Disclosure: The Dawning of the Age of Precarious – Let the Sunshine Back In

by Cathy Baron Tamraz, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Business Wire

Once upon a time, in the Year 2000, a wonderful law was passed that protected the interests of all investors in our great land. You may have heard of it; it was called Regulation Fair Disclosure.  Thanks to the great mind of Arthur Levitt, the “whisper” and good ol’ boy network that had gone on for far too long on Wall Street by those in the know, was finally curtailed.  Good triumphed over evil on October 23, 2000 – and all of our citizens were protected.

Reg FD served to shine a bright light on material information, so that now everyone had equal access to all news that could impact a stock price.  It was a great day for the retail investor, and all was well in our land. The new words of the day were “full and fair for all.”   Transparency and simultaneity were now the gold standards and endorsed and enforced by our nation’s regulators.

To assist in ensuring that all companies now played by these new rules, “neutral” services like Business Wire were touted and recommended as best practice and “valuable” newswires for the purpose of making news ubiquitous and available to all. This made sense because it confirmed the vital role they have played for 50 years in helping to keep “law and order” on the Street. Further, our nation’s regulators relied on Business Wire’s audit trail to help keep our markets honest. Business Wire’s proprietary news delivery platform ensured simultaneous, real-time access to all investors.

Regulation FD flourished, and all was well.

But alas, in August 2008, a seemingly insignificant event led to some unintended consequences – a dark cloud now hovered over full and fair disclosure.

 

Image by Flickr user r8r

 

In an attempt to embrace new technology and encourage more disclosures, not fewer, an interpretation (not a rule change) was added to Reg FD that encouraged the use of company websites as an enhancement.  This certainly made sense because it provided an added venue for material news, thus widening access. Our regulators wanted to appear current and relevant – and that made sense.  All seemed fine in our great land . . . the more, the merrier. Or so it seemed.

But then something strange happened . . . self-anointed experts promoting their own commercial agenda decided that restricting the information flow by limiting it to a company website ONLY, was now good enough.

Let the people figure out when and where the information is available. Let the reporters, analysts and investors troll through thousands of websites to find and report on the information. Let the algo traders, who have the most sophisticated systems, get a jump on the news and perhaps beat out everyone else. In effect, let the retail investor eat cake.

Even worse, questions around system crashes, redundancy, security and simultaneity were not even addressed, because those who were now playing in this arena had no idea of its complexity – and had not even thought it through.  What about those vital security audit trails?  What about protection from insider trading allegations with standalone web disclosure?  What about server crashes? What about redundancy and simultaneity?

Alas, darkness was falling . . . and the proof was in the proverbial pudding. In the few instances where this “standalone methodology” was followed, the truth revealed itself. Confusion now reigned, as investors scrambled to get the news.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY:

Reg FD’s level playing field is in danger of going “POOF”, turning a prince back into a frog.  However, this parable can still have a happy ending.  We can’t let the Holy Grail of full and fair disclosure slip away. The SEC did not intend it to be that way – just read the SEC’s CIFiR report, citizens.

This much we know: Reg FD was meant to protect all investors – and retail investors, in particular, dread a return to the dark days (and Wall Street whisper) of disclosure. Therefore, we ask our nation’s protectors to slay this dragon, to clarify both the spirit and intent of the Interpretive Guidance, and to let the sun continue to shine on our financial markets.

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