Mark Hynes - thoughts on corporate disclosure

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

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A really enjoyable seminar.

To Brussels to speak at that rare thing – a seminar that delivered real value for all participants. The School of Business Media and Politics (no, I hadn’t either – its new) held a discussion forum entitled “Capital Interests – The challenges of financial communications”.

There were several things that for me, made this different. First, it was a pleasant change to be focussing on best practice rather than regulation.

Next, the seminar was genuinely interactive. Everybody – panellists and attendees – had experiences and views aplenty, and shared them. Clearly there are no ‘right answers’ to many of the issues discussed, so the views of all had particular interest.

The themes were thoroughly pertinent. How to deal with financial journalists with an agenda, and accommodate their need for speed. A fascinating insight to the world of private equity – and the benefits of transparency as a vehicle for increasing access to capital in these difficult time. Some great case studies of miscommunication – why is it always easier to learn from where things have wrong? The connection between positive perception and enhancing a stock price.

However a particular highlight for me was hearing from one of the doyens of the PR industry (Angus Maitland) on shareholder activism. From TCI’s battle with Deutsche Boerse over the acquisition of the LSE, to the current turmoil over the Italian insurer Generali, we looked at who the activists are, what they want, and how they operate, and in particular how to deal with them.

A couple of sound bites: “whether activists are a good thing or bad, depends on your vantage point”. “No-one is safe”. “As the markets falter, the activists are only going to get stronger”, and “Activists require the oxygen of publicity to raise funds”.

So a very worthwhile event.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Market Abuse in the headlines

Whenever I moderate a seminar on the UK disclosure rules, we look at a few case studies. A couple of things always emerge in discussion with course participants. First – how dim do you have to be to get caught? Prior prosecutions focus on people who risked their careers for gains of around £5-10k. Not a great beta! Second, these case studies date from 2003/4, and third often involve people at companies OUTSIDE the FTSE 350.

Now however market abuse is back on the agenda.

The FSA is keen to emphasise its intent to pursue those involved in market abuse through its financial sector team, which works in cooperation with the Serious Fraud Office, the City of London police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. And last month it launched its first criminal prosecution for insider trading.

The FSA has no figures on the exact cost of insider trading but has estimated that some 24 per cent of share trades around company announcements are "informed price movements".

Observers are already saying that this planned prosecution marks a step change in attitude by the FSA; there will probably another 1 or 2 prosecutions “pour encourager les autres”.

At the same time, HM Treasury has launched a new consultation into changes to the UK Market Abuse regime. The consultation is specifically focused on where the UK regime imposes additional requirements to the EU's 2003 Market Abuse Directive, and the Treasury is reviewing whether the scope of these is appropriate.

And in addition, the Financial Times reports that Project Turquoise, the trading platform set up by investment banks to compete with Europe's stock exchanges, plans to introduce a monitoring system to combat market abuse. "Market surveillance is a vital requirement for any stock exchange," said Chief Executive Eli Lederman, "This will allow us to…offer further client services such as detailed analysis of transactions and a better understanding of price improvement capability."

So ensuring that the disclosure policies of issuers are set up in a way that prevents market abuse, as we discuss on the Transparency Matters compliance courses, is becoming essential.