Current Efforts Toward Corporate Disclosure Reform
The discussion surrounding corporate disclosure reform has consistently centered on the issue of how to provide sufficient levels of information to investors and other readers without overburdening those responsible for preparing the disclosures. On July 29, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness (CCMC) hosted an event addressing corporate disclosure reform. A variety of issues involving disclosure reform were discussed in panels featuring general counsels from leading companies, former officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the current head of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, and other stakeholders.
Corporate disclosure reform has also been a recurring topic of discussion among the delegates of NACD’s advisory council meetings. Delegates are committee chairs of Fortune 500 companies and, along with key stakeholders, they discuss the issues and challenges currently affecting the boardroom. In particular, NACD’s Audit Committee Chair Advisory Council has discussed this topic at length, and this issue featured prominently in the discussions at the June 2013, November 2013 and March 2014 meetings. In particular, the November meeting featured senior leaders from the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals to discuss their efforts to streamline disclosures, while the March meeting included analysts from Moody’s Analytics and Morgan Stanley to share how they use disclosures.
Many of the key takeaways from the CCMC’s July meeting have been echoed at NACD’s advisory council meetings. These include:
The “disclosure burden” is largely driven by a desire to reduce liability. The first CCMC panel focused on the perspectives of two former SEC commissioners: Roel Campos, who is currently a partner at Locke Lord; and Cynthia Glassman, now a senior research scholar at the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at the George Washington University School of Business. There was agreement that disclosures have become documents of litigation. The usefulness of many disclosures was called into question, and in fact, many of the disclosures found on today’s financial statements are not actually mandated. For example, while comment letters issued by SEC staff from the Division of Corporation Finance and the Division of Investment Management “do not constitute an official expression of the SEC’s views” and are “limited to the specific facts of the filing in question and do not apply to other filings,” many companies include disclosures based on these comment letters, often aiming to reduce their company’s liability by accounting for every possible contingency.
What’s more, if one company is asked by the SEC to provide a particular disclosure, other companies may feel compelled to disclose the same information even though they may operate in different industries.
Nevertheless, elimination of unnecessary or outdated disclosures requires a lengthy review process. Without a champion for reform, disclosures can linger on financial statements in perpetuity. An advisory council delegate noted: “It’s possible to take the initiative and cut the 10-K down. But it’s a significant time commitment, so you need buy-in from the CEO, CFO, and audit committee.”
Technology provides promising solutions. It was also observed that many disclosures are mandated by laws and rules stemming from the 1930s to the 1980s, when corporate information was only accessible in a physical form. Today, company websites often provide more detailed, current information than the 10-K. One CCMC panelist suggested that the SEC should encourage companies to rely more on these websites for the disclosure of certain information, such as historical share prices.
CCMC panelists also discussed ways to take advantage of technology to redesign and standardize the financial statements themselves, which could make them searchable and allow investors to make comparisons over time or across companies more easily. One panelist suggested that disclosure transparency could be enhanced by creating a “digital executive summary” document. In this summary, new, newly relevant, and the most material disclosures could be grouped in one place with hyperlinks to more detailed information. A similar notion has been discussed at recent Audit Advisory Council meetings, as one delegate offered: “Perhaps we need a second document, aside from the 10-K, that provides a shorter, more meaningful narrative that’s focused on the material issues that investors are interested in.”
Disclosure reform involves multiple stakeholder groups. The second CCMC panel of the morning focused on balancing the disclosure needs of various stakeholders. The panel included the perspectives of several professionals whose work is heavily influenced by the disclosure regime. They included Julie Bell Lindsay, managing director and general counsel for capital markets and corporate reporting, Citigroup Inc.; Chris Holmes, national director of SEC regulatory matters, Ernst & Young; Flora Perez, vice president and deputy general counsel, Ryder System Inc.; and Ann Yerger, executive director, Council of Institutional Investors.
From the investors’ perspective, it was noted that because investors are voracious consumers of information, they will rarely say “no” if offered more information.
Several corporate counsels noted initiatives at their companies that are designed to increase disclosure transparency, including efforts to work directly with investors to determine the information that was the most important to them. In fact, nearly half of the respondents to the 2013–2014 NACD Public Company Governance Survey indicated that a representative of the board had met with institutional investors in the past 12 months:
The SEC is currently developing solutions. The final panel of the morning featured Keith Higgins, director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, who provided his views regarding the state of the disclosure system and described how the division is currently conducting its disclosure reform initiatives. More details regarding the division’s plans to tackle disclosure reform can be found in this speech by Higgins to the American Bar Association in April.
Throughout the morning’s discussions, there were also points of disagreement, such as the relevance of specific disclosures. Each session, however, provided evidence that on all sides of the issue there are those making good-faith efforts to improve the system.