President Trump asked the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday to study allowing publicly-traded U.S. companies to report financial performance every six months instead of once a quarter, heightening scrutiny of how the practices affect corporate costs and behavior.
Quarterly and annual reporting standards were established by the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as Congress worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide more transparency to investors after the stock market crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression. Requirements were tightened further by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of the early 2000s, a response to the collapse of energy firm Enron and telecommunications provider WorldCom, and critics have suggested they prompt some executives to focus on short-term profit and earnings targets at the expense of long-term health
“In speaking with some of the world’s top business leaders I asked what it is that would make business (jobs) even better in the U.S.," Trump, who has worked to buoy corporate profits and economic growth by trimming regulation, wrote in a Twitter post about his decision. "‘Stop quarterly reporting & go to a six month system,’ said one. That would allow greater flexibility & save money."
In speaking with some of the world’s top business leaders I asked what it is that would make business (jobs) even better in the U.S. “Stop quarterly reporting & go to a six month system,” said one. That would allow greater flexibility & save money. I have asked the SEC to study!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2018
Trump didn't provide further details on his proposal, which has the potential to reshape Corporate America's earnings seasons that now stretch virtually year-round. It's in line, however, with the practices of some overseas companies. Unilever, for instance, stopped providing full quarterly reports when Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman took the helm in 2009 and declared the Dutch consumer-products giant would begin focusing on long-term performance.
In the U.S., JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett are advocating against setting quarterly earnings targets, which they describe as counter-productive, though they don't suggest eliminating the reports themselves.
"Quarterly earnings guidance often leads to an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainability," the two wrote in a column published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. To ensure they meet the targets they've set, corporate leaders make short-sighted decisions they wouldn't otherwise, Dimon has said.
It's a pattern that prompted Tesla founder Elon Musk to propose taking the electric-carmaker private in early August, a change he said would allow the management team to escape pressure to deliver quarterly results even if doing so is counter to the company's best interests.
"People get too focused on, like, what's happening in the space of a few weeks or a few months," Musk told analysts in a May earnings call. "This is an old maxim of investing: You should not be focused on short-term things, you should be focused on long-term things. We have no interest in satisfying the desires of day traders."
Indeed, financial markets overall have become too myopic, Dimon and Buffett wrote. "Quarterly earnings-per-share guidance is a major driver of this trend and contributes to a shift away from long-term investments. Companies frequently hold back on technology spending, hiring, and research and development" to meet quarterly forecasts affected by factors they can't control, from fluctuating raw-materials prices to stock-market volatility and even weather.
"Our views on quarterly earnings forecasts should not be misconstrued as opposition to quarterly and annual reporting," they noted. "Transparency about financial and operating results is an essential aspect of U.S. public markets, and we support being open with shareholders about actual financial and operational metrics."
Making long-term investments in the U.S. is important to both American companies and investors, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton said in a statement hours after Trump's tweet.
"Many investors and market participants share this perspective," and the SEC is studying regulatory changes that would encourage long-term holdings as well as enhance shareholder protections," Clayton said.
A bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, this week targets the issue in a different way, by requiring directors and officers of large corporations to hold shares for five years before selling them.
The bill would also empower workers to elect at least 40 percent of the members of company boards, which might steer the focus away from immediate gratification because lower-level employees typically don't qualify for large stock awards that would let them benefit from brief spikes in price.
"Putting some different people on the board who are not just responsive to management but actually focused on the interests of the company long-term and are willing to invest and also cooperate with management -- labor cooperating with management for the good of the company -- that's a big plus," Dan Alpert, the managing partner of New York-based Westwood Capital, said in a telephone interview.