus.  It makes sense because they are competing on performance.  Performance is just one (important) criteria, though and we need to see more newsletters that differ in style.  Buy and hold, dividend investing, retirement investing, macro, etc.  Investors need to be able to size themselves up, determine their needs and then accurately shop for the premium product that best fits their requirements.
    3. More responsible marketing:  Some many people are susceptible to predatory and misleading marketing of newsletters.  “Up 1000%”, “Profit Machine”, “Minting Money” — terms like this make investors think that newsletters are sure things.  They’re not and the volume of spam I receive with messages like these is increasing.  Newsletter will play an even more powerful role as more people decide to take a do-it-yourself approach in the wake of this market fallout.  Like Sean, I believe that we’ll see more hybrid “do-it-yourself-with-professional-guidance” models emerge.  Newsletters must take on more ethical responsibility.
  4. Changing Investor Relations role: Like most industries connected to the meltdown in the financial sector, Investor Relations is looking itself in the mirror and grappling with its future.  For sure, it’s not going away as someone needs to play the role of matchmaker between company and investor.  But that doesn’t mean the current model of press release + road show with mutual funds + conference is the only way forward.  The Internet has changed the way people invest and how they research investments.  IR is beginning to realize the power of social media and needs to step up to best represent their firms and position themselves for the changing needs of investors.  There is so much that can be done here — new models, new distribution, new clients.
  5. Better alerting systems: A moderate to heavy Internet user who monitors his/her portfolio with some regularity should notice big changes.  Probably not with enough forewarning to do something about a problem immediately but within enough time to make a decision.  Do I want to stay in this stock after the company has cut its dividend?  Made an unsolicited offer for a competitor?  Others need a better way to monitor their portfolios according to their requirements.  If a retirement investor wants to take an active role in managing the portfolio and doesn’t hear from a broker regularly or check the Internet, there’s going to be a problem.  Google Alerts can help investors stay abreast of breaking stories.  But it’s not good enough because it requires some understanding of how to structure the queries.  Many brokerage platforms allow SMS messaging for extreme price movements but investors don’t know how to use these things.

We are witnessing the changing of historical proportions as we cope with the evolution of the media industry.  Although much of investing has moved online, many are still attached to the old form newspaper.  I’m looking forward to seeing the changes happen that bring every investor into the fold.

Additional Resources

    Broker’s Guide to Finding a New Job

    Times are tough

    Tough for everyone and tough for stock brokers who are reeling from both the nasty performance of the stock market over the past year and from structural changes in their business.  So far this year (May 2009), over 17,000 brokers have left the profession which would equate to 35,000 exiting the business by year’s end (2009).   That’s almost 6% of the entire field opting out.

    job-hunt

    Taking stock and figuring out what to do

    Become a franchise player

    So, what’s a broker to do?  If you’re at the top of your field (generating over $1m+ in fees per year), there is heated competition for your skills and you should find numerous firms looking to pick you up on sweet terms.  In this case, become a franchise player.

    Planning your next move

    If you’re not there yet (ie. generating less than $250k in fees) and still employed, it’s probably worthwhile making a game plan about what to do next in your career.  Change is prudent and sometimes necessary, so have a plan.  You planned your clients’ moves involving lots of money.  Pretty high stakes.  Your career is too and requires the same type of oversight right now.

    I think a broker’s career management decision tree is pretty simple at a high level right down and it centers on two options: do I stay in the business in some capacity or do I find a new field of employment?

    Stay in business vs. Find a new field of employment

    Stay in business

    1. Switch brokerage firms: huge finders fees and great incentives.  If you are a big or even medium sized producer, you’ll find better payout rates at many firms.
    2. Become an Registered Investment Advisor (RIA): Join another firm, start your own.  The business is headed in this direction anyway — away from commission-based advice.  Many have left the wirehouse world and have started up their own advisory firms.  Start one yourself and bring your clients with you or join another firm and leverage their startup costs.
    3. Find another role in brokerage/advisory world: When I was an analyst at a hedge fund, we had someone whose sole job was to help the funds under management locate borrowable stock to short.  He wined and dined his prime brokerage relationships and enabled the fund to make a lot of money because we could get our hands on stock to short while others could not.  Similarly, lots of hedge funds need help with back office functions or client management (aka bringing in investment dollars).  If you have a strong book of business, help raise money for startup hedge or mutual funds.
    4. Find a different way to monetize your skills: Jim Cramer is no longer a money manager.  He’s a media personality and he butters his bread by being entertaining and teaching millions of people about investing.  He is a credible source of information (whether you like him or not) because he has such great institutional experience.  He is entertaining and has helped excite millions of investors.  Others have created financial newsletters to sell on the side.  Others have created trading systems for do-it-yourself investors.  Still others aren’t quite sure where all this is leading and have started blogging to begin building an online reputation.  Use SeekingAlpha to help showcase your skills.
    5. Become a recruiter: Sound strange?  Nah, Heidrick and Struggles, one of the leading executive recruiting firms really grew from its financial services practice.  Times are tough but recruiting requires very little sunk capital, a phone, computer and a rolodex.  Close a couple of searches and that can make your whole year.
    6. Become an expert: Slow times create opportunities.  Take this time to rebrand yourself as an expert in something.  Anything.  Maybe it’s wealth transfer.  Maybe it’s tech stocks.  Anything that can differentiate you from your peers will pay off.  Participate with your expertise up in an expert community, like Covestor. Show off using social media, like Twitter.

    Change fields

    1. Find a business development/sales position: Like making deals? Once outside the financial industry, you can use your ability to close and speak persuasively to help build companies, partnerships and sales.  Media companies are hiring (NOT newspapers).
    2. Start your own franchise: Find and research franchise opportunities.  Franchises allow you to run your own business but with corporate backing.  It’s a great way to begin a new career for someone who wants to be their own boss and run a restaurant, dry cleaning, office supply store, whatever.
    3. Join a non-profit: Non-profits are suffering.  Rainmakers are having a hard time luring fresh funds in a down market.  Your book of business and rolodex may make a great partner working with a nonprofit to make a difference.  You won’t know until you try.
    4. Dabble in real estate: You know rich people.  You know people who are looking for opportunities. There are always opportunities looking for rich people.  Be the matchmaker.
    5. Try something out of the box: Check out US News 30 Best Careers for 2009.  They’re quite different than what you’ve been doing up to now.  There’s no better time to redefine yourself than right now.  Ghostwriting is up there — if you like writing and are good at it, take a stab at helping to write a business book for a colleague.

    Distress creates opportunities.  Financial advisors and brokers are facing the double-whammy of a shrinking asset pool combined with an industry that is changing quickly in the face of increased regulation, more competition and further disintermediation by the Internet.  You can take this time to make yourself more competitive when the economy picks up or opt to do something completely new.  Brokers have access to investment money, understand financial products and know a thing or two about client service.  Put those to work in something that’s going to both spiritually and fiscally rewarding.

    How top brokers are like franchise players

    The News

    News hit this week that upstart financial advisory firm and independent broker-dealer, HighTower, landed star broker, Richard Saperstein as a partner.

    According to an article by InvestmentNews, Saperstein manages a book worth about $10 billion in assets.

    Nabbing Mr. Saperstein is a financial coup for HighTower.

    If he charges clients in his bond and cash portfolio a fee of 0.35% to 0.4%, standard for the industry, that means he alone could generate about $35 million to $40 million in revenue for HighTower, an astonishing sum for a firm to land in one fell swoop.

    Clearly, this was a huge coup for the young firm started by well-weathered Wall Street veterans Philip Purcell and David Pottruck.

    Franchise players as double-edged swords

    As in sports, franchise players have the ability to make or break a squad.  If I had to choose a few characteristics that go into landing and signing a player of Saperstein’s caliber, I’ll turn again to the sports analogy.

    • franchise players sign multi-year, lucrative contracts: We don’t know all the details of Saperstein’s package, but we have to assume it was really tasty.  HighTower was said to have set aside about 25% of equity to help lure players of Saperstein’s caliber.  I’d expect a big chunck of this equity to be allocated on this deal.
    • veto-power on trades: Many franchise football players have no-trade clauses worked into their contracts, allowing them to veto any horse trading concerning them.  As an equity partner and the driver of immediate revenues, Saperstein liked the product so much, he just became part-owner.
    • Top recruits are double-edged swords:  HighTower has made no bones about its strategy to attract and recruit top talent from around the industry.  From the website:

    HighTower offers elite advisors with high net-worth practices at traditional firms a unique chance to realize the full value of their achievements. We offer both an attractive initial compensation package and a long-term equity stake.

    At HighTower, you have the opportunity to be compensated for the value of your business multiple times. First, at the inception of your relationship, and then again over time through your ownership interest in HighTower.

    As in sports, top players attract other players looking to be part of a winning, or at least, exciting team.  The problem with franchise players is that they have essentially assured themselves of playing time.  This has a perverse effect of scaring off others who believe they are of the same caliber or may be competing for the same position.  Other top brokers may decide against joining HighTower because of such a high-profile hire.

    • media recognition as face of the franchise: Many professional athletes actually become the team they play for, at least in the public arena.  With wide recognition as one of the tops in his trade, Saperstein brings immediate credibility to the fledgling firm.

    Broad Implications

    The exodus out of traditional wirehouse brokerages to independent firms is continuing.  Barriers to entry are falling and independents are rising to the challenge to create firms with equivalent resources to service both high profile brokers and their clients.  Assuming that independent RIAs have institutional-grade platforms and services to compete against the Big Boys, why wouldn’t more elite brokers  choose more lucrative packages to monetize their books?

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