Regulation Fair Disclosure: Once Again in Critics’ Cross Hairs

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The need for better and broader disclosure: social media added to Reg FD-compliant disclosure vehicles is the way forward.

By Neil Hershberg
 
If misguided regulatory reformers have their way, the passage of Reg FD will be remembered as “The Golden Age” of full and fair disclosure.  The global paradigm of investor protection and market fairness is once again under attack by detractors, who have seemingly forgotten the landmark directive’s true spirit and intent — as well as its clearly defined compliance criteria.

Reg FD has been a lightning rod for criticism since its adoption in 2000. The latest threat promises to further emasculate Reg FD, eroding the “level playing field” that the SEC sought to enshrine for all market participants.

Critics are pushing for the recognition of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as Reg FD-compliant channels for investor communications. Clearly, regulatory disclosure was never intended to be a “friends and family” rewards program, but rather a compliance model designed to service the information needs of the entire investment community.

Netflix and the SEC

The latest disclosure debate recently boiled over when Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, revealed on his Facebook page last July that viewers had downloaded one billions hours of streaming video the previous month. Netflix’s stock spiked to a six-week high following the post, rising 13 percent and increasing the company’s market value by $542 million in one day, according to news reports. 
 
While there were other mitigating factors that likely contributed to the sharp rise in share price, the steep escalation in capitalization caught the attention of SEC watchdogs.
 
According to the SEC, Hastings’ post contained material information that should have been broadly disseminated, as opposed to being selectively disclosed to his fortunate Facebook followers.  The SEC filed a Wells Notice against both Hastings and Netflix for violating Reg FD. While the agency’s staff is recommending that a civil claim is warranted, the commissioners must still decide whether to pursue the allegation.
 
Interestingly, Netflix filed an 8-K to announce the SEC action, and subsequently submitted a regulatory filing to announce that Hastings’ salary would double in 2013. Netflix obviously has developed a new appreciation for recognized disclosure tools in the wake of the SEC reprimand.  
 
The battle lines over the use of social media have been drawn; Hastings has become the “poster boy” of social media supporters who are aggressively lobbying the SEC to revisit Reg FD and adopt new flexibility toward the use of social media.
 
A close look at the facts, however, confirms that enabling issuers to rely exclusively on social media to reach investors would be a major step backwards, and threatens to reverse the enormous progress made in the dozen years since Reg FD was enacted.
 
According to Compliance Week, Hastings’ post was not on Netflix’s corporate Facebook page, but was published on one of his three personal Facebook accounts. Clearly, investors should not have to guess whether material information is hiding behind Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3.
 
Reg FD is remarkably clear on this point: all investors have an equal right to simultaneous, real-time access to market-moving information. They should not have to play the Netflix equivalent of “Three-Card Monte” to get access to corporate developments that may influence their investment decisions.
 
The Dilemma Facing Journalists & Analysts
 
Liz Hester, in an article for “Talking Biz News” (a site that is popular among business journalists), described the dilemma facing journalists and analysts in the event that social media supplants closely monitored disclosure platforms:
 
“This means that as a business journalist you’d better be Facebook friends, a Twitter follower, Instagram tracker, blog reader and somehow connected through every social media to the people you cover,” Hester wrote. “This means your feeds will have to cover everyone from the CEO to the marketing officer to the press person. Good luck weeding through all the baby photos for real news.”
 
Supporters of social media have seized the opportunity to attack the SEC’s stance on the use of online platforms for disclosure compliance.
 
“The SEC wants CEOS to use press releases, investor conference calls or formal SEC filings to communicate,” wrote Larry Popelka, a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor in a column that appeared on SFGate.com. “The problem with these communications is that they are cold, formal, and often don’t provide meaningful insights into company leaders’ thinking. Individuals and organizations that use social media have discovered that it is a much richer, more effective way to communicate.”
 
Popelka’s arguments are deeply flawed. How are messages that are limited to 140 characters, for example, an improvement in terms of providing “meaningful insights into company’s leaders thinking?”  More importantly, the purpose of disclosure has obviously been lost on Popelka.  Disclosure was never meant to be “warm and fuzzy.” Rather, the objective has always been to be “full and fair.” And Reg FD — in its current incarnation — does an exemplary job in accomplishing this goal.  
 
A Unified Effort to Bolster Disclosure
 
The warring factions should put their differences aside and join forces in a united effort to bolster disclosure. There is an underlying commonality of interests that everyone can agree to: the need for better and broader disclosure. 
 
The reality is that this should not be an either/or proposition. Social media is here to stay, and its importance is growing daily. Social media should be an integral part of virtually every investor communications program, in addition to any Reg FD-compliant disclosure vehicle. Using social media tools to supplement other distribution channels is a strategy that has near-universal appeal.
 
Herb Greenberg, the respected CNBC market commentator who first broached the issue of whether Netflix violated Reg FD last July, puts the issue into its proper perspective:
 
“Posting material information on a CEO’s personal social media page simply isn’t fair disclosure — no matter how many people follow it,” Greenberg concluded. “Bottom line: I’m all in favor of social media as a point of dissemination. They aren’t going away. But public companies and executives want to use them, and they have to play by the rules. That means, simply, issue a press release at the same time. Simple common sense, don’t you think?”

2 Responses to Regulation Fair Disclosure: Once Again in Critics’ Cross Hairs

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