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Houston researcher looks into why some companies thrive in volatile markets

Firms with real options thrive in uncertain situations because they have the flexibility to change their operations in a way that can amplify the effects of good news and dampen the effects of bad news. Photo via Getty Images

Volatile markets look a lot like high-stakes poker games. Wild swings make it hard to chart a course to profitability, inevitably forcing some firms to fold. At the same time, there are always investors and firms that come out as big winners. So is there is a secret to drawing a winning hand in bad times?

Working with colleagues Evgeny Lyandres of Boston University and Alexei Zhdanov of Pennsylvania State University, Rice Business professor Gustavo Grullon hypothesized that the secret to surviving market volatility has to do with managers' ability to adjust operations. The more flexibility managers have to change the course of their firms, the reasoning went, the greater the likelihood of surviving market volatility, and in some cases taking advantage of it.

Consider Amazon, founded in 1994 with the goal of becoming "the world's most consumer-centric company, where customers can come to find anything they want to buy online." From its start as a bookstore, the company turned into an ultra-diversified behemoth that can shrug off vast swings in the market. Despite high volatility in recent years, Amazon's stock price increased roughly 39 percent, from $1,901 to $2,641, over the past year.

Grullon and his colleagues theorized that having more real options ⁠— managerial choices about tangible assets such as inventory, machinery or buildings ⁠— boosts firm value in a whole range of volatile circumstances, whether demand-based, cost-based or profit-based. Firms that have these options ⁠— Amazon, for example ⁠— can act fast to mitigate bad news by changing operating and investment strategies. They might cut production, shutter operations or delay investments. Companies without these tools basically have to ride fate's rollercoaster.

To test their theory, the researchers compared firms with a plethora of investment opportunities to those with more modest real options. They analyzed returns data from 1963 to 2018 from The Center for Research in Security Prices and from Compustat ⁠— a database of financial, statistical and market information about active and inactive U.S. companies.

Grullon and his team found there was measurable value in having more real options. A bigger spread of real options allowed managers to change strategy as soon as new information arrived. The greater the number of real options, the greater the flexibility managers had at their disposal when the market got volatile.

Developing Amazon-type options and diversified assets, naturally, takes years of sweat, trial and a measure of luck. Companies that do best at creating such opportunities, the researchers note, tend to be highly sensitive to changes in volatility to begin with, leading to more opportunities to adapt. Overall, the team found, volatility-return relation was much stronger in industries already characterized by plenty of growth and strategic options. High-tech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, for example, show especially strong resistance to idiosyncratic volatility.

In other words, while volatile markets can resemble high-stakes poker, there are a few predictable rules. When the chips are down, companies that are lucky enough to hold diversified assets, have varied investment options and can shuffle resources quickly will be the strongest players at the table.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Gustavo Grullon, a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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