PR as a guide to when the market is toppy

Joe Kennedy famously said that the time to sell shares was when shoe shine boys started to give you tips. A variation on the story was that the time to sell was when lift boys were also doing it.

What do we have as a proxy for these indicators today? Probably it’s when PR people start talking about the growth potential of financial PR and the media start talking about the PR firms that do the spinning to them.

These days of course there are few shoe shine boys although there is one outside the Macquarie offices in Collins Street Melbourne and no lift drivers since the venerable Melbourne artists’ colony, the Nicholas Building, automated its antique lifts some years ago.

The blog also suspects Joe Kennedy was a bit unreliable about this – well at least not as reliable as he was in supplying bootleg liquor during Prohibition, supporting Hitler and having affairs with actresses – although to his credit he proved adept at picking the market bottom.

The blog also knows, from personal experience, that the lift story was probably not true in at least one case during the Poseidon boom when the blog’s mother, after a long career as a machinist in a clothing factory, became a lift driver in a bank. She was an intelligent woman born in the 1920s to a family not very keen on educating girls (or boys either) and was possibly quite a lot smarter than those she ferried up and down in the bank building. But she never give stock market tips nor did she heed those who foolishly gossiped about them in the lift.

Much of financial PR is probably media and stakeholder related rather than investor relations – a function handed over more to specialist investor relations departments. And even then the major briefers of finance media are CEOs, investment bankers and brokers making the financial news more prone to spin than the political news. Increasingly there is also an element of issues management expertise.

In Australia some of the very best at corporate and financial PR are people like John Connolly, Anthony Tregoning and Tim Duncan although all three bring a much more sophisticated approach to the task than simply financial media relations. In John Connolly’s case his value is very much as a trusted counsellor to Boards, CEOs and the most senior managers.

Internationally there is a big shift towards global firms and the Weekend FT (7-8 May 2016) recently published a piece on the major players. Interestingly the FT ranked the firms according the value of deals they advised on with Brunswick having advised on deals worth more than double the next major player. Other players are Kekst, Finsbury, Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher (good positioning to seem akin in brand to a major Wall Street law firm), Tulchan, Hering Schuppener Consulting, Abernathy MacGregor, Sard Verbinnen, FTI Consulting and Edelman.

Despite being a major player in general PR Edelman brings up the rear of this field and probably FTI Consulting is the only one of these name really known in Australia. Paul Downie, a former blog colleague, who got his start working for Andrew Forrest and others in the wild West is now Chair South East Asia and Australia of the Strategic Communications part of the business. Given the state of WA he is probably pleased to be based in Sydney these days.

It was the FT article which got the blog thinking about the old saw about growth potential in financial PR. The market is toppy. The global outlook is complex. US firms are missing even their well spun earnings forecasts and share prices are probably more a product of a frantic search for yield than any of the usual fundamentals. Even one of the markets, the UK, from which many of the most successful financial PR firms emanated, is starting to look tired – not only because of the Brexit threat. Indeed, in the last quarter the British economy grew less than that of France and Europe as a whole. Australia’s Treasury Secretary, John Fraser, who claimed that the UK and George Osborne proved austerity works might even be forced to re-visit his view.

So why does the world’s leading financial newspaper (not the WSJ which has some elements of a propaganda sheet these days) devote a full page to the firms and people who spin the finance media? One possible explanation is that one of the firms suggested it. One should always ask cui bono – about any news story as a means of identifying who might have inspired it. The other possible explanation is that the market just might be a hell of a lot worse in the near future.

Incidentally, in the same FT issue Companies Editor, Brooke Masters, asks how it is that “big banks claim to be a chastened bunch….Yet the hits to banking’s reputation people keep on coming.” The latest, she reports, is that seven big banks have agreed to pay to settle another set of another set of rate-rigging allegations. As the film of the wonderful book, The Big Short, closes one sees a scene depicting all the bankers exposed in the film off to jail. But then the footage freezes and we cut to the real situation – one solitary junior banker off to the big house. And just in case anyone thinks the laws have been toughened up – in the UK at least George Osborne has just removed the threat of making directors and senior managers more responsible for bank sins. But then they do donate a lot to the Tories – and you don’t need financial PR consultants to help with that.