It has become received wisdom on Wall Street that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has damaged American competitiveness. It made listing in the American market less attractive to foreign companies and drove initial public offerings overseas. It raised costs for American companies without providing any significant benefit.
But do the facts support that wisdom?
The answer, according to The New York Times’s Floyd Norris: No.
A new study of the foreign companies that fled the American market after the Securities and Exchange Commission made it easy for them to do so in 2007 suggests that the companies that left were largely ones whose slow growth, and poor market performance, had reduced their need and ability to attract American capital. There is even some indication that the market punished companies that decided to leave even though they could still use the capital.
What the study shows, said one of the authors, G. Andrew Karolyi, a finance professor at Ohio State, is that the market did not react favorably when companies got out from under American regulation.
Instead, the paper by Mr. Korolyi, along with René M. Stulz, also of Ohio State, and Craig Doidge of the University of Toronto, found that share prices suffered in the few cases where foreign companies with good growth prospects left the American market. “When they choose to leave even though they are benefiting” from the American listing, Mr. Karolyi said in an interview, “shareholders may wonder if there is something sneaky going on.”
There has long been evidence that overseas firms benefit, through a lower cost of capital, when they choose to list their shares in the United States. Their shares trade for higher prices than do those of similar companies that do not choose to list here.
Why is that? The traditional answer is that investors have more faith in companies that comply with American disclosure rules and reconcile their books to United States accounting standards.
The advantage of an American listing faded early in this decade, although it did not vanish. The scandals at Enron and WorldCom did not renew faith in American rules, and it turned out that the American listing premium had soared in the late 1990s in part because foreign technology companies flocked to the United States to take advantage of what turned out to be a bubble. Their collapse made the American premium seem smaller.
The premium hit bottom in 2002, and recovered somewhat after that. Was that a reflection of investor confidence being renewed by passage of Sarbanes-Oxley? Not to hear the critics tell it. The Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, an independent panel whose creation in 2006 was heralded by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., cited that data as proof that Sarbanes-Oxley hurt the markets. Their logic: The average premium after 2002, when the law passed, was lower than it was before the bubble burst. The committee ignored the fact the premium rose after the law was passed.
There is no question that the costs of complying with Section 404 of the law — requiring audits of corporate internal controls — has scared executives in the United States and abroad. The first year of audits found lots of problems, but for the vast majority of large companies those problems have since been fixed. And the costs of audits, which soared, have stabilized.
That does not prove the audits were worth the cost, although the fact that so many problems were fixed — in some cases requiring substantial accounting restatements — does indicate there was considerable benefit.
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