On Monday January 22, 2007, Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer released the joint report they commissioned from McKinsey & Company, entitled "Sustaining New York’s and the U.S.’s Global Financial Services Leadership." The report can be found here, and the joint press release describing the report can be found here. The report is written in the same vein as the Interim Report of the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, or the Paulson Committee as it is popularly known, and the two reports are both of similarly impressive length. (My prior discussion of the Paulson Committee Report can be found here). There are, however, several important differences between the two reports, both in tone and in substance.
Among the more important visual differences is the explicit bipartisan support for the Bloomberg/Schumer report. Indeed, newly elected Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer showed up for the ceremony to release the report, about which there is some significant irony, given the report’s concern about the problems caused by conflicting regulatory schemes. The Wall Street Journal’s discussion of the unsubtle irony of Spitzer’s involvement can be found here and here (subscription required).
The Bloomberg/Schumer report, like the Paulson Committee’s Interim Report, is focused on the competitiveness of the U.S. capital markets, but its recognition of the reasons for the heightened competitiveness of foreign securities markets is more comprehensive and detailed than the Paulson Committee’s Interim Report. The Bloomberg/Schumer report examines at length the "strong dynamics outside the U.S. driving international growth." Its review of the reasons why many foreign companies are seeking to list their shares on exchanges outside the U.S. examines at length the geographic and economic reasons for this shift, including in particular the increased availability of adequate capital in foreign markets and improved technology and communications that has opened these markets to all international investors (including even U.S.-based investors).
The Bloomberg/Schumer report is also much less concerned about the purported threat of London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) that then Paulson Committee’s Interim Report. While recognizing that the AIM has successfully tailored its listing requirements to attract smaller companies, the Bloomberg/Schumer report also notes that "small-cap markets are clearly riskier that their more established counterparts." The report also notes in a sidebar that while the AIM has attracted a growing number of listings in recent years, the growing number "masks the large and increasing number of de-listings (480 since the beginning of 2003) and low liquidity of most AIM stocks." The Bloomberg/Schumer report concludes that because of concerns over the "disproportionate impact a bear market might have on small-cap markets and investors," and the limited economic benefit of such markets, the report "does not recommend that U.S. exchanges lower their listing requirements to attract more small issuers.’
The Bloomberg/Schumer report also emphasizes several issues that are not addressed at all in the Paulson Committee’s Interim Report. For example, the Bloomberg/Schumer report takes a look at legal barriers that may prevent domestic markets from attracting top global financial talent and concludes that U.S immigration policies are making it harder to attract non-citizens to move to this country, and these barriers are undermining the competitiveness of U.S. securities markets. The report proposes a number of specific immigration reforms. The Bloomberg/Schumer report also recommends the rapid implementation of the Basel II Capital Accords, so that U.S.-based commercial banking institutions do not face higher capital level requirements than their foreign counterparts, which would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Based on its conclusion that the regulatory and legal environment in this country is a substantial factor diminishing the attractiveness of U.S capital markets, the Bloomberg/Schumer report proposes a number of reforms. While the Bloomberg/Schumer report, like the Paulson Committee report, singles out Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Bloomberg/Schumer report comments that the fault does not lie with the Act itself but with the implementing regulations. (This observation coincides with the remarks of SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins on January 22, 2007 at the Corporate Directors Forum, here). The Blooberg/Schumer report urges the SEC and the PCAOB to proceed quickly with their current efforts to reform the implementing regulations (see the PCAOB’s press release on its current reform efforts, here), provide further guidance with regard to what constitutes a "material weakness" in internal controls, and help implement an internal control review that is "top-down, risk-based, and focused on what truly matters to the integrity of a company’s financial statement.’
The report also suggests that the SEC should consider giving "smaller companies" (the report does not define "smaller") the opportunity to opt-out of the more onerous requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, provided the choice is "conspicuously disclosed to investors." In addition, the report suggests that the SEC should consider exempting foreign companies from certain parts of the Act, provided they already comply with sophisticated, SEC-approved foreign regulators’ requirements.
The Bloomberg/Schumer report also proposes limited "securities litigation reform," which it proposes that the SEC implement through its authority under Section 36 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to exempt certain companies from regulations when it deems such exemptions to be in the public interest. Specifically, the report suggest that the SEC choose to limit the liability of foreign companies with U.S. listings to securities related damages proportional to their degree of exposure to U.S. markets; and impose a cap on auditors’ damages that would maintain a deterrent effect but reduce the likelihood that the auditing industry would lose another major player. The report also repeats the suggestion that the SEC could allow companies to opt out of part of SOX (again, with "conspicuous disclosure.") The report also proposes that the SEC promote arbitration as a means of resisting disputes between public companies and investors.
The report also proposes two legislative changes to address "long-term structural problems." The report suggests that Congress should consider limiting punitive damages and allow litigants in federal securities actions to appeal interlocutory judgments immediately to the Circuit Courts. The report contains a number of suggestions to harmonize the various U.S. regulatory structures. It also suggests the creation of a permanent body (the "National Commission on Financial Market Competitiveness") to focus on the competitiveness of the U.S securities markets.
Compared to the Paulson Committee Interim Report, the Bloomberg/Schumer report is both more comprehensive (for example, with its reference to immigration reform and the Basel II Capital Accords) and, in some ways, more realistic (for example, in its recognition of the myriad reasons not to lower regulatory standards simply to attract smaller listing companies). The report also presents a few modest proposals that could help incrementally improve the competitiveness of the U.S. securities markets. The report struggles to maintain the air of modesty for reforms that may not be quite so modest or feasible (for example, using federal legislation to eliminate state law provisions for punitive damages, or using regulatory provisions to create damages caps). The proposal to create an arbitration remedy for investors disputes with public companies may seem superficially attractive, but even a brief referral to one of the more serious securities class action lawsuits will reveal that these kinds of lawsuits are peculiarly unsuited for that forum and process.
But with the arrival of the Bloomberg/Schumer report and its addition to the Paulson Committee’s Interim Report, and with the added prospect of the conference that the Treasury Department plans to hold this spring on the issue of the competitiveness of the U.S Securities markets (here), it is pretty clear that momentum is building for action to be taken to assist the U.S. markets. In this environment, particularly where there seems to be a bipartisan consensus emerging, it seems likelier that regulatory and even legislative reforms may well occur. In this environment, ideas such as the increased regulatory flexibility for smaller companies and foreign companies, may receive a more sympathetic reception, even though it would have to be asked whether these changes might represent a lowering of standards that arguably could weaken the overall strength and integrity of the markets.
It also appears the regulators are reading reading the newspapers. The PCAOB’s intiative to reform Auditing Standard 2 and argubly even the Department of Justice’s revision of the Thompson Memo with the release of the McNulty Memo are undoubtedly the result of a multitude of factors, but the timing of these reforms may be due to the growing calls for reform. The regulators may well be attempting to get ahead of the curve; there may be further regulatory intiatives ahead.
One final observation: it is interesting to note that the Bloomberg/Schumer report concludes, in examining the reason for the decline in the number of securities class action lawsuits in 2005 and 2006, that the decline in the number of lawsuits is largely attributable to favorable economic conditions and that "if economic conditions were to decline in the future, then a strong resurgence of lawsuits would likely follow."