House Republicans urge SEC to ease rules for firms raising money from investors

May 10, 2011

House Republicans pumped up the pressure Tuesday on the Securities and Exchange Commission to ease restrictions on companies seeking to raise money from investors.

But Democratic lawmakers urged the SEC not to abandon rules meant to protect potential shareholders from financial fraud.

SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro charted a middle course through the political crossfire, promising to reconsider long-standing regulations that Republicans call unduly burdensome but rejecting some of their arguments about the need for change.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, used a hearing of his panel to press the cause of businesses that want to tap investors for money but are far from eager to make the many financial disclosures demanded of companies traded on the stock market.

Currently, when companies amass 500 or more shareholders of record, they are required to register with the SEC and make an array of disclosures, including how much money they are making or losing and how much they pay their top executives.

Many companies want to postpone that day.

Facebook became the public face of the debate months ago when it raised money through a private channel instead of turning to the stock market. Facebook limited its private share offering to foreign investors, steering clear of potential regulatory trouble in the United States. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook’s board of directors.)

Issa said Tuesday that he wants to remove obstacles to economic growth and job creation.

Through his questioning, he suggested that regulatory costs have been discouraging companies from holding IPOs, or initial public offerings of stock, in the United States.

Schapiro said many factors go into companies’ decisions about whether and where to go public, including the state of the economy. Foreign stock markets have matured into viable alternatives to the United States, she said. In addition, the underwriting fees that investment bankers charge are lower in Europe, she said.

SEC data do not suggest that a significant number of companies are going offshore for their IPOs, Meredith Cross, director of the SEC’s division of corporation finance, told the committee.

Nonetheless, Schapiro said the agency is reviewing whether 500 shareholders of record is the right threshold for SEC regulation. She said the agency is also examining restrictions on what companies can communicate when soliciting investors through private offerings.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, said the stock market crash of 1929 and the financial crisis of 2008 taught that inadequate regulatory oversight can lead to recklessness, fraud and unscrupulous behavior in the financial markets.

Schapiro’s comments underscored the SEC’s potentially conflicted role. In a statement, she said the agency must balance two responsibilities: facilitating companies’ access to investment capital and protecting investors.

With Republicans in control of the House, and potentially the SEC’s purse strings, the political pendulum has swung since Schapiro entered office in 2009.

Tuesday’s hearing was another piece of the business-friendly deregulatory agenda that Republicans have been pursuing. In a video appeal on his committee’s Web site, Issa urges business leaders to write in.

“Tell us the regulations that are stopping you from creating jobs, and we will work for you tirelessly,” he says.

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