Monday, December 3, 2007

What the World Equity Markets are Telling the U. S.

Last week I conducted a workshop on investor relations in Singapore for Asian companies. It has underscored for me the fact that we live in an increasingly global village. Yes, there are cultural differences. There are also time and distance differences that sometimes make communication difficult, but the process of transferring information from companies to investors seems to be remarkably similar worldwide.

We now have publicly listed companies in spots such as China and Vietnam. These are economies that did not even acknowledge the benefits of capitalism just a short time ago. I don’t know why, but it came as a revelation to me that companies in these countries worry about much the same things that investor relations officers do here in the U. S. – being undervalued relative to their peers and the index, managements that expect everyone to love their stock, how to measure the effectiveness of IR, and hedge funds, to name a few topics. There are differences – some of the companies I spoke with had relatively low levels of public float and a number of markets were heavily influenced by speculative individual investors, leading to volatile stock price movements. My impression, however, was that many of the differences related to the equity markets being younger, and that as the markets mature and deepen, with greater levels of liquidity and professional investors, most of the differences will work themselves out of the market.

One fact came through loud and clear however – none of the companies I spoke with were listed on a U. S. exchange, and further, none of them had any remote desire to list in the U. S. The reason universally cited was Sarbanes – Oxley. None of the companies wanted to voluntarily undertake the regulatory burden imposed by the legislation. Not so long ago, it used to be that listing in the U. S. was a sign that a company had truly arrived. Today, there are growing alternatives to the U. S. markets, including Hong Kong and London, which have more attractive regulatory environments. According to the Wall Street Journal last week, more IPOs have been filed this year in London than in the U.S. (although the U.S. is slightly ahead in dollar volume of deals).

I’m not in favor of a regulatory race to the bottom, but if seems to me that the U. S. has priced itself out of the equity listings market through the increased cost of compliance with our regulations. Clearly, the rest of the world is telling us that the increased security achieved through the oversight and controls required by Sarbanes – Oxley does not justify the increased cost. To put it another way, there would have to be a tangible benefit, shown by a premium to stock valuations for companies subject to Sarbanes - Oxley in order to justify the increased cost of complying with the regulations. Companies are not seeing it, and are taking their listings elsewhere. If the U.S. intends to remain a leader in the world equity markets, it needs to take a hard look at Sarbanes – Oxley.

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