News that President Trump has asked the SEC to study the potential benefits of moving from quarterly to biannual financial reporting for public companies has stoked a debate as to the merits of such a proposal.
While it is certainly true that short-term thinking, often motivated by the desire to please Wall Street, should not be a focus of management teams of public companies (I can’t stand it when I see quarterly financial press releases tout how actual results beat the average analyst forecast), I am not sure that six-month reporting would materially help solve the problem. From my perch, there are several reasons why I would not expect much to change if such a proposal was enacted:
- Many companies already do not spend time predicting or caring about short-term financial results, and those firms adopted such a strategy on their own. They did so because the boards and management teams of those firms decided it was the best way to run their business. Those calls fall under their job descriptions, and they take them seriously regardless of what guidance they receive from regulatory bodies.
- For companies that choose to give forward-looking financial guidance today, they would likely continue to do so on a six-month basis. If they tried hard to hit their quarterly numbers, sometimes doing so at the expense of longer term thinking, the same would be true when dealing with six-month financial targets. Behavior would not change, just the outward frequency of such behavior would.
- Reducing the frequency of financial reporting would only serve to make companies less transparent with their own shareholders. Since we are talking about public companies that are serving their shareholder base first and foremost, it should be up to the investors to voice concerns about what metrics are being prioritized at the management and board level. There is a reason activist investing has found a place in the marketplace (and the goals are not always short-term in nature, despite media claims to the contrary).
- Just because companies are required to file quarterly financials does not mean they need to spend much time on them, or communicating them. Jeff Bezos likes to brag to his shareholders at Amazon’s annual meetings that the company has no investor relations department and does not travel around the country to tell their story to the investment community. He does not think it is a good use of his time. Plenty of smaller firms simply file their 10-Q report every 90 days and hold no conference call to discuss their results. In essence, they spend minimal time on financial reporting (10-Q reports are not super time consuming when the same template is used every quarter and the company has to close their books every period regardless of external reporting requirements).
- There is an argument that less frequent financial reporting will result in more volatile stock prices when companies do publish their financials. Essentially, if things are going unexpectedly, the surprise could be twice as large if the gap between reporting periods is twice as long. For many companies, this might be true. But I am not sure of the net impact, given that it can work the opposite way too. If a company has a poor Q1 but makes it up with a strong Q2, it could be a wash when it comes time to report mid-year results, whereas quarterly reports would have resulted in surprising investors twice, in opposite directions.
- It seems the core problem people are trying to solve here is the focus on windows of just 90 days from a management and investor perspective. I firmly believe that whether a company takes a long term view, at the possible expense of short-term results, or not, that decision is a reflection of top management and the board, with input from shareholders hopefully playing a role. If that is true, then reporting frequency itself is not the core determinant of the behaviors we see. As such, we should expect companies to continue their chosen management styles and strategies, whether they have to publish financial reports every 3, 6, or even 12 months.
From an investor standpoint, if I am going to be given information less frequently, I would want to at least believe that performance will be superior, in exchange. In this case, I do not see how six-month reporting would benefit shareholders by changing behavior at the corporate level, leading to improved revenue and earnings growth over the long term.
If a simple financial reporting rule change would dramatically change decision making inside public companies, then the same managers who are pushing for six-month reporting should take responsibility for how they are running their companies and simply de-emphasize short term results.
- They can do so without rule changes at the SEC, and they can go further if they want. For instance, there is no rule that says you need to host quarterly conference calls after reporting earnings. Companies could easily host one or two calls per year if they chose to (or none for that matter), which would send a clear message to their investors and free up time (albeit not that much) to focus on the long term.