Smith Brain Trust / March 16, 2019

How Can Investors Reduce Uncertainty?

Women Leading Research 2019: Rebecca Hann

How Can Investors Reduce Uncertainty?

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Companies reveal more than their own profitability when they issue earnings announcements. They also provide clues about peer firms through a process called information transfer. New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business confirms the spillover effect but also shows that more insights may be gleaned than previously understood.

“The nature of the information being transferred extends beyond quarterly profits,” says Rebecca Hann, KPMG Term Professor at Maryland Smith and co-author of the research in Review of Accounting Studies. “Earnings statements may also resolve questions about risk and uncertainty at peer firms.”

Her paper, written with Smith PhD alumni Heedong Kim and Yue Zheng, shows stronger information transfer when an earnings report come from a bellwether firm within the industry. “If an industry leader like Apple has negative earnings news, it’s probably bad news for others in the mobile market,” Hann says.

The effect is also heightened, in terms of resolving questions about risk and uncertainty, during periods of macroeconomic turbulence that cut across entire industries. Data privacy concerns, for example, impact all social media companies and not just Facebook. “How much Facebook is affected by that can tell us how other firms could be affected,” Hann says.

Another example would be Walmart’s response following Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. “If there is an Amazon effect on Walmart, there could be an Amazon effect on other retailers,” Hann says. “An earnings report from Walmart during this period of uncertainty could help resolve questions industrywide.”

To measure the transfer of information about risk and uncertainty, Hann and her co-authors had to expand the scope of prior accounting research.

Past studies have focused on the stock price reaction to peer firms’ earnings announcements. “When a firm announces earnings, its investors react to the news, but so do the investors of its peer firms," Hann says. "We observe similar changes in their stock prices, which provides evidence of first-moment information transfer."

Hann and her co-authors looked beyond the first moment and focused instead on the standard deviation or "second moment" of stock returns. "We focus on the volatility of stock returns," Hann says. "The higher the volatility we observe, the greater the uncertainty."

What can investors learn by considering the different "moments" of an earnings announcement? A relatively narrow distribution in earnings forecasts signals high confidence in an earnings estimate, while a wide distribution signals the opposite.

"When there’s more uncertainty about a firm’s fundamentals — when there is greater uncertainty about its future cash flow — then their stock prices tend to be more volatile,” Hann says. "An earnings announcement tells us how profitable a firm is, but it also tells us how much uncertainty the firm’s industry faces, and hence it helps us assess the risk of its peers.”

Read more: “Intra-industry Information Transfers: Evidence from Changes in Implied Volatility around Earnings Announcements” with Heedong Kim and Yue Zheng, forthcoming at Review of Accounting Studies.

Rebecca Hann is associate professor and KPMG Faculty Fellow at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She received her Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Research interests: Financial reporting and disclosure, corporate diversification and, more recently, the role of accounting information in the macroeconomy and the real effects of financial markets.

Selected accomplishments: Award-winning teacher who has taught in Maryland Smith’s MBA, executive MBA and PhD programs; recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award, the Most Effective Core Professor Award and the Krowe Award for Teaching Excellence; PhD director for the accounting doctoral program at Smith; she has advised over a dozen doctoral students, who are now faculty members at universities around the world, including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Singapore Management University and the University of Michigan; winner of the American Accounting Association’s 2015 Best Dissertation Supervision Award and the 2017 Smith PhD Program Faculty Mentor of the Year Award.

About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.

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