Mark Hynes - thoughts on corporate disclosure

Opinions on changing rules, changing best practices, and their effect on investor relations officers.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Corporate reporting – back in the news again.

Another month, another batch of surveys and opinions.

The Association of British Insurers has issued an opinion piece on narrative reporting. In its report, the ABI is urging companies to continue improvements in GRI issues, report more in depth on risk issues and provide more forward looking information and KPI’s. ABI investment affairs director Peter Montagnon claimed companies that were already ahead of the curve on these issues tended to have higher share prices than those that did not. It is also worth noting that the ABI is probably aiming its messages at smaller companies. In the FTSE All share, full compliance with ABI standards is achieved by 20% of companies, compared to FTSE 100 where it is 65%.

IRO’s are also not short of advice on how to move beyond basic compliance approaches in dealing with social and environmental issues. AccountAbility has published its own toolkit which allows issuers to work out which sustainability issues are ‘material’ to their underlying performance, and to encourage companies to focus on these issues in their public reporting.

Meanwhile, investment trusts and mutual funds don’t escape the attention of enquirers. Ninety five percent of respondents to a global survey conducted by CREATE (an independent think-tank, specialising in the emerging business models in financial services) and KPMG International on good practice in business governance in investment management, believe that the adoption of sound governance practices in their own businesses is very important in regaining investors’ trust.

This has a background in the mutual fund scandals in the U.S. involving market timing and late trading, which gave rise to the perception that many fund managers did not have sound practices in their own businesses at a time when they were getting ever more involved in the governance of companies in which they invest.

And audit too has its role to play, according the CEO’s of the largest 6 audit firms, who have just published an “essay” with the onerous tile title "Global Capital Markets and the Global Economy: A Vision from the CEOs of the International Audit Networks". This followed an FT piece that the chief executives of the six biggest accounting firms were set to come out with a plan for a completely new model for reporting corporate financial information, replacing quarterly and annual reporting with a "real-time" model.

In the event, the report seems to be less visionary than inward looking with calls for reduction in liability and governance. However, the report does focus on XBRL – “or perhaps other reporting related technologies". This, it is claimed, will make short term guidance irrelevant, once investors have almost real-time access to financial and other information about companies.

Nonetheless, the central problem with XBRL remains; until other compliance issues such as SOX internal controls, IAS provisions and AS2 are complete, finance directors are unlikely to want to tackle this.

And finally, the Report Leadership Group hopes its project will lead to annual reports that "provide investors with what they want without inundating them with unnecessary detail". Report Leadership is a multi-stakeholder group that aims to challenge established thinking on corporate reporting. To bring its ideas alive the group has demonstrated how these can be applied in extracts from the annual report of a fictitious company, "Generico".

So many reports – so little time.


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