Friday, September 23, 2005

Equity Research In Malaysia – A Review

(Please note that this letter was published in The Edge 2Q2004)

Putting aside the exchange rate control for the ringgit – the Malaysian equity market is quite open. In our Financial Masterplan to further expand and liberalise our financial markets, an important aspect has not been touched upon much, and that is equity research. If we aim to make the Malaysian bourse into one that has truly international best-practice, we need to address this issue.

Research has always been seen as a cost. No one is willing to put funds into it unless it can yield significant benefits. The universal broker concept has reduced the number of broking firms in the country significantly. How many have a viable research department? How many listed companies are actually covered? Most research units cover 20-30 of the Main Board stocks, and even then only the big ones usually. Added to that, they may cover a smattering of 10-20 stocks for various reasons. That is out of over 1,000 stocks that is listed. If we look at the Top 20 traded volume stocks on a daily basis - how many of those companies can we locate a decent research report? At most 5-6. This means investors are pouring funds into companies that they have very little information.

Lack of research allows syndicates and operators to move stocks with little fundamental justification. The issue of buyers beware do not apply here – if you keep people walking around and never giving them shoes in the first place, they won’t know that they are even barefooted. A little speculation is necessary for any healthy equity market, but if we are to modernize and progress, we need to reduce the “cowboy” image. Currently, investors may get financial data from websites and newspapers, but its mostly historical – we need to have industry outlook, each company’s performance variables and exposure, an assessment of management’s expertise, its relative valuation within the same industry, etc. That is why The Edge (and other similar publications) is not a luxury item but a necessity for all investors – at least The Edge will do a brief research piece on the smaller companies, even then, we would only have so-called-research articles on maybe 200 companies tops. Research houses will do reports on companies that matters – this means large caps as foreign funds only look at those. They may do some medium sized companies to pacify local funds. They may also do some companies if they are growth stocks. So no one will do “poorly performing companies” – cannot sell them, funds won’t buy them, and funds do not even own them in the first place… but they figure prominently in the Top 20 stocks traded daily.

Do individual investors deserve to be scalded because they know no better? Do individual investors deserve to get burned because of that? If the authorities do nothing, we are basically saying that it is okay to move stocks up and down as you like with no fundamental justification, and if small investors get hurt along the way, well its collateral damage!!?? If they have information in the first place, then at least they can decide to go in or not with their eyes open – and if they lose their shirt, well it’s the risk they took. Give them at least some "defence" when entering the markets. When there is little or no information available – the smaller investors do not stand a chance – the best source of credible information they can get is by “Have you heard…?

Some suggestions on how to improve the situation:
1) Newspapers’ business section editors to put more emphasis on reporting on Top 20 volume stocks.
2) A percentage of revenue for all broking houses to be spent on equity research. Details will have to be worked out to ensure that a broader range of stocks are being covered – e.g. 30 Main Board, 15 Second Board and 10 Mesdaq per research house.
3) When bringing a company to IPO, the lead manager(merchant banker/broker) will need to write published research reports (twice a year) on the company for the next 3 years. Newly listed stocks require more information.
4) All listed companies to have their own websites that will post up quarterly results as they are being announced. Explanations and justifications will need to accompany the financials from the company.
5) The setting up of a task force by KLSE and/or SC to look into improving the matter.

post script: Since the letter was published, the KLSE have started the CMDF-CBRA research scheme. The move is a move in the right direction, but I also have a lot to gripe over the quality of research presented there, and would question the real motives/agenda of some of the broking houses covering these stocks. This will be addressed in a later blog.

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