ASIC Viewpoint: Sell-side research and market cleanliness

Published by the Australian Financial Markets Association in AFMA Member News, August 2016.

ASIC recently released two reports relevant to AFMA members:

  • Report 486 Sell-side research and corporate advisory: Confidential information and conflicts of interest, and
  • Report 487 Review of Australian equity market cleanliness.

This work provides a positive picture of the overall cleanliness of the Australian listed equity market, while identifying some areas where continued review and improvement is required.

Market cleanliness

Report 487 has found an overall improvement in the cleanliness of the Australian listed equity market over the past decade.

The review looked at possible insider trading and information leakage ahead of material, price-sensitive announcements by looking at price movements or shifts in trading behaviour before these announcements.

The results suggest that insider information and the loss of confidentiality ahead of material announcements has declined over the decade. The review used an established market cleanliness measure and a new market cleanliness measure developed by ASIC to come to this conclusion.

In a clean market, security prices should instantaneously react to new information released through the proper channels. The traditional measure relies on abnormal pre-announcement price movements to indicate market cleanliness. ASIC developed the new measure by leveraging its advanced surveillance system and data analysis capabilities. The new measure compares the trading behaviour of individual accounts to their historical trading behaviour and the trading of others in the market.

Based on the new measure, 95% of material announcements exhibited no (or negligible) anomalous trading patterns ahead of an announcement in the period 1 November 2014 to 31 October 2015.

The report also notes that independent international research ranks Australian market cleanliness favourably compared to other developed equities markets.

Commenting on the reports, ASIC Commissioner Cathie Armour said 'Market integrity is fundamental to well-developed financial markets. We have seen a gradual improvement in market cleanliness indicators over time and across different segments of Australia’s listed equities market. ASIC will continue to monitor macro-level market cleanliness and enhance our surveillance and enforcement capabilities against market misconduct.'

Confidential information and conflicts

Report 486 involved a review of risks related to the handling of confidential information and conflicts of interests, particularly in the provision of sell-side research and corporate advisory services. We found that most firms have policies and procedures in place to deal with these risks. However, there remain instances of poor and inconsistent practice in their application.

We reviewed the policies, procedures and practices of a range of investment banks and brokers active in the Australian market and a sample of transactions, including initial public offerings (IPOs) and secondary offerings.

Whilst most firms have policies and procedures in place, we found considerable variation in how these are applied. For example, we found variation in:

  • Identification and handling of confidential information: Some organisations do not have appropriate arrangements to handle situations where staff members come into possession of confidential information. This includes the inadequate use or supervision of information barriers and restricted trading lists.
  • Management of conflicts of interest: There is an inconsistency in how conflicts of interest are managed. This includes the structure and funding of research, insufficient separation of research and corporate advisory activities (particularly the involvement of research in soliciting business during the IPO process), decisions about share allocations in capital raisings, and mixed practices in relation to the disclosure of conflicts of interest.
  • Staff and principal trading:
    • There is also considerable variation in the strength of controls to manage staff trading, including trading by corporate advisory and research staff.
    • In mid-sized firms, it is more common for staff to participate in capital raising transactions that the firm is managing. This presents an increased risk of unacceptable or questionable activity that firms need to be aware of and manage.

All firms should review this report and consider whether their processes are appropriate and sufficiently robust to meet legal and regulatory requirements.

ASIC will consult with industry over the next six months on current regulatory guidance for sell-side research and assess whether further guidance is required.

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Last updated: 20/09/2017 10:57