Why do analysts low-ball earnings forecasts?
By Martin Daks – The market-research company FactSet reports that for each quarter over the past five years, an average of 72 percent of companies in the S&P 500 beat earnings estimates. Past research, including by University of Pennsylvania’s Scott Richardson, University of California at Irvine’s Siew Hong Teoh, and Boston University’s Peter D. Wysocki has found that analysts’ forecasts become more pessimistic and thus beatable as the quarter end approaches, but an unaddressed question is how this walk-down affects clients. If analysts revise their forecasts downward each quarter to placate managers, wouldn’t this confuse the investors who ultimately pay for their services?
According to Chicago Booth’s Philip G. Berger and Washington University’s Charles G. Ham and Zachary R. Kaplan, analysts walk down forecasts by suppressing positive news from quarterly forecasts, not by issuing misleading negative revisions. When analysts have positive news, they will often revise the share price target upward or state explicitly that they expect companies to beat earnings estimates, while leaving the quarterly forecast unrevised. Suppressing positive news leads to beatable forecasts—behavior that benefits corporate executives but carries important implications for both the individual investors who rely on these predictions and researchers studying investor expectations.
When securities analysts receive updated information after issuing a quarterly forecast, they have three options: revise the current-quarter earnings forecast; issue an alternative forecast signal, such as a revision to the share price target or future-quarter earnings; or issue no additional forecast.
By not disseminating all information through the current-quarter earnings forecast, which is widely available through commercial databases, analysts provide an advantage to investment clients who have paid for access to the full breadth of their research product.
“Analysts convey information in ways that enable them to be of service to clients, who they care about, and, at the same time, to avoid displeasing corporate managers, who they also care about,” Berger says. “Non-clients, who rely on earnings forecasts because they do not have access to the whole of an analysts’ work product, end up with skewed information, but this is not a primary concern for the analysts’ business.”
The researchers demonstrate that a simple strategy based on buying companies expected to beat earnings, using share price target revisions and the text of reports, yields significant abnormal returns, suggesting the market does not see through the analysts’ strategy for conveying information selectively. more>
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