Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Treasury meeting of corporate bigwigs--"same as it ever was?"

I just read, in today's Houston Chronicle, that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's convening a group of movers and shakers to discuss two related ideas: first, that perhaps firms shouldn't have to forecast quarterly earnings; and second, that perhaps big accounting firms shouldn't face as much exposure when things go wrong. See Marcy Gordon's story, Big names will weigh in on corporate laws. According to her article, "The panelists include billionaire investor Warren Buffett, General Electric Co. Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, brokerage founder and CEO Charles Schwab, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg." SEC Chairman Christopher Cox is the co-moderator with Paulson.

Not that the panelists aren't well-qualified (they are, especially Warren Buffet, who seems to be a true straight-shooter), but where are folks who represent other ways of looking at the market? Where are the academics who study corporate behavior? I know that almost all conferences consist of singing to the appropriate choirs--academic conferences are no different--but, well, geez! This conference is organized by the government. Would it have hurt Paulson & Cox to invite other perspectives to the table so that at least the panelists could have had some productive cross-talk?

I've said before (The SEC's “Bullwinkle” Enforcement and the WABAC Machine) that accounting firms don't deserve special protection. For what it's worth, I actually agree that the quarterly forecasting does more harm than good to companies, because it forces them to focus on short-term needs, rather than long-term issues. Short-term focus was one of the problems that Enron faced, and we all know how it chose to deal with those pesky facts that got in the way of its made-up forecasts.

Please, Mr. Paulson & Mr. Cox: I applaud you for asking important questions. I really do. But it's just as important to have a variety of views positing answers as it is to ask the questions in the first place.

In the immortal words of David Byrne & the Talking Heads,

Watch out you might get what you're after
. . . .
Burning down the house

Hold tight wait till the party's over
Hold tight
We're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
Here's your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin' overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far,
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire

Same as it ever was?

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