Thursday, April 26, 2012

How the stock market works

"Company X crushes estimates; Shares Soar" screams the headlines in Forbes,  a respected business magazine. "Company X profits slip 35% as spending continues"  proclaims the equally loud headlines of The Wall Street Journal, a respectable business newspaper. Both refer to the same company - Amazon - and the same piece of news, the first quarter results of the company. Flummoxed ?? Read on.

Can both headlines be right ?? Surely they can't.  Only in the rarified world of finance , especially the even more ionospheric world of stock markets can both statements be true. Yes.

You see, company performance and movement of share prices is based on "expectations" and not on reality. Expectations of whom, you may ask ?  Of a unique sub species of the human race called homo sapiens analystensis (hereinafter referred to as HSA).

Cut to business school. Some of the best brains in the land want to "go into finance" after they graduate. Their ambition is to mutate into this unique sub species I referred to earlier. There are distinct variants even in the subspecies that you can aspire to become - HS Brokerensis, HS Sellsideanalystensis, HS Buysideanalystensis, HS Fundmanagerensis, etc etc.

All of them have only one aim in life. They aspire to make predictions of the future. These predictions are called "expectations" or "estimates" in the lingo. Never mind that humanity has not yet discovered how to foretell the future. All through history, many quacks have attempted to do this - astrologers, palmists and charlatans of various kinds. To this tribe has now been added the aforementioned HSA. Their tool is not a parrot or a horoscope, but an abomination called the Excel spreadsheet. For their quackery, HSAs earn only in seven figures.

Based on their wise gazings, they come up with an Estimate (with a capital E). Then they all flock together , total up all their Estimates, divide it by the number present and come up with a "Consensus Estimate". This is the magic target for the company to beat. This is what Amazon beat by 4X prompting the Forbes headline.

Companies are of course wise to all this. They cuddle up to this species. They ply them with booze in events called Analysts Meet. They provide them with "guidance" so that the fertile minds of the great members of HSA can be fertilised. Sharp readers may note that along with other humans, company honchos are equally clueless about the future. But that doesn't stop them from pontificating. They  whisper, allude, provide crystal balls etc etc so that the sainted HSA can come up with the "right" Estimate. Then they spend all their life trying to beat the millstone around their neck.

The stock market formula is simple. Beat the Estimate and your share price will soar. Miss the Estimate and the share price will tank. Never mind if you made a profit or a loss. Never mind that you sold more or less. Never even mind if you made cornflakes or condoms.

Now you see why both Forbes and Wall Street Journal were right. Amazon's profits actually dropped by 35% from last year's first quarter. Signor Bezos continues to thumb his nose at any naysayer and spends money like water (made respectable by calling it investment). But he beat the consensus estimate of the HSA. Not just beat it, but licked it.  

Amazon's share price rose 14% yesterday.