Monday, February 25, 2008

The Payment Paradigm

In this weekend’s New York Times, Joe Sharkey wrote an article titled ‘The Skies Are Alive With Fees,’ which points out some of the payment adjustments and ‘unbundling’ of services that many airlines are undertaking in order to generate revenue. Since most passengers have been conditioned to pay in a more conventional, ‘bundled’ manner for flights, many are immediately skeptical of this new payment model – even though at first glimpse, it does seem to make sense and have some advantages.

After all, wouldn’t you rather pay for what you want, than pay for ‘perks’ you have no interest in or have any intention of using?

We point to the airlines’ new payment models, because it draws an interesting parallel to the current payment transition in the investment research world. As the SEC this past week has proposed rules that will require further disclosures for soft dollar transactions, different payment options that simplify payments for research services will become a more common part of the equation. Despite the growing popularity of flat-fee type payments for research, many portfolio managers (PMs) seem to have a difficult time embracing the idea of paying for research as a full product, rather than paying for each individual idea (through trade commissions). However, as time ticks down for the SEC to fully implement new disclosure rules, flat fee payment for research will seem like a far more desirable option. Disclosing a flat fee payment for research services will minimize compliance confusion and bookkeeping nightmares.

As with the airlines, it will also become attractive to portfolio managers and investors to buy the research they use and want, rather than paying for ‘add on’ research that delivers no value.

For independent analysts, the shift to a model where they can be compensated for full access to their insights, rather than solely for specific ideas, means that they are finally getting some of the respect – and compensation – that they deserve. PMs also benefit, because by essentially having fractional ownership of the analyst, they are able to access the insights of an analyst whose insights they trust, at a fraction of what they would pay to put that analyst on their staff. The SEC is creating a win-win situation by taking steps that benefit analysts who generate actionable ideas and the portfolio managers that use/need them.

There was a lot of resistance to the internet when it was first born, too, and people who were used to handling their business and information gathering in other ways had a hard time adapting…but before long, it was widely embraced because the advantages were indisputable.

If perks to flat fee payment are implemented – such as selling the research solely on a limited distribution basis, and making the analysts accessible as an extension of the PMs own research team, independent research providers with payment models like StreetBrains’ will prove to have indisputable advantages over the conventional model, too.