City welcomes EU moves to axe quarterly reports
Finally, UK businesses find a Brussels proposal which is to their liking
Mark Leftly is political correspondent at The Independent on Sunday and associate business editor across the Independent titles. He writes a weekly column, Parliamentary Business, published on a Wednesday, that covers politics and the City. He is a multi-award winning reporter and was named Press Gazette's business magazine journalist of the year prior to joining The Independent on Sunday.
Sunday 20 November 2011
The name Michel Barnier is not often associated with moves to cut burdensome red tape on the City.
On Thursday, the European Union's internal market and services commissioner was accused by Conservative MP Peter Bone of trying to impose a continental standard of bureaucracy on the Square Mile.
The Frenchman might even be pushing for the introduction of a "Robin Hood" tax, which would see a levy imposed on every financial transaction undertaken by major institutions, warned Bone.
Barnier is demanding "a single market for financial services" across the EU's 27 nations, as he believes this is the only way to co-ordinate a solution to the economic crisis that continues to batter Europe.
While this almost certainly means that Barnier is plotting to change London's financial culture to more closely resemble Frankfurt and Paris, there are certain parts of the commissioner's mission that even the City can support. A major change that has been proposed this autumn – but one that has largely gone unnoticed due to the havoc wreaked by the eurozone crisis – could soon mean that companies will no longer have to waste their time giving poor quality information to the market.
Barnier wants to alter the 2004 Transparency Directive, which forces EU companies to give quarterly management statements. Some companies produce detailed financial figures with these statements; more typically they are bland documents as a result of management not wanting to, or not being able to, produce any better information than at the full-year or interim results.
Paul Polman, the chief executive at Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, has even gone so far as to argue that such statements only promote the short-termism that dogs the financial markets.
When he took over the Dove soap and Hellmann's mayonnaise producer in 2009, Polman stopped providing quarterly profit updates and earnings guidance to prevent investors destabilising the stock by making immediate, speculative responses, such as shorting the shares. For example, in Unilever's third-quarter trading statement earlier this month, the word "turnover" was mentioned 15 times and "profit" only once.
Fund managers crave information to help them make their stock picks, but they also want chief executives and their boards to focus on improving their companies' performances.
Luke Newman, who manages the Henderson Gartmore UK Absolute Return fund, says: "There is a fine line between balancing full disclosure to shareholders and allowing executives to run their businesses properly without having to cut through red tape."
The changes should particularly help smaller businesses, which do not necessarily have the resources or money to pay consultants to produce the documents. However, the Financial Services Authority remains keen on quarterly updates and there are arguments that small businesses in particular need to keep in contact with shareholders as even minor market changes can have a big impact on them.
The amendments to a directive that only came into force in the UK in 2007 are likely to go through the EU legislative process late next year. Member states will then have about two years to eradicate the requirement for quarterly reporting. UK regulators are likely to introduce the changes as late as they can, despite pressure from listed companies to act quickly.
"People will generally be happy with the abolition of quarterly reporting," says Linklaters partner Lucy Fergusson. "This is a burden that nobody has seen a huge amount of value come out of, and even investors say that what they want is better quality, not more information. This amendment ties in with the sense that investors look too short-term, forcing companies to also be short-termist."
There is a sense, then, that quarterly reporting fails to give investors extra insight into a company's prospects. Barnier may not be very popular in Britain right now, but this is one initiative that even Eurosceptic Tory backbench MPs can endorse.
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