Do target prices predict rating changes?
Both rating agencies and stock analysts evaluate publicly traded companies and communicate their opinions to investors. Empirical evidence indicates that stock prices react to both bond rating changes (at least downgrades) and changes in analysts’ earning forecasts, suggesting that both pieces of information are valuable to investors. While most academic research has been focused on studying the impact of rating actions on bond prices, stock returns or earning forecasts, surprisingly, the relationship between target prices and rating actions has remained essentially unexplored. Our study contribute to the existing literature by providing an evidence, not yet explored, of any anticipation in target prices revision prior to a rating actions, in order to analyze the ability of equity analysts to predict the decisions of the main rating agencies. Moreover, our work is related to the empirical literature that investigates the optimism of analysts’ recommendations and we provide evidence about the mean target price to current price ratio for the Italian market. Using a large and unique database, we find that TP/P ratio over the period 2000-2005 is 1,15, that is target prices are 15% higher than current stock prices. The motivation of this research stems from the empirical evidences that 1) target prices are statements incorporating earnings forecasts, which have proven to be meaningfully correlated with rating actions ,2) target prices revisions are released much more frequently than rating actions 3) downgrades (upgrades) associated with negative (positive) revision of the firm’s prospective cash flows will negatively(positively) affect bondholders and, to a larger extent, equity holders who have secondary claims compared to debt. On the basis of a set of hypotheses, we expect that downgrades can be anticipated by a reduction in target prices and that, in the case of upgrades, the anticipation effect should be more evident. Changes in target prices prior to rating actions are estimated, controlling for the anticipations through watches and the sector of the rated firm. Using a complete and unique data set of rating actions released by Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch from 1st January 2000 to 31st December 2005, for the Italian listed firms and for an European sample, we find that positive rating events are anticipated by consistent increases of the target prices released in the four months before the rating action. The evidence is less clear for negative rating events, since significant reductions in target prices are observable only in a shorter window (three months). Our results reflect analysts’ overly-optimistic behavior and the fact that they are less likely to reduce than to increase target prices over time. Results also differ controlling by the sector. Looking at the Italian sample (composed mainly by financial firms) and at the European financial sub sample we find that: target prices reduction prior to a downgrade is highly evident in the financial sector while it is not clear at all for the non financial sector. According to Gropp and Richards (2001) and Schweitzer et al. (1992), we thus observe strong differences between the two groups of issuers (financial and industrial ones). We argue that the different regulatory regimes, which imply different degrees of transparency, could explain the asymmetric behavior of target prices. We finally investigate whether the anticipation of a rating action by a watch list in the same direction, may influence our results. In this paper, we follow Hand et al.  and use credit watches in two ways. First, we examine changes in target prices around credit watches, testing whether they contain relevant market information. Second, we use them as a means of distinguishing between contaminated and uncontaminated ratings changes. As in Hand et al.  we argue that a ratings change that is preceded by a ratings watch in the same direction should be largely anticipated and, hence, should be associated with significant changes in target prices. Comparing the average change in target price for contaminated versus uncontaminated rating actions, we find that contaminated downgrades show more pronounced reductions in target price over time while there is no significant difference for upgrades. This difference can be explained according to whether or not the watch list was released during the four months prior to the rating action, corresponding to our observation window. Since watch lists are usually released on average three months before the downgrade, they fall into our observation window, bringing with them a further reduction in target price. Overall, the results suggest that target prices may perform a useful role in anticipating rating changes and confirm prior evidence that rating actions can be predicted from publicly available information, at least for financial sector. The remainder of this work is organized as follows. Chapter 1 discusses the main informational content of ratings, rating criteria and procedures. Following that, in Chapter 2, we examine the main content of reports on Italian stocks, to find out the evaluation method used to get the final recommendation and the main differences between analysts’ justifications for reports that disclose target prices versus those that do not. The different disclosure levels of target prices across stock recommendations suggest that analysts are more inclined to provide them when their recommendations are more favorable (i.e., Buy or Strong Buy) than they are when their recommendations are less favorable (i.e., Hold). Finally, in Chapter 3, we investigate whether ratings actions can be predicted from publicly available information by examining any target price changes prior to the rating action, on the basis of a set of hypotheses to be tested. The research design and methodology are described in Chapter 3, along with the main conclusions of the empirical evidence. The work closes with a summary and suggestions for future research.