Where are the rightwing crackpots denouncing “world government” when you need them? The New York Times reported over the holiday weekend that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is preparing a series of proposals that would weaken its own control over U.S. financial markets by, among other things, allowing American companies to opt for oversight by foreign regulatory bodies. The step would reportedly be presented as way to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. companies abroad and encourage more foreign investment here.
Critics worry, with some justification, that the move amounts to a transnational form of deregulation, given that securities oversight overseas is generally much less stringent than in the United States. The change could effectively abolish the Sarbanes-Oxley controls that were put in place by Congress after the collapse of Enron and other corporate scandals earlier this decade. The Times quotes Duke Law School securities expert James D. Cox as warning that the shift to international rules amounts to “outsourcing safety standards.” Picking up on the story today, the Washington Post suggested that a vote on the use of international standards could come in a few weeks.
Ceding control to foreign regulators is just one of the ways in which the SEC seems to be chipping away at its own authority. Yesterday, the agency announced it had reached agreement with the Federal Reserve to share information and cooperate more closely. That sounds reasonable, but it comes after the Fed shunted the commission aside and took control of the Bear Stearns crisis back in March. Since then there have been prominent articles, such as one on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, playing up the criticism of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox.
And then there’s the fact that in March Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed an overhaul of the financial regulatory system that gave a diminished role to the SEC. Paulson’s plan has gone nowhere, but it added to the impression that the SEC’s star is waning.
The SEC is hardly a flawless agency, but the alternatives would probably be significantly worse in terms of investor protection and corporate accountability. As much as some of us harp on the limitations of SEC disclosure rules, for instance, there is a lot less transparency abroad. The only other country, to my knowledge, that requires companies to reveal a significant amount about their operations and their finances, and then makes those filings available at no cost on the web is Canada, with its SEDAR system. Allowing U.S. companies to follow foreign rules may or may not help their competitiveness, but it will in all likelihood allow them to operate with a lot less scrutiny.