Finance

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

Donald Trump and Brexit should make this a bumper year for the opinion polling companies that try and predict the outcome. But it's not that simple for shareholders.

Election Rebound
YouGov's shares have climbed since last year's U.K. general election
Source: Bloomberg

Opinion polls are a way for companies like Ipsos and YouGov to create buzz -- but the profit they generate is a rounding error by comparison with their less glamorous market-research operations. That industry is worth $40 billion globally, according to research firm Esomar.

That's why you wouldn't know from looking at their shares that polling companies have made some very public mis-steps in recent votes: The industry miserably failed to predict a clear victory for David Cameron's Conservative party in last year's U.K. election, for example.

YouGov has climbed 16 percent since June 2015 and its stock trades at close to an -year high. Paris-based Ipsos, a much bigger company with less racy growth rates, is trading at an eight-month high.

This year may not be so easy -- despite the U.S. presidential race and Britain's vote on whether to remain in the European Union. A seriously wrong call over Brexit could add to calls for more regulation that have been growing since the general election.

And it's possible the polls may be wrong again: online surveys show the vote is neck-and-neck, while traditional telephone polls show a lead for the remain campaign. They can't both be right.

Much more ominous is the threat of stagnation in the wider market research business, which can mean everything from surveying people's views of a pair of shoes to tracking the success of a new brand of sports car. The pace of growth in global marketing budgets has slowed consistently over the past two years, according to World Economics. If that continues, budgets could start to be cut in early 2017. Competition from tech-focused upstarts is adding to pricing pressure on established players like Ipsos.

Both Ipsos and YoGov are expected to post smaller revenue increases in 2016 and 2017, according to analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. YouGov -- market value 150 million pounds ($212 million) -- is trying to protect double-digit growth rates as it rolls out new brand research and online survey tools.

Ipsos, with a market value of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), is more exposed to slowing global growth in corporate spending and price competition from rivals. YouGov, which trades at 31 times earnings, has further to fall than Ipsos, which trades at only 11.

YouGov Beats Ipsos
Shares of the British polling company have outperformed its French rival in the past year
Source: Bloomberg

The elections will put the firms front of stage in the coming months. The polling companies say they've overhauled the way they conduct their polls -- but the risk of a wrong call remains. It's a distraction shareholders may think they could do without if their principal business is on the cusp of shrinking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Lionel Laurent in London at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Edward Evans at eevans3@bloomberg.net