By Ian Welch, head of policy, ACCA
ACCA has consistently stated that the view of investors should be at the heart of standard-setting and financial policymaking. Too often their voice is not heard as rules are being made or proposals formulated.
But who exactly are the investors? How have their asset allocations and investment strategies changed since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)? And, of most direct interest to accountants, what do they want from corporate reporting?
ACCA is undertaking a four-stage project examining the UK and Ireland investor landscape, post-GFC and the first two reports, based on interviews with key players and a survey of 300 investors carried out concurrently, reveal trends of far greater international application.
The increase in short-termism is one clear trend. The traditional domination of markets by pension funds and insurance companies has been eroded both by greater international ownership of companies, and by the emergence of other players such as hedge funds and private equity firms, with shorter-term investment horizons. And even the traditional players have switched much of their investment from equities to bonds, as a result of the GFC.
Added to this , the vastly increasing proportion (estimated by some to be 80%) of trades that takes place via computer in nano-seconds has left a question mark on who the owners of companies actually are – and how companies can meaningfully engage with investors who hold shares for a very short time. We have already seen international policymakers, such as the G20 and EU, responding with measures to enhance long-term finance and address the ‘ownership vacuum’. More is needed, it seems.
Low interest rates are another key trend. Central bank activism, leading to loose monetary policy, historically low interest rates and currency wars throughout Europe and the US has been a major response by the authorities to the GFC. This has had a clear effect on investors, making them search for yields in riskier investments.
Perhaps inevitably, the greater pressures on investors has seen a constant demand for more information and transparency -and the proliferation of new technologies such as mobile and social media has led to massively more corporate information being available, much of it on a real-time basis. But how much it is useful, and how do investors prevent themselves being overwhelmed?
Intriguingly our research revealed a dichotomy – and one which leaves policymakers with much to ponder. Three-quarters of investors say that, that the quarterly report remains a valuable input to their investment decision-making. Yet, at the same time, almost half of investors believe mandatory quarterly reporting should be abandoned, with almost two-thirds believing the increase in information has encouraged “hyper-investment” and taken up excessive amounts of management time.
This suggests a “tragedy of the commons” effect, whereby individual investors want to consume quarterly reporting for their own self-interest, despite recognizing that this focus on shortening time horizons is damaging for the overall market’s long-term interests.
Fully 45% said they had little use for the annual report – and worryingly, two-thirds said their faith in company reporting had declined since the GFC. Almost half that believe management has too much discretion in the financial numbers they report. While perhaps not surprising, these are nonetheless chastening findings for standard-setters and policy-makers to reflect on.
Is there any good news for the profession? Yes for auditors – much maligned of late – as external assurance of company figures seemed to be their main source of credibility. And investors claimed that they would be prepared to pay more to have additional information available contemporaneously as long as it was externally verified. This would put pressure on the audit profession – but it should consider it carefully as a way of regaining the initiative following recent critical political and regulatory inquiries on audit.
There is much here for many other parties to chew over, and ACCA will be following this up with a series of events designed to bring key players together to thrash it out, before releasing stages 3 and 4 in this research series, which will look at the ‘real-time’ issue in greater depth and investigate corporate reaction.
But for now, accounting standard-setters and regulators must consider the criticism of standards and the annual report. Policy- makers must wrestle with the quarterly reporting conundrum. And the investors themselves must consider how to get their voice more clearly heard when policy decisions that affect them are being made. If they really are prepared to pay more for a wider audit, then now would be a good time to let that be clearly known.
This post first featured in The Accountant, June 2013