My vote for the best financial reform ever goes to the system of mandated disclosure introduced in 1934 as the centerpiece of the SEC. In response to the worst stock market crash in the nation's history, lawmakers made a bold and inspiring decision to require full disclosure from publicly listed companies. It was a stroke of genius. Instead of burdening companies with endless rules about how they should or shouldn't operate, the law required firms to tell the public what they were doing. That way, investors could decide for themselves whether to invest or not. It was a powerful way to rebuild trust in the stock market at a time when it had been broken and it has underpinned trust in the market for decades.
The principle of full disclosure is something that we can all understand. Over time though, that simple and powerful principle has been distorted. The agency itself has gummed up the system of disclosure by introducing rule upon rule of how companies should disclose things and what they need to include and so on. I understand the impulse to clarify but this approach has actually been counterproductive. By introducing endless details in the rules, companies have sought out the help of technicians to make sure they're in compliance. That can result in situations like AIG where the insurer seems to have complied with GAAP and everything else but it did not disclose the one thing that would have made a huge difference to investors and the market--the fact that it had created an incredibly risky structure that could come tumbling down at any point.
Unfortunately, I believe we're going to see more cases like AIG if the current financial reform package is any guide. Instead of simple and powerful principles everyone can understand we're getting lots of technical rules that can be run around. Encouraging good behavior isn't easy but it starts with the introduction of simple, clear rules that make sense. Once you do that you can hold people accountable to those principles. Anything else just seems to make matters worse.
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