The recently released interim report from the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is brimming with suggestions for ways to get Americans back to work. But it also contains provisions aimed at rolling back protections against accounting fraud, which actually could result in killing jobs.
One proposal calls for weakening, at all but the nation’s very largest public companies, nearly 10-year-old rules targeting accounting fraud. That would be bad news for employees and investors in Washington area companies, since it is employees and investors who suffer most when executives cook the books.
The investor protections in question were adopted as part of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act in response to a wave of accounting scandals at public companies, including Enron. Such companies experienced a drop in stock value — forcing them to shed employees. In fact, the public companies that had to restate their earnings in 2000 and 2001 subsequently lost between 250,000 and 600,000 jobs.
But the jobs council report suggests that weakening fraud protections is necessary to encourage more small companies to go public. Toward that end, the report urges Congress to make compliance with all or part of Sarbanes-Oxley voluntary for public companies with market valuations up to $1 billion or, alternatively, to exempt all companies from Sarbanes-Oxley compliance for five years after they go public.
How does that help create jobs? The report justifies its recommendation based on the following statistics:
A drop in the share of initial public offerings of under $50 million companies from 80 percent of all IPOs in the 1990s to 20 percent today.
An “unprecedented” 23 percent drop in the number of startups in the past three years.
The lowest number of venture-backed IPOs in 2008 and 2009 since 1985.
There is zero evidence in the report to link any of these macroeconomic issues to the impact of Sarbanes-Oxley.
Here are the facts: Sarbanes-Oxley never was implemented fully for companies with market valuations below $75 million. It cannot be blamed for the drop in small company IPOs. As for the recent decline in the number of startups, the report’s own data makes clear that Sarbanes-Oxley was not the culprit. In the post-Sarbanes-Oxley implementation, pre-financial-crisis period from 2005 to 2007, startups were at record levels. And even 2008 saw startup levels on a par with the go-go years from 1997 to 2001. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the financial crisis-fueled economic downturn, not Sarbanes-Oxley, is responsible for the subsequent sudden decline.
It is a cruel and cynical tactic to exploit the jobs crisis to ram through a special-interest deregulatory proposal that, in the long run, could trigger even more financial bad news and even more lost jobs. The millions of out-of-work Americans who are victims of our last experiment with financial deregulation deserve better.
Barbara Roper is director of investor protection at Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.