The upcoming holiday season of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s is always cause to sit back and reflect on what has transpired over the course of the past year and what it portends for next year. I freely admit that my crystal ball is as fuzzy as the next person’s but we’ve had such an interesting year I can’t resist the temptation to extrapolate past events into future predictions in two areas, regulation/legislation and, the use of social media in investor relations.
Investor relations in the U.S. during 2009 was heavily impacted by the advent of a new administration in Washington, an administration that comes from a different political viewpoint than the previous administration, one that favors more regulation rather than less. The new Chairman at the Securities and Exchange Commission, under pressure to prove that the SEC was still relevant, made it very clear during the year that increased regulation of the securities markets and more vigorous enforcement of existing regulations were top priorities at the Commission. Thus during the year we had a flurry of regulatory actions that touch upon investor relations issues, including Reg. SHO, designed to cut down on “naked” short selling, approval of NYSE rules eliminating broker discretionary votes in director elections, proposals regarding the use of “dark pools” and updating the rules surrounding notice and access for proxy materials.
On the enforcement side, we had the first ever enforcement action under Reg. G, relating to abuse of Non-GAAP numbers, the first Reg. FD enforcement action since the SEC lost the Siebel II case in Federal court, and a series of high profile insider trading indictments.
And guess what? For next year I predict … more of the same. In large part, the continued regulatory onslaught will be driven by Congress. For months now, financial markets reform has been on the agenda of our august legislative body, but the bills being considered by the House and Senate are quite a bit different as they relate to how corporations deal with investors. The Senate version includes requirements for annual, non-binding say-on-pay voting, mandated proxy access, and elimination of staggered boards, among other things. My prediction is that most of these requirements will be negotiated out of the Senate version as the business community begins to focus on these items, but that won’t be the end of the process. The SEC, being a political animal, will pick up the ball and then attempt to do by regulation what Congress failed to do by legislation. Look for some of the aforesaid issues to pop up on the SEC agenda next year. It will continue the trend towards the federalization of state corporate law that has been ongoing over the past fifty years. On the enforcement side, the Commission will continue to try and bring actions so that they appear to be doing their job. After dropping the ball on Bernie Madoff, they’re desperate to prove there is a new sheriff in town.
On the more practical side of actually communicating with investors, the hot topic during the year gone by was the use of social media. Particularly during the last half of the year there have been a spate of commentators, myself included, discussing the issue. Generally, the arguments break down upon the following lines: For social media – “This is the dawn of a new era where everyone can communicate with everyone else without anyone getting in the way, and isn’t that great? And anyone who doesn’t get it is a troglodyte.” Those against social media – “You’re right – I don’t get it. This stuff tends to be a bunch of unfiltered junk and a huge waste of time.”The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle and I think that over the course of the next year we will continue to see modest use of social media by investor relations departments. Dell has shown that blogs can be done in a thoughtful manner and Southwest Airlines has successfully used Twitter to get the word out quickly during a crisis communications situation. But most corporations are conservative in nature, and have general counsels that lie awake at night worrying about securities litigation, so things will happen very slowly. In fact, by the time corporate legal departments get comfortable with, and figure out how to let investor relations people use Twitter safely, it will be old technology and social media will have moved on to something else.