In the wake of the economic crisis, companies
should review the targets they share with financial
markets in the future.
What is Guidance? The term “guidance” is generally taken to refer to those forward looking statements that accompany yearly, half-yearly and quarterly results announcements. Whether in the form of quantitative financial metrics or more qualitative background “color”, guidance is the lifeblood of equity analysis. Many analysts indeed lean heavily on the information they receive to build their models, calculate forecasts and decide on whether to recommend stocks to clients.
In an age of increased transparency – of the quality, quantity and frequency of reporting – analysts also expect companies continually to increase the amount of information they provide, including ever greater detail. But better guidance is not synonymous with increased disclosure.
From the company’s point of view the goal is to illuminate management thinking for shareholders and potential shareholders (as well as media and employees) rather than to make specific predictions about the future. Guidance metrics are determined on a case-by-case basis and will differ by company and industry. They may evolve over time, as the issues and industries change.
The challenge for companies wrestling with what to say is made worse by the lack of formal standards in many of the main financial markets. Regulators insist that companies disclose material events to all investors simultaneously but do not provide rules governing guidance.
Europe, Asia and the US all follow slightly different conventions, though international mega-cap companies set the tone and can generally provide as much or as little guidance as they like. Given their leadership positions, analysts will cover them by default and they are large enough that they have inherently more predictable revenue streams.
If recent trends continue, fewer than half of the publicly traded companies in the United States will be offering their investors earnings guidance on a regular basis by 2012. In 2009 another dozen or so stepped back from this practice, a retreat reflected in many other parts of the world. In many cases what was happening was not so much that companies provided less information but that they changed the mix, allowing investors a line of sight of their prospects where the guidance was less specific. Doing this creates an interesting new challenge for companies.
In large part the turbulent economic climate of the last 18 months – highlighting in particular the perils of publishing short-term earnings targets – precipitated the recent debate. But with the year coming to a close and hopes for economic recovery in the air, opinions on guidance around the world remain divided. While some business leaders insist that they have kicked the habit for good – and are glad that they have done so – the vast majority of companies continue to offer some insight into future performance at least qualitatively and, where possible, with hard numbers.