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DISCUSSION 2

Increased Disclosure, but does anyone actually read it?

Print out the Apple iTunes terms and conditions, and you will find they are 32 pages long. This is at least partly the results of a continuing congressional trend toward requiring companies to disclose information- from the number of calories in packaged food, to the interest rates and term details of mortgage agreements, to accounting practices and financial metrics in corporate financial reports. The idea is that disclosure of important information will allow the public to make more informed decisions, reduce questionable business practices, and improve market-place efficiency.

           However, some analysts are arguing that required disclosure has gone overboard to the point of being counterproductive. Rather than inform the public, the ballooning length and amount of documents to read and sign means fewer people read them at all. Not only that, but companies are able to bury inflammatory or negative information deep within pages of legalese and unimportant data.

           This is a problem in quarterly and yearly corporate financial reports as well. For large companies, these documents can reach 200 pages, making it difficult for even dedicated investors to fully understand a firm’s financial position- and easy for firms to hide negative information. Enron in fact, did exactly that; after its collapse, investors realized the footnotes to its financial reports were filled with warning signs. The issue has even given rise to a new business model- so-called bear-raid firms, who make money by deeply analyzing these reports in the hopes of uncovering fraudulent practices. Instead of requiring further disclosure of company actions, concerned analysts argue Congress could better protect consumers by focusing on closer regulation of those company actions themselves.

Discussion Questions

1.  What advantages are there for company disclosure of financial information?

2.  Have financial disclosure requirements gone too far and become counterproductive?

3.  How could disclosure rules be changed to get useful information out to consumers without the information overload problem?

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