im so kooLast week, the Securities and Exchange Commission assembled an impressive consortium of financial, legal and academic heavyweights to participate in roundtable debates on the front-burner issues of financial disclosure and audit oversight.
Although listening to luminaries such as billionaire investor Warren Buffet and New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso espouse theories on how to improve auditing and disclosure policies certainly had ample marquee value, the SEC's strategy to enact sweeping accounting reform is staring at imposing roadblocks in the form of financial and human capital shortages.
An unsettling 45-page report issued last week by the General Accounting Office labeled the regulator "strained," pointing out that its financing and case workload, have, for some time, been traveling in opposite directions.
Last year for example, the report stated that the commission was able to review just 16 percent of corporate filings, versus a target of roughly 35 percent.
It also compared the turnover rate at the commission to a subway turnstile, evidenced by the fact that
nearly one-third of its workforce tendered resignations between the years 1998 and 2000.
Under President Bush's proposed 2003 budget, some $467 million has been earmarked for the commission. However, in a bipartisan effort, members of the House Financial Services Committee have proposed a near 50-percent increase from that number, to about $700 million.
Last Thursday, SEC chairman Harvey Pitt asked Congress for a $91 million boost to increase commission staff and their respective salaries. However, the White House agreed to just a $15 million raise.
Obviously, if it's constrained by budgetary and human capital woes, the SEC's enforcement and reform policies would also suffer.
And in the post-Enron era, when major accounting probes will likely increase exponentially, that's like handing a lone infantryman a rifle with explicit orders to stave off an advancing division. Plus the commission's now-obscene workload holds absolutely no promise of ebbing as more than 98,000 filings by public companies were recorded as recently as two years ago.
Pitt, his first seven months in office have been anything but mundane, even at an agency staffed primarily with government lawyers and accountants. He was one of the point persons charged with the enormous task of getting the capital markets back in operation following the 9/11 attacks. Then, this rather large energy trader in Texas filed bankruptcy which eventually blew a hole in the auditing profession that it has been frantically trying to patch ever since.
If there was ever a time when an agency needed a budgetary booster shot, this is it. If not, then you'll be guaranteed to have a few more Enrons to kick around for years to come.
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