So this week we see the new financial regulation dropping, so I’ll be dedicating the next couple of blog posts to that very subject. We are going to do some heavy lifting together, so let’s start out with a warm-up exercise. Some regulatory stretching for our minds.
Let’s say you are the primary shareholder of Rortybomb Blog, Inc., a company dedicated to selling the latest in Avril Lavigne ringtone technology in the sidebars of this blog. I’m Mike, your CEO. You’ve read recently on the conservative blogs that pseudonymous bloggers are “cowards” and “irresponsible”, and since you get most of your opinions from conservative blogs you suddenly find me very untrustworthy. In fact, you big concern is that when I want to hold onto your cash from Rortybomb earnings in order to buy myself expensive champagne and fast cars.
Along comes a regulatory bill that will soon be put up for a vote, oh let’s call it Sarbannes-Oxley, and I immediately get on a jet, go to Washington DC, and very publicly say, as a CEO, that it’ll ruin my business. The next day, it appears that the bill will be passing. What is your reaction as an investor?
(a) Your valuation goes down. Washington is going to charge the company you own a regulatory fee in a publicity stunt that will add no value.
(b) Your valuation goes down. The guy who runs the company your own, CEO Mike, has signaled to everyone that he has his hand in the cookie jar because he wants to fight off additional regulation, regulation that will be ineffectual against him.
(c) Your valuation goes up, because you realize CEO Mike is sneaking value from you, and that this regulation will expose that. However it’ll go down later, because you were too optimistic and when you saw it implimentation you were disappointed.
(d) Your valuation goes up, because you realize CEO Mike is sneaking value from you, and that this regulation will expose that. It will continue to stay up years later.
Well we did run this experiment on the financial markets when the Sarbanes-Oxley passed, and the answer the market gave was (d). It is important to remember, in all this talk about “free” markets, is that markets crave good information, and efforts that can get us to better information is worth the price.
I want to now kick it over to my favorite recent empirical accountancy paper (yes, I have one – suck it!) Ok this abstract is a bit difficult to follow, but let me walk you through it. From A Lobbying Approach to Evaluating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (pdf) (Hochberg, Sapienza, Vissing-Jørgensen, 2008):
We evaluate the impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) on shareholders by studying the lobbying behavior of investors and corporate insiders in order to aﬀect the ﬁnal implemented rules under the Act. Investors lobbied overwhelmingly in favor of strict implementation of SOX, while corporate insiders and business groups lobbied against strict implementation. We identify ﬁrms most aﬀected by the law as those whose insiders lobbied against strict implementation. Such ﬁrms appear to be characterized by agency problems, rather than motivated by concerns over compliance costs. Cumulative stock returns during the ﬁve and a half months leading up to SOX passage were approximately 7 percent higher for corporations whose insiders lobbied against SOX disclosure-related provisions than for similar non-lobbying ﬁrms, consistent with an expectation that SOX would reduce agency problems. Analysis of returns in the post-passage implementation period suggests that investors’ positive expectations with regards to the eﬀects of these provisions were warranted.
While the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), a regulation effort taken after the fraud at Enron et al was exposed, was being debated by Congress, there was a very formal process for the financial community to lobby for-or-against certain parts of the act. The law was passed.
So what happened? According to the numbers, the market bid up the firms that hired the most lobbyists against the disclosure rules of SOX. Now what if they were optimistic about the process, and the process turned out to be wrong? Regulation seemed necessary, but what if this regulation turns out to be terrible? Then those numbers should have downward trend later compared to the non-lobbyist firms. Turns out that those firms retained their value in the years afterwards. It’s a fascinating way to approach some of the optimal regulation problems. And this is the place that we always need to make sure is accurate – if the books aren’t correct, everything else falls apart. Here is more from the paper:
There are two main competing views about the likely impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) on shareholders. Proponents of the Act argue that it will lead to improved disclosure, transparency and corporate governance, thereby reducing misconduct, perquisite consumption and mismanagement by insiders (whether legal or illegal), and that these beneﬁts will outweigh the costs of compliance. Opponents argue that SOX will be ineﬀective in preventing corporate wrong-doing and/or that any beneﬁts of SOX will not be large enough to outweigh the associated compliance costs….
We ﬁnd that the ﬁrms most likely to lobby were ﬁrms in mature industries, with relatively low forecasted earnings growth, high proﬁtability and poor governance…
Our portfolio analysis of returns reveals that during the period leading up to passage of SOX (February to July of 2002), cumulative returns were approximately 7 percentage points higher for corporations whose insiders lobbied against one or more of the SOX ‘Enhanced Disclosure’ provisions than for non-lobbying ﬁrms of similar size, book-to-market and industry characteristics…
Our analysis of returns in the post-passage period indicates that the returns for ﬁrms who lobbied against an ‘Enhanced Disclosure’ rule were similar to the returns of the non-lobbying comparison group, and, thus, that the increase in relative stock price experienced by lobbying ﬁrms did not reverse during the post-passage period.
Weird, right? But it makes sense. People think that the market should be free, but being free doesn’t mean “I have the freedom to not have my results accurately and transparently observed by my bosses.” Freedom for markets is not quite the same negative liberty we experience as citizens; it’s more of a positive obligation to accurately and efficiently contribute information so that marginal decision making can be made off of that. And getting that information accurate is the key to keeping a healthy financial sector working properly. Markets need information; if that information turns out to be noise, and especially if one can’t tell the difference between those acting truthfully and those acting with a conflict, it can be worse than useless.