A firm’s reputation is a valuable asset. Arguably, conventional wisdom suggests that a reputable firm will always act in the best interest of their clients to preserve the firm’s reputation. For example, in his testimony/defense of Goldman Sachs before Congress, the Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein states, “We have been a client-centered firm for 140 years and if our clients believe that we don’t deserve their trust, we cannot survive.” In our forthcoming Review of Financial Studies article entitled Complex Securities and Underwriter Reputation: Do Reputable Underwriters Produce Better Securities?, we examine the extent to which this conventional wisdom holds with complex securities.
Archive for the ‘Accounting & Disclosure’ Category
Over the past several years, judicial decisions involving Citizens United, McCutcheon and SpeechNow.org have lifted caps on total political contributions, and also expanded the number of avenues through and amounts which companies can lawfully contribute to political campaigns. Corporate donations can still be made to recipients like political action committees and third-party organizations (such as trade associations). Now, however, companies can also contribute directly to campaigns and to organizations that support candidates and political causes, including Section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.
Drawing on insights from the literatures on street-level bureaucracy and on regulatory and audit design, our paper, Monitoring the Monitors: How Social Factors Influence Supply Chain Auditors, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, theorizes and tests the factors that shape the practices of private supply chain auditors. We find that audits are conducted most stringently by auditors who are experienced and highly trained, and by audit teams that include female auditors. By contrast, auditors that have ongoing relationships with audited factories, and all-male audit teams conduct more lax audits, identifying and citing fewer violations. These findings make five key contributions and suggest strategies for designing audit regimes to more effectively detect and prevent corporate wrongdoing.
Legal and economic issues involving mandatory public disclosure have centered on the appropriateness of either Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules or the D.C. Circuit review of SEC rule-making. In this longstanding disclosure universe, the focus has been on the ends of investor protection and market efficiency, and implementation by means of annual reports and other SEC-prescribed documents.
In 2013, these common understandings became obsolete when a new system for public disclosure became effective, the first since the SEC’s creation in 1934. Today, major banks must make disclosures mandated not only by the SEC, but also by a new system developed by the Federal Reserve and other bank regulators in the shadow of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the Dodd-Frank Act. This independent, bank regulator-developed system has ends and means that diverge from the SEC system. The bank regulator system is directed not at the ends of investor protection and market efficiency, but instead at the well-being of the bank entities themselves and the minimization of systemic risk. This new system, which stemmed in significant part from a belief that disclosures on the complex risks flowing from modern financial innovation were manifestly inadequate, already dwarfs the SEC system in sophistication on the quantitative aspects of market risk and the impact of economic stress.
Under Delaware’s corporate benefit doctrine, a stockholder who presents a meritorious claim to a board of directors may be entitled to attorneys’ fees if the stockholder’s efforts result in the conferring of a corporate benefit.  On June 20, 2014, the Delaware Chancery Court considered in Raul v. Astoria Financial Corporation  whether attorneys’ fees are warranted under this doctrine when a stockholder identifies potential deficiencies in executive compensation disclosures required by the SEC pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act “say on pay” provisions.  The court held that the alleged omissions at issue failed to demonstrate any breach of the Board of Directors’ fiduciary duties under Delaware law and accordingly the Plaintiff did not present a meritorious demand to the Board. This decision makes clear that the courts will not shift fees to a stockholder (and the stockholder’s law firm) who “has simply done the company a good turn by bringing to the attention of the board an action that it ultimately decides to take.” 
In our paper, Carrot or Stick? The Shift from Voluntary to Mandatory Disclosure of Risk Factors, we investigate public companies’ disclosure of risk factors that are meant to inform investors about risks and uncertainties. We compare risk factor disclosures under the voluntary, incentive-based disclosure regime provided by the safe harbor provision of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, adopted in 1995, and the SEC’s subsequent disclosure mandate, adopted in 2005.
Irregularities in financial statements lead to inefficiencies in capital allocation and can become costly to investors, regulators, and potentially taxpayers if left unchecked. Finding an effective way to detect accounting irregularities has been challenging for academics and regulators. Responding to this challenge, we rely on a peculiar mathematical property known as Benford’s Law to create a summary red-flag measure to capture the likelihood that a company may be manipulating its financial statement numbers.
The SEC today has about 4,200 employees, located in Washington and 11 regional offices across the country, including one in San Francisco that is very ably led by Regional Director Jina Choi, who is here [June 23, 2014]. Many of you have likely had some contact with our Division of Corporation Finance, which, among other things, has the responsibility to review your periodic filings and your securities offerings. Some of you that work for or represent a company that we oversee know our staff in our National Exam Program, and I imagine a few of your companies know something about our Enforcement Division staff. Our other major divisions are Investment Management, Trading and Markets and the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis.
So that is just a quick snapshot of the structure of the SEC and as you undoubtedly know, the SEC has a lot on its regulatory plate that is relevant to you—completion of the mandated rulemakings under the Dodd Frank Act and JOBS Act, adopting a final rule on money market funds, enhancing the structure and transparency of our equity and fixed income markets, reviewing the effectiveness of disclosures by public companies, to name just a few. But what you may not be as focused on is the mindset of the agency on some other things that are also relevant to you as directors.
Many financial markets have recently become subject to new regulations requiring transparency. In our recent NBER working paper, The Effects of Mandatory Transparency in Financial Market Design: Evidence from the Corporate Bond Market, we study how mandatory transparency affects trading in the corporate bond market. In July 2002, the Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE) program began requiring the public dissemination of post-trade price and volume information for corporate bonds. Dissemination took place in four phases over a three-and-a-half year period, with actively traded, investment grade bonds becoming transparent before thinly traded, high-yield bonds.
The Fog Index has become a popular measure of financial disclosure readability in recent accounting and finance research. The SEC has even contemplated the use of the Fog Index to help identify poorly written financial documents. However, the measure has migrated to financial applications without its efficacy in the context of business disclosures having been determined.
In our forthcoming Journal of Finance paper, Measuring Readability in Financial Disclosures, we argue that traditional readability measures like the Fog Index are poorly specified in the realm of business writing. The Fog Index is based on two components: sentence length and word complexity. Although sentence length is a reasonable readability measure, it is difficult to accurately measure in financial documents. More importantly, we show that the count of multisyllabic words in 10-K filings is dominated by common business words that should be easily understood. Frequently used “complex” words like company, operations, and management are not going to confuse consumers of SEC filings. Additionally, the correlation of complex words with alternative measures of readability contradicts its traditional interpretation.