Sell-side research has undergone profound structural changes during the past decade with far-reaching implications affecting the quality of the research and how research is generated, sold and compensated. Decimalization, Regulation FD, unbundling of trading from research and the hedge fund “brain drain” have all negatively impacted sell-side profitability, product quality and small cap coverage in today’s age of diminished sell-side research.
Decimalization. When the SEC required exchanges to narrow their bid-ask spreads from one-sixteenth, or $0.0625, to $0.01 per share effective in 2001, the profitability of trading floors collapsed amidst tremendous spread compression. While working on the sell-side, I recall hearing many times over, “when we get a trade we can all hear the cash register ring.” After decimalization, I never heard this again. Sell-side boutiques, historically adequately compensated for their research with large bid-ask spreads, now struggled to stay afloat. They reduced staff levels and often swapped higher-priced, seasoned analysts for less-experienced and less-costly researchers.