No Guidance Now—Maybe Never?

Uncertainty about COVID-19 is causing firms to pull their forecasts for quarterly results. Some want to get rid of them permanently.

It’s been a part of every business quarter: company executives report how much money their firm made over the last three months and then tell investors what the firm expects to do over the next three months and fiscal year. Indeed, firms did just that in January and February, during their last earnings calls.

But now, companies are telling investors to disregard all that. Company executives have said they can’t guide investors on revenues or profits, not only for the coming quarter but for the foreseeable future. Several airlines, hotels, and other travel-related companies made such announcements last week, and on Monday a major electronics retailer and a semiconductor company joined in. Experts predict that the practice of “withdrawing guidance,” will only increase over the coming weeks as companies begin the traditional first-quarter earnings report period. “It’s the safe move, and maybe the only common element investor relations experts can take, whether it’s a positive impact or a negative impact,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs practice.

Such steps also bring up a bigger debate: will firms change how much guidance they give investors altogether?

The reason for the short-term withdrawal, of course, is COVID-19, not only for the impact the virus has already had, shutting down broad swaths of the world, but also for the uncertainty of how long those shutdowns will last. Firms, which until only a couple of weeks ago saw a slow-but-steadily growing economy, are now contending with a potentially very deep recession. Other firms are tapping lines of credit, worried that a huge drop-off in sales could leave them short of cash to pay bills or repay other debt. “It is impossible to try to model out how this is going to go for a year, or even the next couple of days or weeks,” says Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations practice.

But many executives have complained for years that a focus on short-term performance hurts value for everyone over the long haul. In the past couple of years, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett have advocated eliminating quarterly earnings guidance, and former PepsiCo chair Indra Nooyi successfully lobbied the White House to get the US Securities and Exchange Commission to undertake a study on moving to a six-month reporting schedule. “There is definitely a pattern moving away from quarterly guidance, to focus on long-term investments rather than quarter-to-quarter forecasting,” McDermott says. “A more tumultuous market will prompt more companies to follow this trend.”

However, changing their guidance strategy could cause some problems for corporate executives in general, and investor relations executives in particular, that could cause a host of issues. Investors have had two decades’ worth of transparent quarterly guidance from nearly every American publicly traded firm.

Even in the short term that firms have withdrawn guidance because of the coronavirus, they’ve been pilloried with questions from institutional investors asking for information. “For a practitioner, it’s creating additional stress because dynamics are changing dramatically,” Marshall says. “You have to triage that without breaking Regulation Fair Disclosure. It’s a delicate balance and a tricky one.”

The best course of action for investor relations executives, according to experts, is to be honest and transparent with everyone. “Those investors will remember this next year; they’ll recall who had strong and trusted relationships,” McDermott says.