Monday, October 25, 2010

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink: Office Depot and Reg. FD

Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission announced enforcement actions against Office Depot, its CEO and former CFO for violation of Regulation Fair Disclosure. After a four year quiet period following its Federal District Court loss in its second enforcement action against Siebel Systems, new leadership in a new administration seem to have resurrected Regulation Fair Disclosure from the regulatory dustbin, with three actions in the past year.

In the case of Office Depot it seems that management was concerned about analysts’ estimates for the second quarter of 2007 being too high. The CEO and the CFO directed people in the investor relations department to conduct calls with 18 analysts designed to remind the analysts of statements Office Depot made earlier in the quarter and that Office Depot’s competitors were having a tough time of it. The talking points used by the investor relations department were along the following lines:

"Haven't spoken in a while, just want to touch base.

At beg. of Qtr we've talked about a number of head winds that we were facing this quarter including a softening economy, especially at small end.

I think the earnings release we have seen from the likes of [Company A], [Company B], and [Company C] have been interesting.

On a sequential basis, [Company A] and [Company B] domestic comps were down substantially over prior quarters.

[Company C] mentioned economic conditions as a reason for their slowed growth.

Some have pointed to better conditions in the second half of the year – however who knows?

Remind you that economic model contemplates stable economic conditions – that is mid-teens growth"

In other words, Office Depot was attempting to imply that the economy was lousy, just as they had previously warned it might be and that their competitors had all been impacted by it. The logical inference then (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is that Office Depot’s operations were also suffering. As might be expected, following the calls, analysts began to lower their estimates and the price of Office Depot shares began to fall. Six days after the calls began Office Depot filed a Form 8-K Report announcing that its sales and earnings would be negatively impacted by the softening economy.

This is the sort of thing that drives the Enforcement crowd at the SEC nuts and they went after Office Depot with a vengeance, eventually winning an agreement from the company to pay a $1,000,000 fine and $50,000 fines against both the CEO and former CFO.

The good news here is that the people actually making the calls, the investor relations staff, were not fined. Either the defense of “I was just following orders” works with the SEC or they figured that, given the salaries of most investor relations officers, there just wasn’t enough there to make fines worthwhile.

There are a number of lesson that can be drawn from all of this, the most obvious being that you shouldn’t try to do indirectly what the regulations do not allow you to do directly. This enforcement action will send shivers through any investor relations officer that has wrestled with an analyst over their estimates being out of line, as many of the same techniques are used to bring estimates into line.

But what I’m interested in is what did the management of Office Depot think they were going to accomplish? They clearly wanted to signal that business was not as robust as analysts were expecting, but to what purpose? So that the stock wouldn’t trade down when the earnings were announced? Surely they must have known that the stock would trade down when they began to contact analysts. So is it better to have the stock go down earlier? I don’t get it.

This is classic short term corporate thinking, worrying about the stock price over a period of a few weeks. Over the long haul, the stock price will reflect the intrinsic value of the stock, and management should be worried about how to drive that intrinsic value higher, not where the stock price is going over the next few weeks due to short term economic conditions.

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