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Can Intangibles lead to Superior Returns?: Global evidence on the relationship between Employee Satisfaction and abnormal Equity Returns

Subject background and discussion: In recent decades, issues of human rights, labor and environmental change has been hot topics world wide, which also has influenced the financial market. More and more investors use socially responsible investing (SRI) screens when constructing their portfolios.

One form of SRI screen is to choose companies that have satisfied employees. Existing theory says that employee satisfaction is an intangible asset to the firm that will positively affect a firm’s performance in the future. Intangible assets are often unrecognized by the market and thereby not incorporated in the stock price.

The efficient market hypothesis has been studied and debated for several decades. Proponents of the EMH argue that all available information is incorporated in the stock price, thus it is not possible to systematically beat the market. However, EMH is controversial, since research has shown different results regarding the possibility to make abnormal return from various investing strategy.

Research question: Is it possible to make abnormal returns by investing in a portfolio of worldwide firms with top scores on the SRI screen employee satisfaction?

Purpose: The main purpose of this study is to examine investor’s possibility to make abnormal return with controls for multiple risk factors by investing in worldwide firms with top scores in employee satisfaction. One sub-purpose is to examine how the market values intangibles depending on the degree of market efficiency. Another sub-purpose of the study is to test two different portfolio weighting methodologies, equally- and value weighted, and observe the differences between them.

Theory: This study deals with the efficient market hypothesis and the concepts of SRI, employee satisfaction, intangible assets and several risk-adjusted measurements.

Method: We have chosen to perform a quantitative study with a deductive approach to answer our research question. We used a sample size of 696 firms based on “Great Place to Works”- lists of companies with high employee satisfaction to construct sex portfolios with different holding periods and strategies. These portfolios have been explored and tested significantly with both equally and value weighted methods.

Result/Analysis: The study finds significant evidence of an average annual abnormal return of 3,66% and 2,43% for our main portfolio over the market for equally- and value weighted, respectively, using the three-factor model. When adjusting for momentum, thus employing the four-factor model, all the predictive variables still identify strong persistence in the abnormal return, with statistical significance.

Conclusion: The results show that it is possible to make abnormal returns, during the observed time period, regardless of the weighing methodology, although the equally weighted received higher abnormal returns. Thus, the market efficiency appears to be in weak form and does not fully value intangibles.
Source: Umeå University
Author: Ballout, Rami | Nygård, Fredrik

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