NYT Catches Up with the Stock Analysts

Stock analysts have been overlooked in this crisis, despite having a prominent role in the last stock crash just eight years ago.

So, good for The New York Times for catching up with these folks to see just how they’ve done. You can guess where this is going.

I like the lede:

Even now, with the recession deepening and markets on edge, Wall Street analysts say it is a good time to buy.


And here are the devastating stats:

At the top of the market, they urged investors to buy or hold onto stocks about 95 percent of the time. When stocks stumbled, they stayed optimistic. Even in November, when credit froze, the economy stalled and financial markets tumbled to their lowest levels in a decade, analysts as a group rarely said sell.

And last month, as the Dow and Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index suffered their worst January ever, analysts put a sell rating on a mere 5.9 percent of stocks, according to Bloomberg data. Many companies have taken such a beating in the downturn, analysts argue, that their shares are bound to bounce back.

Maybe. But after so many bad calls on so many companies, why should investors believe them this time?

Anecdotes are easy pickins for this story: The Citi analyst who upgraded Bank of America to a “buy” on October 8 and is down 77 percent—so far—on that one.

Here’s the pitiful excuse from a guy who also upgraded BofA to a “buy” and doubled down by doing the same for Citigroup:

“Our ratings are based on 12-month price targets,” Mr. Harte said. “Given the nature of economic cycles and, really, the focus of the new administration, I did expect and still do expect that the sector will improve considerably over the long term.”

Define “long term” for me.

The Times uncovers something interesting here but doesn’t follow through and explore it at all:

The actual investment recommendations coming from a sales desk can tell a different story from analysts’ publicly released research. To gauge what clients are actually hearing from their investment managers, the investment-tracking firm First Coverage collects buy and sell recommendations from about 1,000 analysts that serve independent and midsize firms.

At the end of January, 34.5 percent of the recommendations seen by First Coverage were for a sell or short call. That was up from 24 percent in December 2007. At the height of the market crash, in October and November, the proportion of sell calls reached about 45 percent.

Why is that number so much different than the 5 percent of the analysts? No hint here.

But the paper does write a bit about the structural reasons for why analysts are so bullish.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a bear market, a bull market, a flat market, you’re going to get 95 percent of the research coming out telling you to buy,” said Randy Cass, chief executive of First Coverage. “It’s just the way it’s always been.”

Although reforms after the dot-com bubble sought to make analysis more independent by separating it from investment banking, the broader culture on Wall Street still favors bulls.

Yet another institutional failure.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.