I've noticed that with the financial media's year-end wrap-ups have paid a slew of attention to high-profile CEOs who made dumb moves in 2007. Granted, there's no shortage of them, and they're always good fodder for reflection as any year comes to a close.
However, we should also turn our thoughts to some other stockings that just might deserve a few lumps of coal this year.
The Securities & Exchange Commission's rushed recent ruling allowing companies to block proxy access to shareholders seemed outrageous to me. Although this was positioned as a rush to provide "clarity" on the issue, it really seemed to provide clarity on corporate management's growing ability to brush off shareholders.
The RiskMetrics risk and governance blog recently made the good point that companies can still opt to allow proxy access; for example, Warren Buffett allowed Berkshire Hathaway
For now, it looks like shareholders have to wait until next year and hope that the SEC will make good on its promise to revisit the issue -- and hope that their companies take the high road and allow shareholders (owners, after all) to speak their piece.
Whole Foods Market's
Let's not give the Federal Trade Commission a free pass, though. Its dogged determination to block the deal between Whole Foods and Wild Oats was nothing short of bizarre -- particularly odd given the many other megamergers and acquisitions over the years that seemed to go through the FTC with nary a peep. Consumers can buy organic merchandise anywhere from mom-and-pop shops to Safeway
After that strange little interlude, I suspect many of us would like reassurance that the agency is always gunning for the right targets, for the right reasons.
Speaking of competition, many people complain that the Federal Communications Commission is paving the way for a potentially dangerously concentrated consolidation of media. The acquisition of financial news giant Dow Jones by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Fortunately, there are many grassroots efforts to disseminate information and opinions, including active bloggers and citizen reporting utilizing platforms such as Google's
In 2007, Alan Greenspan hero-worship has receded, as many observers realized that the housing bubble might have been a short-term offset to the economic damage caused by the busted tech bubble. (Raise your hand if you remember, in the last recession, the chirping buzz, "Well, at least residential real estate's doing great!")
Some of our suspicions have now been confirmed. The housing bubble was a big, irrational party that went way too far and far too long, and the pain of its deflation has the capacity to hurt far more people than the tech stock meltdown did. Unfortunately, those of us who didn't participate in that cycle of greed seem likely to foot the bill. Sounds like a good deal. (Um, not.)
On the other hand, maybe the SEC can get a few less lumps of coal for leading an investigation into the pricing of mortgage-backed securities, and whether financial firms should have let the public in on the problems sooner.
Coal-fired Santa power
Whether because of bureaucratic red tape, incompetence, ivory-tower disconnect, political posturing, or the persuasive influence of lobbyists, regulation's a slippery slope. This past year, it's seemed slipperier than ever. Corporations are always searching for any advantage they can get. If they manage to woo regulators to their point of view, they can get a good many cards stacked in their favor.
The complexities of regulation can be fraught with peril, and for all the lip service given to free-market policies (or protecting the consumer), the relationship between regulators and some corporations looked cozier than ever in 2007. Let's remember Thomas Jefferson's words about "eternal vigilance," and hope for a return to reason in 2008. For now, though, there's just coal, and not enough switches.
Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Berkshire Hathaway has been recommended by both services. You can take a free trial of either newsletter for 30 days. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway.