Political sentiment runs in predictable cycles. In the midst of the stock-market bubble, no one cared about regulation and oversight. Everyone was making too much money to bother.
Then the money machine stopped, companies such as Enron and WorldCom blew up with their spectacular accounting frauds, and everyone was screaming for blood. A few perp walks and one big legislative package later, we entered the Sarbanes-Oxley era.
The avalanche of multibillion-dollar corporate implosions stopped. Many companies are still sorting out the impact of realistic options expensing going back several years, but the shakeout from that exercise is almost over.
What are we left with? A much fairer playing field for the individual investor. Between Sarbanes-Oxley shoring up the integrity of company accounts, and Regulation Fair Disclosure (better known as Reg FD) limiting leaks of inside information, the market is a better place to invest in than it was in summer 2000, by far.
Inevitably, once the financial waters calmed, we began to hear calls to pare back or even scrap SOX altogether. Why? Simple. SOX costs money to implement. The people who are responsible for paying those costs don't like it, and they are doing what many groups do when they have to pay up to comply with a law: lobbying politicians to change the law, and using the media to get their message out.
SOX should go, they say, because it costs too much for companies to implement, and it's driving some companies off the U.S. exchanges. Private-equity investors are taking some companies private, and foreign companies may bypass a U.S. market listing altogether to avoid SOX implementation costs.
Fine with me.
SOX costs are nothing more than an insurance premium for investors' benefit. If you want to drive to work, you have to get liability insurance for your car, and maintain it so that it's safe to operate on our crowded roads. There's no exception for people who need to commute, but just can't handle the insurance and inspection costs.
Corporate blowups are no different. Ask the Portland Electric employees whose retirement plans ended up in Enron stock, and then vaporized. Ask the retirees who counted on stodgy old WorldCom to look after their savings.
We insure our cars, we insure our houses, our doctors and lawyers have malpractice insurance, companies recall millions of products at the first sign of a dangerous defect ... the list goes on and on. Paying to reduce risk is part of our commercial society. Investments should be no different.
If someone says consumers and investors ultimately pay the SOX tab, my answer is the same: Fine with me. Tell me where to send the check, if it'll increase the odds against losing my hard-earned dollars to corporate fraud.
The SOX critics rarely mention an unexpected and desirable side effect of the more elaborate accounting controls. Some companies report greater profits, because they now have a better grip on their operations, and they've found ways to save money as a result.
What about the argument that the best new companies in the world won't list on U.S. markets? Hey, if they can't be bothered to meet strict accounting standards that give me confidence to invest in them, I don't want them here.
In fact, only the fat cats on the big stock exchanges are really worried about new IPOs going elsewhere. That hurts the bottom line at the NYSE
If U.S. investors want to take a risk on companies that won't list here because they don't meet SOX standards, they can buy hundreds such firms with ADR shares on the Pink Sheets. Much of my portfolio is made up of these sorts of shares. However, I'm a full-time investor, and I watch those investments closely, so for me, the risk is tolerable.
But average people, working 60 hours a week to put their kids through college, can't do that. They deserve the chance to put their investment dollars in mutual funds that buy decent companies they can count on. Sarbanes-Oxley helps to ensure such security for millions of everyday investors.
If the financial media ever gave equal time to the voices that represent the little guy instead of the multimillionaires on Wall Street, we would hear that message just as clearly as we now hear the lobbyists trying to save their clients some bucks by getting Sarbanes-Oxley rolled back.
How much is not losing thousands of dollars in bad stocks worth to you?
Fool contributor Dale Baker, a private-client portfolio manager, does not own any of the stocks mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org unless you are a lobbyist for the financial-services industry. He doesn't own shares in any of the companies listed here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.