The future looked grim for the sell-side research industry.
Commissions were in decline and under pressure from regulation that had disrupted the old business model. Major research providers were reducing headcount and coverage as buy-side clients spent less money on both trading and external investment research.
Then 2020 happened.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the globe, freezing up economies and upending all expectations for how markets would behave, investors found themselves with far more questions than answers — and demand for sell-side research skyrocketed.
All year long, in every market around the world, top-ranking research professionals interviewed by Institutional Investor reported sharp increases in readership of research reports, interactions between analysts and clients, and attendance at (now virtual) investor conferences and corporate access events.
At UBS Group, for example, analysts “spent more time with clients in 2020 than 2019 by a significant percentage,” said Dan Dowd, global head of research, in a phone interview. “As wild as things were, people wanted to spend even more time with sell-side research — and we provided that to them.”
For Bank of America Corp.’s head of global research Candace Browning, the year served as proof that sell-side research still plays a fundamentally important role in the larger investment industry.
“I’m actually very optimistic about research,” she said by phone. “You look at a year like this and what happened when we went into a huge period of uncertainty. It shows that people want research; they need it; they’re consuming it.”
Where, exactly, did investors turn for this must-have research? Throughout 2020 and into the beginning of 202, II asked investors to vote for their favorite research providers across equities and fixed income, in developed markets and emerging ones. These results were detailed across eight major rankings: the All-America Research Team; the All-Asia Research Team; the All-China Research Team; the All-Europe Research Team; the All-Japan Research Team; the Emerging Europe, Middle East & Africa Research Team; the Latin America Research Team; and the Global Fixed-Income Research Team.
When all of these votes were added up, one firm emerged as 2020’s Top Global Research Firm: JPMorgan Chase & Co.
With a total of 256 team positions globally — a more than 14 percent increase from 224 positions accumulated in 2019 — JPMorgan reclaimed its position as the No. 1 Global Research Leader, a crown the firm last held in 2018.
Last year’s champion, BofA Securities, placed second this year with 246 team positions across the eight rankings — an improvement from 234 spots in 2019.
And Citigroup, last year’s No. 3 research provider, managed to hold on to its top-three ranking with 162 team positions, despite losing ground in the All-America Research Team and the Global Fixed-Income Research Team. No. 4 UBS and No. 5 Morgan Stanley ranked close behind, with 158 and 152 team positions apiece.
“I am incredibly proud of this team,” said Marc Badrichani, head of global sales and research at JPMorgan, via email. “During the pandemic, our focus was on delivering timely content and thought leadership in some of the fastest moving and most volatile global markets we’ve seen in the last decade. We faced many of the same challenges that our clients did, but our scale and flexibility allowed us to adapt and engage clients in new ways.”
For example, the JPMorgan executive vice president said analysts adopted virtual meetings and conferences, significantly increased their output of research reports and podcasts, and launched flagship publications and trackers focused on Covid-19.
Likewise, BofA’s Browning reported a 15 percent increase in the amount of published research alongside the transition to online meetings and events, including virtual store and factory tours.
“We started publishing more and creating more events,” Browning said. “Clients were interested in all the change taking place, so we embraced the virtual world and other ways to get to our clients.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic recreated a spike in demand for research, both Browning and Badrichani noted that sell-side firms would need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of clients as the investment landscape continues to change. For example, Browning pointed to the large number of private companies that are primed to go public, creating more stocks that need to be covered. Meanwhile, thematic and environmental, social, and governance research has continued to become more important to clients, Browning said.
“To be successful, research houses will need to have the intelligence and flexibility to meet evolving needs,” Badrichani added. “It will be critical to have a global perspective, and to be able to look across asset classes and across the capital structure. The use of data will also change — both how we use it to generate content and how our clients consume content.”
While the pandemic endures, however, top research providers are remaining focused on getting both clients and their own staff through a period that has brought immense personal and professional challenges, even as it boosted productivity and engagement.
“I think all of us hope that in 2021 we can get back to some normalcy and actually go back to our offices,” Browning said. “It certainty is a testament to ingenuity and resilience that we got through this as well as we did.”