Jason Zweig, writing in the Wall Street Journal, discusses efforts to make securities disclosure more understandable to the typical investor. He quotes the Nobel-laureate behavioral economist Richard Thaler as saying that “nobody reads” the dense disclosure mandated by the SEC. This is clearly a bit of hyperbole, but I think we can all agree that a majority of investors don’t read a prospectus cover to cover before making their investment decision. The question is what to do about it.
The SEC has greatly expanded the number of public companies that can take advantage of the “scaled disclosure” provisions of Regulation S-K. Under these rules, smaller reporting companies have less onerous requirements that apply to their periodic filings. For example, smaller reporting companies do not need to include the lengthy Compensation Discussion and Analysis disclosure that larger companies do. Following the SEC’s recent action, the definition of “smaller reporting company” includes registrants with a public float of less than $250 million (up from $75 million), as well as registrants with annual revenues of less than $100 million for the previous year and either no public float or a public float of less than $700 million (previously, less than $50 million of annual revenues with no public float).
Peter R. Orszag, writing in Bloomberg View, highlights a study of public SEC-filed Form 10-K annual reports, which found that companies that make changes to the disclosure in their 10-Ks from one year to the next tend to have lower stock returns than average after publication of those changes. The study found that a significant majority of the changes constituted disclosure of negative information, so the resulting decline in performance is not surprising.
A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted how sketchy brokers have been marketing problematic private placements to accredited investors. While the article focused on the brokers, I was struck by the identity of one of the investor victims noted in the article as having lost a lot of money: George Stephanopoulos, the ABC News anchor and former Clinton Administration official. I don’t mean to cause Mr. Stephanopoulos any further embarrassment by highlighting this here (though I’m guessing that the readership of my blog is far less than that of the Journal), but the fact that he was scammed is a useful illustration of the misguidedness of the accredited investor definition and associated rules.
The current definition of “accredited investor” under SEC rules essentially uses wealth as a proxy for sophistication, as an individual can qualify by either having an annual income of $200,000 or a net worth of $1 million not including the value of one’s primary residence. An offering made to all accredited investors does not have an information requirement, meaning the investors do not need to be provided with a similar level of disclosure that would be associated with a registered public offering.
Securities offerings that are exempt from the SEC’s registration requirements often hinge on whether some or all of the investors are “accredited investors.” There are various categories of accredited investors for business entities, but for individuals, the categories relate to the investor’s annual income, net worth or whether the individual is a director or executive officer of the issuer.
The underlying policy of the current definition of accredited investors is that rich people (a term not used in the actual rules, obviously) can be assumed to have a level of financial sophistication such that they would conduct adequate due diligence before making an investment. Accordingly, accredited investors require less disclosure about proposed securities offerings. This assumption is, shall we say, not attuned to human reality. The obvious group of accredited investors that are not necessarily sophisticated is heirs and spouses of wealthy business people, who may have no background at all in finance and investment matters. But even for those accredited investors who have directly earned the money that grants them that status, plenty are in fields such as sports and entertainment where the particular skill that is remunerative to them has nothing to do with investing. Additionally, many white collar professionals such as doctors, engineers and even some attorneys may be highly educated, but they are not able to make heads or tails of a balance sheet and income statement. [Read more…]