In my paper, Opacity in Financial Markets, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, I study the implications of opacity in financial markets for investor behavior, asset prices, and welfare. In the model, transparent funds (e.g., mutual funds) and opaque funds (e.g., hedge funds) trade transparent assets (e.g., plain-vanilla products) and opaque assets (e.g., structured products). Investors observe neither opaque funds’ portfolios nor opaque assets’ payoffs. Consistent with empirical observations, the model predicts an “opacity price premium”: opaque assets trade at a premium over transparent ones despite identical payoffs. This premium arises because fund managers bid up opaque assets’ prices, as opacity potentially allows them to collect higher fees by manipulating investor assessments of their funds’ future prospects. The premium accompanies endogenous market segmentation: transparent funds trade only transparent assets, and opaque funds trade only opaque assets. A novel insight is that opacity is self-feeding in financial markets: given the opacity price premium, financial engineers exploit it by supplying opaque assets (that is, they render transparent assets opaque deliberately), which in turn are a source of agency problems in portfolio delegation, resulting in the opacity price premium.
Posts Tagged ‘Information asymmetries’
In our paper, Window Dressing in Mutual Funds, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we investigate an alleged agency problem in the mutual fund industry. This problem involves fund managers attempting to mislead investors about their true ability by trading in such a manner that they disclose at quarter ends disproportionately higher (lower) holdings in stocks that have recently done well (poorly). The portfolio churning associated with this practice of window dressing has potentially damaging effects on both fund value and performance.
In its recent decision in Halliburton Co., et al. v Erica P. John Fund, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legal standard for reliance in Rule 10b-5 securities fraud class actions that it had established some 25 years ago in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson. This standard, known as the fraud-on-the market doctrine, created a rebuttable presumption that plaintiffs relied on the integrity of the market price if they can establish that the market for that security was efficient. Defendants can rebut this presumption in several ways, including showing that the market for the security was not efficient or that the security’s price was not affected by the misrepresentations at issue. In delivering its ruling, the Halliburton Court noted that market efficiency is not a binary, yes-or-no proposition but is instead a matter of degree, pointing out that “a public, material misrepresentation might not affect a stock’s price even in a generally efficient market.” (Halliburton, 573 U.S. ___ at 10.)
Even as rabble rousers rail against financiers, the powers that be prize the breadth and liquidity of financial markets. Flash traders are investigated for unsettling stock markets and violators of securities laws receive jail sentences on par with violent criminals. The Federal Reserve has spent trillions with the avowed aim of pumping up the prices of traded securities, while expressing little more than the pious hope that this largesse might spill over into old-fashioned, illiquid loans.
In mergers and acquisitions transactions with privately-held (or closely-held) target companies, transacting parties will often agree to make payments to the target shareholders contingent upon some post-closing measures. Two often used arrangements are purchase price adjustments (PPAs) and earnouts. With a purchase price adjustment mechanism, payment to the target shareholders will be adjusted based on an accounting metric (such as the net working capital or shareholders’ equity) calculated shortly after the deal is closed. For instance, with a purchase price adjustment based on the target’s net working capital, as the target’s post-closing net working capital goes up or down compared to a pre-closing estimate, consideration to the target shareholders increases or decreases in accordance. Similarly, with an earnout, the transacting parties will agree upon post-closing performance targets, using measures such as earnings, net income, or gross revenue, and the amount of consideration that the target shareholders are entitled to receive will depend on whether such targets are met over the earnout period.
The last thing hedge funds need is another wake up call about the risks of liability for trading on the basis of material nonpublic information. But if they did, a July 17 article in the Wall Street Journal would provide it. According to the article, the SEC is investigating nearly four dozen hedge funds, asset managers and other firms to determine whether they traded on material nonpublic information concerning a change in Medicare reimbursement rates. If so, it appears that the material nonpublic information, if any, may have originated from a staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee, was then communicated to a law firm lobbyist, was further communicated by the lobbyist to a political intelligence firm, and finally, was communicated to clients who traded. According to an April 3, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, the political intelligence firm issued a flash report to clients on April 1, 2013 at 3:42 p.m.—18 minutes before the market closed and 35 minutes before the government announced that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would increase reimbursements by 3.3%, rather than reduce them 2.3%, as initially proposed. Shares in several large insurance firms rose as much as 6% in the last 18 minutes of trading.
Over the last few years, Congress and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) were put under pressure to seriously consider regulating proxy advisory firms. Financial industry and government leaders have voiced concern that proxy advisory firms exert too much power over corporate governance to operate unregulated. The SEC as well as the Congress have investigated and debated the merits of proxy advisory regulation. The U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on the matter in June of 2013, and the SEC followed this hearing with a roundtable discussion in December of 2013. On June 30, 2014, the Investment Management and Corporate Finance Divisions of the SEC issued a bulletin outlining the responsibilities of proxy advisors and institutional investors when casting proxy votes. As of yet, no binding regulation has been promulgated, despite repeated calls for it.
Despite serious concerns about the quality of auditing and financial reporting of U.S.-listed Chinese firms, the SEC and the PCAOB have been unable to provide sufficient or timely information to U.S. investors due to resource constraints, the confidentiality rules underlying the PCAOB disciplinary proceedings, and no access to relevant work papers of Chinese auditors. In the paper, The Informational Role of Internet-Based Short Sellers, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, I focus on a new breed of information intermediary, i.e. Internet-based short sellers that have emerged in response to such regulatory loopholes and severe information asymmetry. Based on hand-collected Internet reports released during the 2009-2012 period by short sellers that target U.S.-listed Chinese firms, I find that these short sellers provide substantial information both directly and indirectly to investors.
In my paper, Financial Conglomerates and Chinese Walls, which was recently made available on SSRN, I examine the effectiveness of Chinese walls, or information barriers, in preventing financial conglomerates from misusing non-public information in their trading and other activities. In recent years, empirical evidence has shown that financial conglomerates’ Chinese walls fail in important contexts, allowing firms to trade using non-public information they garner from their clients. Nevertheless, Chinese walls continue to have the legal effect of allowing financial conglomerates to discharge the otherwise incompatible client duties they owe under agency law. These incompatible duties arise due to the inflexible application of agency law and to financial conglomerates’ organizational structure, under which firms act for numerous clients across a broad and diverse range of financial activities, accumulating vast quantities of non-public information in doing so. As agents, firms are duty-bound to disclose material information in their possession to clients, and yet to do so is to breach duties of confidence owed to other clients. Chinese walls help financial conglomerates to reconcile their otherwise incompatible duties.
In our paper, The Economics of Solicited and Unsolicited Credit Ratings, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we develop a dynamic rational expectations model to address the question of why rating agencies issue unsolicited credit ratings and why these ratings are, on average, lower than solicited ratings. We analyze the implications of this practice for credit rating standards, rating fees, and social welfare. Our model incorporates three critical elements of the credit rating industry: (i) the rating agencies’ ability to misreport the issuer’s credit quality, (ii) their ability to issue unsolicited ratings, and (iii) their reputational concerns.