Corp Fin has recently focused on the issue of corporate reporting and short-termism. At the end of last year, the SEC posted a “request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies.” (See this PubCo post.) Following up, Corp Fin then organized a roundtable, held last week, to discuss the issues surrounding short-termism. The roundtable consisted of two panels: the first explored “the causes and impact of a short-term focus on our capital markets,” with the goal of identifying potential market practices and regulatory changes that could promote long-term thinking and investment. In part, this panel developed into a debate about whether short-termism was actually creating a problem for the economy at all. In that regard, several of these panelists were quick to cite the oft-cited academic study revealing that “three quarters of senior American corporate officials would not make an investment that would benefit a company over the long run if it would derail even one quarterly earnings report.” (See this PubCo post and this article in The Atlantic.) Could the reason be a misalignment of incentives? The second panel was centered on the periodic reporting system and potential regulatory changes that might encourage a longer-term focus in that system. Does the current periodic reporting system, along with the practice of issuing quarterly earnings releases and, in some cases, quarterly earnings guidance contribute to or encourage an overly short-term focus by managers and other market participants? On this panel, the headline topic notwithstanding, the discussion barely touched on short-termism; rather, the focus was almost entirely on regulatory burden. At the end of the day, is the SEC seriously considering making changes to periodic reporting?
Yesterday, SEC Chair Jay Clayton announced that the SEC will be holding a roundtable this summer to discuss “the impact of short-termism on our capital markets and whether our reporting system, or other aspects of our regulations, should be modified to address these concerns…. The SEC staff roundtable will seek to explore the causes of short-termism and to facilitate conversations on what market-based initiatives and regulatory changes could foster a longer-term performance perspective in American companies.” In his statement, Clayton observed that, in light of increases in life expectancy, together with the greater responsibility of “Main Street investors” for their own retirements—largely as a result of the shift from the security of company pensions to 401(k)s and IRAs—the needs of these investors have changed: “Main Street investors are more than ever focused on long-term results.” However, from time to time, they also “need liquidity. In other words, at some point, long-term investors do become sellers. The SEC’s disclosure rules should reflect and foster these needs—long-term perspective and liquidity when needed.” To that end, the goal of the roundtable is not just to discuss the problems associated with short-termism, but also to promote “further dialogue on the causes of and potential solutions to the issue.”
Right before the SEC open meeting originally scheduled to discuss the issue, the SEC has posted a “request for comment soliciting input on the nature, content, and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports made by reporting companies.” (The matter has been deleted from tomorrow’s agenda.) According to the press release, the request for comment solicits “public input on how the Commission can reduce burdens on reporting companies associated with quarterly reporting while maintaining, and in some cases enhancing, disclosure effectiveness and investor protections. In addition, the Commission is seeking comment on how the existing periodic reporting system, earnings releases, and earnings guidance, alone or in combination with other factors, may foster an overly short-term focus by managers and other market participants.” The public comment period will be open for 90 days following publication of the Request in the Federal Register.
(Note that the SEC also adopted hedging policy disclosure rules and likewise removed that from tomorrow’s agenda, but more on that tomorrow.)
In this article in the WSJ and this article in the New Yorker, the authors discuss the challenges companies encounter when they try to make long-term investment decisions in the face of short-term market pressures: the debate between short-term and long-term thinking on Wall Street “is a key concern for chief executives trying to justify major capital investments that can take years to pay off. Long-range strategies can be hard to pull off in an era when Wall Street is fixated on three-month reporting periods.” Should companies try to please long-term investors or investors who are “playing the quarterly game?” What about hedge-fund activists that threaten to force the company to adopt a short-term perspective?
No sooner had SEC Chair Jay Clayton, in informal comments at a public event, called a halt to speculation that large public companies would be seeing semiannual reporting any time soon (see this PubCo post), then out comes the Fall 2018 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, which identifies “Earnings Releases/Quarterly Reports” as a pre-rule stage, substantive, non-significant (really?) agenda item for the SEC. The abstract indicates that Corp Fin “is considering recommending that the Commission seek public comment on ways to ease companies’ compliance burdens while maintaining appropriate levels of disclosure and investor protection.” Legal authority: “not yet determined.” Ok, does Clayton take it all back or does it still mean that, notwithstanding this agenda item, the likelihood of anything materializing as a result is—other than, as Clayton had intimated, perhaps for smaller companies—still pretty slim?
Semiannual reporting, we hardly knew ye.
You remember, of course, that in August, the president, on his way out of town for the weekend, threw out to reporters the idea of eliminating quarterly reporting and moving instead to semiannual reporting. (See this PubCo post.) The argument was that the change would not only save time and money, but would also help to deter “short-termism,” as companies would not need to manage their businesses to meet quarterly analyst expectations at the expense of longer term thinking.
On the White House lawn before he boarded a helicopter for the Hamptons and his New Jersey golf club for the weekend, reporters had the opportunity to lob a few questions at the president. While most of the questions were about security clearances and the criminal trials of his former staff, a different topic suddenly emerged in connection with an early morning tweet about quarterly reporting. The president said that, in his discussions with leaders of the business community regarding ways to improve the business environment, Indra Nooyi, the outgoing CEO of Pepsico, had suggested that one way to help business would be to trim the periodic reporting requirements from quarterly to semiannually. The argument is that the change would not only save time and money, but would also help to deter “short-termism,” as companies would not need to focus on meeting analysts’ expectations on a quarterly basis at the expense of longer term thinking. (For more on short-termism, see, e.g., this PubCo post.) He agreed that “we are not thinking far enough out,” and had asked the SEC to look into it.