When he was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox got slammed by many for failing to protect investors during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, including missing Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme. Now, to add insult to injury, his successor is showing little interest in his pet projects concerning corporate disclosure and accounting standards, and questioning whether at least one of them is even appropriate.
Cox's interest in forcing listed companies to file financial reports using technology that makes it easier for investors to read and analyze the data became almost an obsession during his time at the SEC from August 2005 until this past January. Indeed, the SEC voted through a rule to require 500 of the largest public companies to begin filing their reports with the technology known as XBRL, or extensible business reporting language, by the middle of this year, with the rest instructed to comply over the following two years.
It is just about the last costly requirement companies want to hear about as they fight for their survival through these doom-laden times. Indeed, in the results of a national survey of CFOs and senior comptrollers conducted by accountants Grant Thornton LLP, that was issued last week, 64 percent of public companies said they had no plans to use XBRL despite the SEC mandate.
Now, they may be getting some relief from new SEC head Mary Schapiro. She made it abundantly clear that XBRL was very low down her priority list when she spoke at the Reuters Global Financial Regulation Summit on Tuesday, and she hinted that the SEC might allow for delays in compliance, though she didn't know if that would be necessary. "I don't mean to be dismissive of it in any way -- it's just not one of my highest priorities," she said.
Even worse, unlike Cox she has little interest in promoting the initiative, though she does acknowledge it could become a useful tool. "I've only given I think three speeches and I don't think those letters (XBRL) have slipped into into any of them," she said.
Another Cox initiative was the decision to allow companies to use their websites and blogs to release market-sensitive information, and in some cases avoid normal distribution channels, such as BusinessWire, which is part of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc, and PRNewswire, a division of United Business Media Plc.
Schapiro said she had "a little bit of a visceral reaction" to the idea that investors might have to go and look for the information rather than getting it through a broader distribution, though said she would need to study the question more. She also noted that even now some investors don't have easy access to the Web.
Just to rub it in, Schapiro also said that the SEC would be seeing whether Cox's original roadmap for a possible move to international accounting standards in the U.S., possibly by 2014, still made sense given the cost of conversion and the current state of the economy.
It looks like Cox's list of achievements in his time at the SEC may be about to get shorter.