The close of 2014 saw the SEC’s Division of Enforcement take a victory lap. Following the release of the statistics for the fiscal year ended September 30, Division Director Andrew Ceresney touted a few records—the largest number of enforcement actions brought in a single year (755); the largest total value of monetary sanctions awarded to the agency (over $4 billion); the largest number of cases taken to trial in recent history (30). As Ceresney noted, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. And it is in the details that one sees just how aggressive the Division has become, and how difficult the terrain is for individuals and entities caught in the crosshairs of an SEC investigation under the current administration.
Posts Tagged ‘Financial reporting’
Today [January 14, 2015], the Commission considers rules that are designed to address the lack of transparency in the security-based swaps (SBS) market that substantially contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. These rules are the result of the Congressional mandate in the Dodd-Frank Act, which directed the SEC and the CFTC to create a regulatory framework to oversee this market.
The global derivatives market is huge, at an amount estimated to exceed $692 trillion worldwide—and more than $14 trillion represents transactions in SBS regulated by the SEC. The continuing lack of transparency and meaningful pricing information in the SBS market puts many investors at distinct disadvantages in negotiating transactions and understanding their risk exposures. In addition, as trillions of dollars have continued to trade in the OTC market, there is still no mandatory mechanism for regulators to obtain complete data about the potential exposure of individual financial institutions and the SBS market, in general.
Corporate executives pay considerable attention to secondary market prices and they have strong incentives to maintain or increase the level of their firms’ stock prices. The accounting literature has long recognized that managers can make strategic financial reporting or disclosure choices to influence stock prices. A large body of empirical research examines whether and how corporate disclosures affect stock prices. The literature, however, provides little directional evidence on whether the behavior of stock prices has a causal effect on managerial strategic disclosure decisions. The difficulty in establishing causality stems largely from the endogenous nature of stock prices. In the paper, Short Selling Pressure, Stock Price Behavior, and Management Forecast Precision: Evidence from a Natural Experiment, which is forthcoming in Journal of Accounting Research, we use a randomized experiment, the Regulation SHO pilot program, to examine the causal effect of stock price behavior on managers’ voluntary disclosure choices.
In our paper, What Happens in Nevada? Self-Selecting into Lax Law, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we study the financial reporting behavior of firms that incorporate in Nevada, the second most popular state for out-of-state incorporations, after Delaware. Compared to Delaware, Nevada law has weak fiduciary requirements for corporate managers and board members. We find evidence consistent with the idea that lax shareholder protection under Nevada law induces firms prone to financial reporting errors to incorporate in Nevada, and that lax Nevada law may also cause firms to engage in risky reporting behavior.  In particular, we find that Nevada-incorporated firms are 30 – 40% more likely to report financial results that later require restatement than firms incorporated in other states, including Delaware. These results hold when we narrow our set of restatements to more serious infractions, including restatements that reduce reported earnings, and to restatements that raise suspicions of fraud or lead to regulatory investigations.
In our paper, Real Effects of Frequent Financial Reporting, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine the impact of financial reporting frequency on firms’ investment decisions. Whether increased financial reporting frequency improves or adversely influences a manager’s investments decision is ambiguous. On the one hand, increased transparency through higher reporting frequency can beneficially affect firms’ investment decisions in two ways. First, increased transparency can reduce firms’ cost of capital and improve access to external financing, allowing firms to invest in a larger set of positive NPV projects. Second, increased transparency can improve external monitoring and help mitigate over- or under-investment stemming from managerial agency problems. On the other hand, frequent reporting can distort investment decisions. In particular, frequent reporting can cause managers to make myopic investment decisions that boost short-term performance measures at the cost of long run firm value. Which of these two forces dominate is an open empirical question that we explore in this study.
Financial reports should provide useful information to both shareholders and creditors, according to U.S. accounting principles. However, directors of corporations have fiduciary duties only toward equity holders, and those fiduciary duties normally do not extend to the interests of creditors. In our paper, Does Corporate Governance Make Financial Reports Better or Just Better for Equity Investors?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine whether this slant in corporate governance biases financial reports in favor of equity investors. We show that the likelihood that firms will manipulate their reporting to circumvent debt covenants is higher when directors owe fiduciary duties only to equity holders, rather than when they owe fiduciary duties also to creditors. Covenants limit the amount of new debt that the firm issues, for example, and by that reduce bankruptcy risk, and allow creditors to avoid bankruptcy costs, and to recover more from the borrowing firm in case it approaches insolvency. When managers manipulate financial reports to circumvent these debt covenants, they transfer wealth from creditors to shareholders. Our results suggest that when corporate governance is designed to protect only equity holders, firms’ financial reports serve equity holders’ interests at the expense of other stakeholders. We find that when the legal regime requires directors to consider creditors’ interests, firms are less likely to use structured transactions designed to skirt debt covenant limits, particularly if the board of directors of the firm is independent.
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.
I understand today’s participants include a number of trustees and asset managers for some of the country’s largest public and private pension funds. Without a doubt, pension funds play an important role in our capital markets and the global economy. This is due, in part, to the fast growth in pension fund assets, both in the public and private sectors.
For example, since 1993, total public pension fund assets have grown from about $1.3 trillion to over $4.3 trillion in 2011. Over that same period, total private pension fund assets more than doubled from roughly $2.3 trillion to over $6.3 trillion by 2011. As of December 2013, total pension assets have reached more than $18 trillion. This growth was fueled by many factors, including the rise in government support of retirement benefits, and the increased use by companies of pension plans as a way to supplement wages.
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.
The modern quest for an “Esperanto” of business has been underway for nearly half a century. And though it was initiated by the United States, after 48 years, it has yet to gain our full support. That is unfortunate, because the promise of a global standard is truly dazzling.
An international language of disclosure and transparency would significantly improve investor confidence in global capital markets. Investors could more easily compare issuers’ disclosures, regardless of what country they came from. They could more easily weigh investment opportunities in their own countries against competing opportunities in other markets. And a single set of high-quality standards would be a great boon to emerging markets, because investors could have greater confidence in the transparency of financial reporting.