The European Commission’s Stealth Decision on Transparency:

For publicly listed companies, transparency is not an option — it is an obligation.
by Neil Hershberg, Senior Vice President, Global Media

Neil HershbergThe European Commission said as much when it implemented its harmonized pan-European disclosure standards for the 27-member European Union in January 2007. The compliance guidelines were aptly titled:  the Transparency Obligations Directive ["TOD"].

Therefore, the European Commission’s puzzling proposal to make interim management statements and quarterly reports voluntary for all EU issuers is beyond baffling. And given the global market machinations attributable to the roiling European debt crisis, the timing of the Commission’s diffused disclosure requirements couldn’t be worse.

Perhaps most upsetting of all, the Commission’s decision to truncate its transparency criteria for all EU issuers was apparently arrived at in a stealth manner.

In the way of background, the European Commission held public consultations on its plans to “modernize” the four-year-old TOD in the spring of 2010.

A key focal point of the discussions was the desire by SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) for relief from “the administrative burden” associated with trading on regulated markets.

Large-cap companies quickly capitalized on the opportunity,  arguing that they too were overwhelmed by the statutory requirements and lobbied to be similarly exempt from quarterly financial filings.

Most market observers dismissed the outcry by large-cap companies as simply an attempt to latch on to a market reform movement that was gaining momentum. Few, however, believed that large-cap companies would be included in any revamped reporting requirements.

Some 16 months after the original consultation period, and without any further debate or notice of its intentions, the European Commission announced its surprise retrenchment proposal, abolishing the requirement that public companies publish quarterly financial information.

The Commission did the unthinkable, effectively waiving the need for all listed companies, regardless of size, to issue quarterly reports. Under the revised landscape, companies are only obligated to file half-year and annual results.

In retrospect, the Commission took the easy way out. Faced with the challenge of identifying qualifying SMEs, particularly with fluctuating market valuations, was too daunting a task. The Commission decided to take the path of least resistance: throw out the transparency thresholds for all issuers in the name of cost-efficiency.

The reality of the situation is that cost of regulatory compliance is extremely reasonable, especially when weighed against its capital market benefits. These include greater visibility and liquidity, less volatility, and higher trading volumes, all of which are likely to contribute to a lower cost of capital.

Services such as Business Wire offer flat rate annual packages that are very competitively priced, enabling issuers to effectively control costs, while ensuring broad, simultaneous distribution to the full range of market participants.

Under the Commission’s proposal, companies can still file quarterly reports and interim management statements at their own discretion. There is no longer a mandate for companies to do so. The investment community, and the financial markets, will be ill-served by the Commission’s short-sighted decision.

Ironically, many observers think that the majority of companies will continue to update the marketplace on a regular basis. Most companies recognize that to limit market communication to semi-annual updates simply doesn’t make sense. The value of an effective investor relations program that, by definition, includes regular updates on corporate developments, has been well documented by independent academic studies.

So while many market professionals anticipate minimal consequences from the Commission’s decision, it clearly sends the wrong message to the marketplace.

The global markets remain as fragile as ever, with investor confidence teetering as the world holds its breath waiting to see how the European debt crisis plays itself out.

A major lesson learned from the 2008 financial markets meltdown has unfortunately been quickly forgotten by some market regulators.

Information is the lifeblood of our financial markets. Stanching its flow, in the name of relieving the “administrative burden” on listed companies, is a tremendous disservice to the investment community, and needlessly substitutes risk for reassurance.

With the European Union seemingly on the brink, the European Commission’s proposal to dial back on disclosure sets a dangerous precedent that desperately needs to be reversed.

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