By Anna Irrera and Olivia Oran
(Reuters) - With investment firms cutting costs and portfolio managers combating a barrage of information, financial research shops around the globe are looking for new ways to keep their product relevant.
A raft of startups have launched to support that effort, offering tools that can use Google search data to get an edge on retail sales, deploy drones to examine oil supplies or allow investors to rank analysts and bid on their reports, like a Netflix or eBay of research.
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Whether these innovations will lead to smarter investments, or be used widely enough to prop up research budgets, is yet to be seen. But the startups are forming alliances with banks, brokerages and investors by the dozen. People who use and sell the tools say the trend is changing how research is financed, distributed and consumed for the first time in decades.
"We are coming up on a very different age for equity research," said Lex Sokolin, global director of fintech strategy at Autonomous Research.
Investors now see research as a product that must stand on its own rather than a freebie offered as part of a broader relationship with an investment bank, Sokolin said. Technology can improve the quality and distribution of research, he said.
A few factors are driving the changes.
Asset managers are under enormous pressure to cut fees due to weak returns and competition from low-cost options like index funds. The fee squeeze is making firms more selective about how they spend research dollars.
At the same time, the long-running practice of paying for research through trading commissions is being upended by new regulations in Europe, known as the revised Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or MiFID II. Part of the sprawling overhaul will force investors in the European Union to pay for research directly. Global asset managers are expected to "unbundle" payments in other regions as well.
Perhaps most importantly, investors say they are sick of their inboxes piling up with run-of-the-mill reports each day. At a time when people share snippets of information through WhatsApp and Slack and a tweet can move a stock in seconds, sharing loads of PDF files through email is not only passé, but makes it hard to know what is worth reading, industry sources said.
"There are 40 analysts just covering Apple: how do you find the insight?" said Alap Shah, chief executive of Sentieo, a San Francisco-based startup that aggregates information about publicly traded companies.
Before launching Sentieo in late 2011, Shah was an analyst at Citadel LLC, where he received hundreds of research reports a day. It was difficult to search through documents for important information, collate those details into one place and access them when he was not in front of his office computer, he said.
Those frustrations led Shah to set up Sentieo, which allows users to search reports by a stock ticker or hashtagged phrase like #revenuegrowth. They can also highlight key passages and access information remotely. Shah says 200 firms are now using Sentieo, including Longhorn Asset Management LLC and JNK Securities Corp.
DRONES AND DATA SCIENTISTS
Other startups are going beyond aggregation.
Customers of London-based StockViews can rate analysts with stars the way they might rate a show on Netflix, and request custom-made research "on demand."
Edinburgh-based Electronic Research Interchange (ERIC) allows fund managers to bid on analyst reports the way shoppers do on eBay.
Another company, Orbital Insight, uses satellites and drones to collect data that can affect a variety of stocks, like how much oil is stored in tanks. In a recent report, JPMorgan Chase & Co telecommunications analyst Rod Hall drew on Orbital Insight research to tell investors there were fewer cars parked at large electronics stores following the U.S. presidential election, which might lead to lower smartphone sales.
Wall Street banks say they are also using their own techniques to modernize research. In interviews, executives highlighted data-crunching as a particular focus to win more business from funds that rely on algorithms to make investment decisions.
Morgan Stanley's research team employs 30 data scientists in a unit called AlphaWise to support research from traditional stock analysts. Last year, Goldman Sachs Group Inc analysts used data from Google Trends and social media monitoring firm Crimson Hexagon to conclude that Nintendo Co Ltd's Pokemon Go was so popular it would affect future games it releases.
"Ten years ago, we would have interviewed consumers in a mall to figure out what the hottest fashion trends are," said Simon Bound, head of research at Morgan Stanley. "Now we will also use big data techniques and machine learning."
For a graphic on equity commissions and "unbundling" click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/BANKS-FINTECH/010031KR3M3/BANKS-FINTECH-RESEARCH.jpg
(Reporting by Anna Irrera and Olivia Oran in New York; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Meredith Mazzilli)