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Stock analysts roll with the punches

For a Wall Street analyst, a job that can pay as much as seven figures and bring celebrity status to those who have the power to move markets, "being right" is not all that matters.

Five hours is the average night's sleep for PaineWebber analyst James Preissler.

From 6:30 a.m. to as late as 2 a.m. the next day, Preissler's day is filled with digesting news for the Internet companies he covers, researching information, writing research reports and fielding calls from clients and the firm's sales force.

Of course, there are longer days when an unforeseen event rocks one of his companies, which could be anything from a CEO departure to a warning about earnings.

And then there's the travel--an average of two weeks worth each month.

Such is the life of a Wall Street analyst, a job that can pay as much as seven figures and bring celebrity status to those who have the power to move markets. Not bad for a position that requires no advance degree.

It's a profession that affects the riches see related story: Making sense of the numbers
game of investors, yet few who place their trust in these Wall Street oracles know much of their roles at investment firms, nor the criteria that their performances are based upon.

"Being right" is not all that matters.

"Being right is an important part of the pie, but one of the most important (criteria) is the (performance) votes that analysts receive from institutional clients on how an analyst is servicing them with investment ideas," said Tom Thornhill, research director for Banc of America Securities. "The job of an analyst is to create an investment idea. ?An analyst has to impel a client to take action by instilling fear or greed."

He added that an analyst's ability to nail an earnings estimate counts primarily when it runs counter to the consensus on Wall Street, bringing added value to his or her insight. (See related story)

Meanwhile, research analysts are increasingly becoming involved with their firm's banking business--a side of the brokerage business that previously was largely off limits because of concerns of conflicts of interest.

When trading commissions were deregulated about two decades ago, profits derived from managing customer trades began to plummet. As a result, firms began relying more heavily on underwriting stock offerings and playing a role in mergers and acquisitions.

"The business is being driven by big deals," said Jeff Matthews, a general partner with investment firm Ram Partners and a former Wall Street analyst. "Most analysts spend their time trying to pitch the next deal."

Lupatkin agreed that Wall Street is increasingly counting on its analysts to play a greater role in winning banking business by attending sales pitches with their corporate finance departments--a situation that can put an analyst at odds with the companies they cover.

As one analyst who asked not to be named said: "It's hard not to have a lot of pressure to be positive on a company that the firm takes public (or has other banking relationships with), but sometimes things change. It's a tough job with conflicting pulls. That's why a lot of analysts recommend a hold and never a sell. A hold means if you don't own it, don't buy it and, if you do own it, sell it."

Thornhill, however, noted that when such issues come into conflict his analysts return to their mission statement of serving institutional clients.

"Analysts must maintain their credibility or the institutional client won't trust the product ? and (companies) gravitate to firms with respected analysts, because they provide an ongoing flow of information to institutional investors who bring liquidity to an issuer's stock after an (initial public offering)," Thornhill said.

He added, however: "Since the early '80s we've seen analysts get sucked into corporate finance and do three or four deals that they shouldn't have done. ? Sometimes analysts leave to become bankers, leave the business or go to the buy side."

And because analysts make presentations to institutional investors and assist their firms' bankers in deals, a little bit of polish is part of the package.

"Investment banks are banks and you have to have a little bit of polish since money is to be made from deals. If you're too geeky, it may be hard to sell an IPO," said Dan Niles, managing director for Robertson Stephens. Niles, a PC and semiconductor analyst, is a self-proclaimed geek who managed to make the transition to an investment firm from serving as an engineer at Digital Equipment.

Analysts come from a variety of backgrounds and educational paths. Some were former journalists, such as Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget, others were employed in the industry that they are now following, such as Niles.

And the money to be made as an analyst can sometimes surpass the salaries of the CEOs of the companies that they cover.

"It can be as high as several million a year, if you bring in a bunch of banking business," Lupatkin said.

But he noted those salaries are also reserved for analysts in hot sectors, such as the Internet. Senior analysts in other industries may make a few hundred thousand dollars up to a million, he added.

"In the early '80s, oil analysts made a fortune. But that's changed," Lupatkin said. "It's pure capitalism. There's no socialism about it."