Brent Donnelly is a senior risk-taker and FX market maker, and has been trading foreign exchange since 1995. His latest book, Alpha Trader, was published last summer to great acclaim (by me, among others!) and can be found at your favorite bookseller. I think it’s an outstanding read, and not just for professional traders.
As with all of our guest contributors, Brent’s post may not represent the views of Epsilon Theory or Second Foundation Partners, and should not be construed as advice to purchase or sell any security.
[Ed. note – in the spirit of the question we are always asking ourselves at Epsilon Theory – WHY AM I READING THIS NOW? – Brent asks a slightly different question about announcements of senior management departures: DOES WHAT I’M READING NOW MATTER? As much as we think it should matter, it’s hard to find any evidence that it does!]
Anyone who has been in finance for more than a few years most likely has personal experience or strong memories of executive departures … Theranos, Enron, or others. There is anecdotal logic to a fear trade when a company executive (or two, or three!) resigns out of nowhere. Of course, there are counterexamples too, and it’s not always a red flag. When Tesla CFO Jason Wheeler left in February 2017, that was not a sell signal!
Fun memory: When I worked at Citi, when someone resigned, the entire trading floor would clap them off to celebrate their good work. One hilarious guy I worked with (TJ) would always yell “Quitter!” over the applause. LOL. The best of these clap-offs (and TJ didn’t yell “quitter” for this one) was when the maintenance / janitor man for our floor, who had worked there for 30 years, retired. People lost their minds clapping for him as he walked out. He was clearly touched. I may or may not have cried a little tiny bit.
Executive departures resonate strongly with me as a red flag indicator because 1) they are logically huge red flags and 2) I have three flashbulb memories of key executive departures that signaled imminent disaster.
1. March 1996, Michael de Guzman at Bre-X “falls out of a helicopter”
I have never felt richer than I felt on the day I got my first performance bonus. I was already making what felt like incomprehensibly insane money as I had just scraped through four years of university on part-time and summer jobs, Kraft Dinner, $100 monthly checks from my mom and dad and two slowly (then suddenly) ballooning credit cards. Then plunk: my first bonus was $20,000. I had just won the lottery! There was only one thing to do with all that money: go all-in on the most exciting investment story I had ever seen!
I put it all in Bre-X, a speculative gold mining company that had taken the world by storm. The Calgary company was saying it had found the largest gold mine in the world; the stock was en fuego. It was the biggest story in Canadian financial markets at the time and one of the biggest ever.
Then, on March 19, 1997, a very troubling headline. “Bre-X geologist Michael de Guzman falls to his death from a helicopter in Borneo”. Certainly a non-standard executive departure. And a sad and memorable one. It turned out he actually jumped on purpose. The whole Bre-X story unraveled quickly after. It was all a fraud.
Full story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bre-X
2. August 2001, Jeff Skilling at Enron resigns
Background from wiki: On March 28, 2001, PBS’s Frontline interviewed Skilling, where he claimed for Enron “We are the good guys. We are on the side of angels.”
On April 17, 2001, Skilling made what became an infamous comment during a conference call with financial analysts. In response to fund manager Richard Grubman saying, “You know, you are the only financial institution that can’t produce a balance sheet or cash flow statement with their earnings”, Skilling replied: “Thank you very much, we appreciate that… asshole.”
Skilling unexpectedly resigned on August 14 of that year, citing personal reasons, and he soon sold large amounts of his shares in the corporation. Then-chairman Kenneth Lay, who previously served as CEO for 15 years, returned as CEO until the company filed for bankruptcy protection during December 2001. When brought in front of congressional committees, Skilling stated that he had “no knowledge” of the complicated scandal that would eventually result in Enron’s bankruptcy.
In 2006, he was convicted of federal felony charges relating to Enron’s collapse and eventually sentenced to 24 years in prison.
3. June 2008, Erin Callan at Lehman is fired
I was on paternity leave, walking through Central Park, pushing my 4-year-old son in the orange Bugaboo stroller, eight days after the birth of my second son. My Blackberry rang and I wanted to be a good Dad and not answer it, so I didn’t. Then it rang again. And again. It was a buddy of mine calling to tell me:
“Dude, Callan just resigned or got fired or something. It’s over.”
There was no single moment that signaled the end of Lehman but the bad earnings and CFO departure the week of June 9th were certainly close.
This story is amazing in hindsight:
I love anecdotal stuff in markets, but only when it’s supported by empirical evidence. That is why I did the work to confirm The Magazine Cover Indicator and that’s why I like to go deep in the numerical weeds of Excel almost every day. My question today is:
Do executive departure announcements predict poor equity performance going forward?
Common sense says “yes” but common sense is sometimes wrong. Articles such as this one from the WSJ are full of examples but lack empirical data. A quick one pager from cglytics looks at just six years S&P500 performance data. but seems logical. Their conclusion is that multiple departures are a red flag while a single departure is not. Makes sense.
Here are some highlights of the research that I found (with the four studies I thought were most relevant summarized below).
- There is conclusive evidence that executive departures are, on average, bad for the stock on announcement day.
- More than one departure in a short period is significantly worse than a single departure.
- Negative effects on stock prices and company performance can persist for up to two years but very little research has gone into separating the announcement effect from the follow-through impact of executive departures.
Most studies simply support the more obvious conclusion that senior executive departures are unambiguously bearish, but only on the day of announcement.
If you know of any research that shows stock performance AFTER the announcement effect, please send them over. Thanks!
Do Independent Director Departures Predict Future Bad Events?
Fahlenbach, Low, and Stultz (2017)
My summary: They use a control group (random director deaths) to conclude that surprise director departures are viewed as, and are empirically, bad news for immediate and future equity performance. The methodology here looks solid.
Abstract: Following surprise independent director departures, affected firms have worse stock and operating performance, are more likely to restate earnings, face shareholder litigation, suffer from an extreme negative return event, and make worse mergers and acquisitions. The announcement returns to surprise director departures are negative, suggesting that the market infers bad news from surprise departures. We use exogenous variation in independent director departures triggered by director deaths to test whether surprise independent director departures cause these negative outcomes or whether an anticipation of negative outcomes is responsible for the surprise director departure. Our evidence is more consistent with the latter.
The Impact of CEO Turnover on Equity Volatility
Clayton, Hartzell, Rosenberg (2003)
Abstract: A change in executive leadership is a significant event in the life of a firm. This study investigates an important consequence of a CEO turnover: a change in equity volatility. We develop three hypotheses about how changes in CEO might affect stock price volatility and test these hypotheses using a sample of 872 CEO turnovers over the 1979-95 period. We find that volatility increases following a CEO turnover, even when the CEO leaves voluntarily and is replaced by someone from inside the firm. Forced turnovers increase volatility more than voluntary turnovers – a finding consistent with the view that forced departures imply a higher probability of large strategy changes.
My summary: CEO changes increase stock volatility. Higher volatility is generally associated with lower returns and lower Sharpe ratios, but the paper does not cover returns, just vol. Here is the money chart:
Shareholder Wealth Effects of CEO Departures: Evidence from the UK
Dedman and Lin (2001)
My summary: Negative stock returns on announcement day and company return on assets remains below industry benchmark for two more years after a CEO departure.
Abstract: The market reacts negatively to announcements of top executive departures, especially when the CEO is dismissed or leaves to take up another job. Share price reactions to the disclosure of top executive departure are significantly affected by the financial risk of the firm and whether the board announces a replacement CEO.
CFO Gaps: Determinants and Impact on the Corporate Information Environment
Chen, Li, and Lin (2022)
My summary: Firms with CFO gaps tend to have larger earnings surprises and more restatement of earnings. The paper makes no conclusions on equity performance per se but does show that bid-ask for companies with CFO departures is 2.5% wider than for companies with a CFO. The paper is more like “companies without CFOs are more volatile” than “CFO departures are bad” but the logic overlaps somewhat.
Abstract: A CFO gap arises when the CFO position is left vacant for a period between the departure of the old CFO and the appointment of a new CFO. CFO gaps are more likely for firms that face more labor market search frictions and with financial reporting and performance issues and are less likely for firms with succession plans and with greater growth opportunities. CFO gaps are associated with significantly negative changes in firms’ voluntary disclosure frequency and analysts’ forecast quality.