In the 1970s, the Securities and Exchange Commission was one of the government's glamor agencies as it nailed one major U.S. company after another for paying bribes to foreign countries and other "corrupt practices."
Today, the SEC garners few front-page headlines. Like most of its sibling regulatory agencies, it has fewer funds to play with. Its chief enforcement officer said recently that the agency will spend less time trying to figure out new ways to use securities laws to change corporate practices and more time forcing companies to disclose information in usable form to regulators, analysts and investors.
At the same time, the agency has tried to reduce the regulatory burden it imposes on the companies and markets it regulates without endangering the flow of information essential to the investment decisions of individuals and institutions.
But commissioners and staff are sensitive to charges that the current commission is giving business an easier time.
"Our priorities have changed, but we're not soft on business," said Commissioner Barbara Thomas, the last appointee of President Carter to the five-member body. "I consider insider trade" -- where corporate executives, members of their families or friends buy or sell stocks or bonds using information not available to the general investor--"more damaging to our capital markets than foreign corrupt practices."
"We're coming down hard on egregious offenders," said Chairman John Shad. "We've brought action against a long list of securities firms as well as corporate issuers," the companies that sell their stocks and bonds to the general public.
Nevertheless, the suspicions linger. Late last year, the agency took no action against giant Citibank for tens of millions of dollars of foreign currency dealings in Paris and elsewhere that apparently were designed to move profits from high-tax to low-tax nations. The former deputy director of enforcement advocated that Citibank be censured by the SEC for not disclosing the operations.
In the case of Citibank, Shad said, there were no legal grounds for the SEC to act. He said any enforcement action would have been voided if Citibank had appealed in the courts, as it undoubtedly would. "Then we would run the risk of having a court decision that would hinder our enforcement actions in other cases," he said.
Shad said the agency has brought 252 enforcement actions in 1982, about as many as the agency ever leveled in a year against companies and securities firms. In addition, Shad said, the SEC this year reached a historic agreement with the Swiss that will open up their bank records in cases involving insider trading. Swiss bank secrecy used to make SEC investigations difficult or impossible.
Shad said the SEC has simplified reporting requirements for companies, without cutting down on the flow of information to investors. He said this has saved companies about $300 million a year, money that ultimately comes out of shareholders' pockets.
He said most of the reports--from the salary paid the chief executive to the litigation pending against the company--is read not by the average investor but by the professionals.
By permitting companies to refer to other public documents in making some of their filings, he said, the SEC cuts down the expensive process of compiling duplicative documents.
Commissioner Thomas said that, in many areas, it might be preferable to have companies turn out small, readable documents that the average investor might read rather than voluminous, inch-thick compilations written in legalese that all but analysts, professional investors and financial journalists throw in the wastebasket.