There's a new entry for professions requiring formal licensure: people who tell investors what stocks to buy.
The government says you had better get a license if you want to cut people’s hair, massage their bodies or operate a horse-drawn cab around New York City’s Central Park.
Starting April 4, add a new entry for professions requiring formal licensure: people who tell investors what stocks to buy.
Research analysts have been the official goats of Wall Street ever since New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer started showing the public what the Street has known for years: The same research people who were picking stocks for the public were often on the take from the investment-banking department, pocketing fees deriving from the same companies they were touting.
For the research department, life hasn’t been the same.
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Today’s humbled analyst lives in a world where pay is down 50 percent from 1999, the year when analyst Jack Grubman made $25 million at Salomon Smith Barney. (Grubman agreed to a lifetime ban from the securities industry and was fined $15 million.)
As if that’s not bad enough, the $1.5 billion global-research settlement between 12 brokerage firms and federal, state and industry regulators called for the funding of competing “independent” research firms (read: firms that didn’t have investment-banking departments) whose stock ratings must be accessible to brokerage-firm customers.
Talk about a vote of no confidence.
Now, analysts are going back to class, taking a test and getting a license. That’s potentially great news for the public because it means analysts’ qualifications become part of a public database.
NASD (formerly known as the National Association of Securities Dealers) ruled on March 30, 2004, that analysts had to pass the Research Analyst Qualification Exam.
Any new analyst as of that date must take the two-part test — 100 questions about finance and analysis and 50 questions about rules and regulations — before dealing with the investing public. If they flunk the test three times, they have to wait 180 days before a retest.
Analysts in operation before the March 30 date got a break.
They were given a one-year grace period until April 4, 2005, to take the 5 ½ hour multiple-choice test. They could even flunk the test and retake it (with 30-day intervals between testing dates) until they passed, as long as they did it by April 4.
Not passing the exam by that date means loss of registration as a research analyst.
Herb Perone, a spokesman for NASD, says that analysts who write for public dissemination have always had to pass what’s called the Series 7 test, the same one stockbrokers take.
Under the new rules, analysts will still take the Series 7 but also must pass the two new tests, known as Series 86 and 87.
For all the regulatory drama in recent years over transparency and pronouncements about protecting the Little Guy, data about analysts and the test requirement are mystifyingly secret. The public has no way to tell how many analysts asked to use the one-year grace period, or who has flunked the exam.
“These are not numbers we release publicly,” Perone says.
“It’s regulatory information,” he says.
Perone was willing to say that there are 668,000 registered representatives, including everyone from sales assistants to stockbrokers and supervisors.
Amid the murky information, investors can sometimes glean whether an individual analyst has met the new NASD standards by going to NASD’s Web site and plugging in the name of an analyst and his firm.
An investor can go to www.nasd.com, for example, and learn that Darren Kimball of Lehman Brothers Holdings and David Wilson of Merrill Lynch were approved as research analysts.
Or find that Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley wasn’t. (She still has a few weeks to take the test and be in compliance.)
Registered analysts are supposed to have up-to-date records, including reporting if they have committed crimes including felonies, or if they have been accused of securities violations, like touting a stock of an investment-banking client even though they think it’s a dog.
The requirement comes out of their Series 7 “registered representative” licensing, which obligates them to make disclosures that mostly become public information.
They don’t always do that. Andrew Susser, a former bond analyst at Bank of America, was fired on Jan. 10 from the bank’s securities unit.
On the cover of a 56-page report on the hotel industry, he superimposed his face on a picture of a woman in a black dress and high heels being carried over the threshold of a hotel suite by another man. NASD’s public Web site shows no record of the dismissal.
To decide who must take the new test, NASD defines a “research analyst” as anyone whose name is on a research report, or who is primarily responsible for the substance of a report.
What of the myriad Wall Street types, then, who hang a shingle and call themselves analysts?
Ivan Feinseth, managing director of New York-based Matrix USA , has a Series 7 broker’s license, but he hasn’t taken the analyst test. He has been quoted by Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press and the New York Post as an “analyst.”
The Bloomberg professional system in late February listed Feinseth as covering 1,386 companies.
Feinseth said he doesn’t talk to company managers; rather, his employees study company filings and use a “quantitative model” to determine stock recommendations. He says it’s appropriate that he is quoted as an expert because he has “over 20 years’ experience in the securities business.”
Feinseth says he plans to take the analyst tests, although he asserts that he doesn’t have to because “I don’t produce the research.”
He has two customer complaints on his record: one denied by his former employer, Wachovia Securities, and the other settled by Wachovia for $85,000.
Both complainants were sophisticated investors who simply lost money in the market, according to Feinseth.
He says he expects one of the two cases to be expunged from his record because that was part of the deal in the settled case.
John Heine, a spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission, says the commission has no data on how often analysts at SEC-regulated broker-dealers have been on the wrong side of the SEC.
As for so-called nonassociated persons who don’t work for broker-dealers and still publish research: “You can publish whatever you want as long as it’s not fraudulent,” Heine says.
You can also keep publishing if you are a fixed-income analyst. “All our analyst rules apply only to equity,” NASD’s Perone says.