Hedge funds eye a profit from European bank research retreat

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As Europe’s big investment banks and brokerages scale back their research efforts, particularly towards small and mid-sized companies, some hedge funds and other specialist players spy an opportunity.

If the major players aren’t ferreting out investment ideas among Europe’s thousands of non blue-chip companies, figuring the effort is too costly and time-consuming at a time of cutbacks and rationalization, other participants see a chance to capitalize on the resultant gap in the market.

The hope? That less analysis and information flow has left the best investment ideas undiscovered, even in an era of data overload via everything from specialist investor websites to social media.

“If it’s shrinking, that research is going to be replaced by independent research firms and hedge funds, which are doing their own deep dive and explicitly investing behind their ideas,” said Soren Aandahl, head of research at activist investor Glaucus.

Data underlines the scale of research cutbacks among the big banks.

Four in every 10 European stocks tracked by analysts have seen a drop in coverage over the last two years, twice the number of firms recording a rise, Thomson Reuters figures show.

And calculations by Reuters based on year-end statements show Europe’s 30 largest banks by stock market value cut staff by 80,000 in 2013 alone – not all equity analysts of course but certainly that category was far from immune.

This has led to fewer eyes looking at some of the 9,000 listed companies in Europe, especially those with a smaller market capitalisation.

Some clients have noticed the difference.

“For many of the European mid-cap companies we cover, the breadth, depth and quality of the sell-side research (from banks and brokers) has declined,” said Moni Sternbach, head of European mid-cap investing at $6.5 billion hedge fund firm Cheyne Capital.

LUCRATIVE IDEA

Yet finding the right investment idea among overlooked small companies can still prove lucrative, as evidenced by events around Spanish wireless networks provider Gowex, a thinly analyzed company whose shares fell 60 percent after a firm called Gotham City Research issued a detailed report questioning its accounts.

Gowex subsequently filed for bankruptcy.

Gotham City had said in its original report that it stood to benefit from a drop in Gowex shares, presumably by taking a “short” position by borrowing stock it then sold in the expectation of being able to buy it back cheaper.

U.S.-based Gotham may also have been taking advantage of Europe having been hit harder in equity research than other regions, given a steep fall in commissions paid to banks by fund managers and a subsequent focusing by banks on the large companies that are more likely to offer them other business.

That same pressure on resources has also seen the quality of research fall, some fund managers say, with some companies often only covered by a brief note when they release their results.

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