The market may have suspected it would happen, but the move was still bold enough. Merrill's hard downgrade of Countrywide stock on August 15, 2007, even as the Calabasas, CA home lender was arranging $11.5 billion in emergency liquidity lending from a syndicate of large banks, pretty much stuck a fork in the firm as far as mainstream Street analysis was concerned.
All things considered this makes for a better bubble than the last one for Merrill's research shop. Does anyone there still talk about Henry Blodget? "No," global research svp and president Candace Browning says, wryly but matter-of-factly. And the fact is, a gut-churning market does require gut checks: this is now seen as an opportunity. "Certainly the markets have been very, very challenging," the analyst-in-chief says. "In periods of increasing volatility, the value of research goes up."
To this end, a couple months ago Merrill introduced an overhaul of its equity ratings system, aiming for greater differentiation among picks-i.e., not everything will be rated some kind of buy-and to press analysts to rank the stocks they cover. As Kiplinger's Thomas Anderson says, don't expect the new guidelines to shake the industry, but the policy may bring a touch more reality to Street research.
This would be influential indeed for the daughter of a car dealer from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She started her career as an airline strategist, becoming an airline equity analyst. "I enjoyed airline planning until the downturns happened," she says a little wistfully. "I realized there were better things to do."
She came to her current role in 2003, charged with forging ahead as the dot-com fallout faded. Now watching over 540 equity researchers globally and 800 analysts all told, including fixed income, Browning's hopeful for better market conditions. Yet she also takes a measure of pride that her shop features an economist like David Rosenberg-a noted bear-who for some period of time was a lone voice on the ballooning housing market. "It can be very, very lonely out there," Browning says. But that's okay.
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