Sunday, March 18, 2007

Less Guidance Means More Risk

Earnings guidance is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I have written a number of articles that criticize efforts to ban guidance. The first two, In Defense of Earnings Guidance and Is Buffett Hazardous to Your Wealth?, were published in 2003. The third, Gimme Guidance, was co-authored with Mike Ozanian and published in 2006.

Guidance is in the news again because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently came out with a report encouraging companies to put an end to the practice. Even Warren Buffett, perhaps the most successful investor of all-time, opposes guidance.

There are a number of objections to guidance. However, the one that gets the most play is that guidance encourages executives to focus on the short term rather than the long term. As a result, managers worry more about managing earnings than they do about managing the business. For example, it is argued that managers who provide guidance are more likely to reduce R&D spending in order to "meet the number." Doing something like this will boost short-term profits at the expense of long-term profits. Everyone, include myself, agrees this is a bad idea.

The problem with the argument is that it falsely assumes that "short-termism" is caused by guidance. It isn't. The fact is that investors will form expectations whether guidance is provided or not. They currently form quarterly expectations simply because the SEC requires corporations to report earnings every quarter. If the SEC required monthly reports, investors would form monthly expectations.

Guidance plays a valuable role because it ensures that investor expectations don't get out of hand. I have theorized about this in the past and said that without guidance, the disparity between actual earnings and the consensus estimate will only be larger than it already is. Now there is empirical evidence that supports this theory. Baruch Lev of NYU and his co-authors, Joel Houston and Jennifer Tucker of Florida, have a very interesting paper in circulation called "To Guide or Not to Guide?" They find that earnings estimates do indeed become less accurate when companies stop providing guidance. What's worse, they find absolutely no evidence that those companies that end guidance increase the focus on the long term. Companies that end guidance do not increase R&D spending, they do not increase capital expenditures, and they do not provide investors with any additional information.

A second study in circulation by Shuping Chen, Dawn Matsumoto, and Shiva Rajogopal of the University of Washington called "Is Silence Golden?" finds that eliminating guidance destroys shareholder wealth. When companies announce an end to guidance, they suffer a statistically significant decline in stock returns.

There really is only one thing that can be said for sure about ending guidance. Less guidance results in less information. And all investors know that less information creates greater uncertainty, which means more risk. It seems odd in the post-dotcom era when regulators are trying to encourage more disclosure, that some of the most vocal corporate critics of the past are now telling corporations to keep mum.