Over the last month, at least a handful of lengthy feature stories have come my way about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts -- but the same can't be said about coverage of President Bush's other summertime nominee, Christopher Cox, who was sworn in as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission on Aug. 3.
The following day, the 17-year House veteran, addressed his staff in speech that was broadcast over the Internet (archived at www.sec.gov/news/webcasts.shtml). I recently watched the footage, and came away impressed after watching his 30-minute talk, especially when Cox matter-of-factly dismissed the perception of himself as, "business friendly," a trait that has been suggested repeatedly in most media coverage about his legislative background, including WebCPA's. And I'll give it to him, his jokes were pretty good.
Speaking of the pundit debate over his business-investor leanings, Cox told his staff, "Such predictions, while part of the territory, often have as much factual basis as a WorldCom prospectus." He later added that businesses that aren't investor-friendly will find the SEC under Cox to be a "relentless and powerful adversary."
And though he noted there is no reason laws can't be friendly to both businesses and investors, Cox said he believes it is the role of the Department of Commerce to serve the country's businesses, while it is the SEC's mission to act as an advocate for investors.
But what I was most surprised by came about halfway through his speech, when Cox looked around the room and asked a personal question of his staffers, to see who was an English major, and after about five staff members raised their hands, he rephrased his question to ask how many staffers appreciated good English.
Cox then proceeded to devote nearly a third of his time to a single goal with benefits to a large community, a goal that he said had been originally advanced by former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt, of encouraging the business community to write in plain English. Cox recalled a former internal contest the SEC used to have, where staff was encouraged to find the worst piece of "disclosure gobbledygook" and turn it into understandable English for a savings-bond prize.
The change in America's markets over the past decades has been tremendous, and more than ever, today's average worker has money riding on the markets, whether it's in mutual funds, 401(k) accounts or stock. Cox mentioned the thousands of letters the SEC receives annually from small investors and said there's no reason the high-paid counsel working for large companies should be the only ones with the decoder rings capable of understanding the fine print.
It's been four years since Levitt left behind the SEC and investors are still entitled to be able to understand the information that's important in making their decisions. Cox said among the biggest challenges facing the agency in this century will be the decision of what needs to be disclosed by a company, and the reason behind that decision. And he said the SEC should lead the way in transparency by practicing what it preaches.
Cox may have swayed me with his Webcast, but he can really win me over if the next press release I receive about regulatory enforcement action reads a bit more clearly the first time through.
But if he wants to start with the terminology in the rollover of my 401(k), that'd be all right too.
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