Oil companies and banks are easy targets for the popular press.[QQ] Even in bad years, their profits can always be made to sound astronomical.
The skill with which the tabloids manage to equate profits with stories of embattled motorists fuming as prices at the petrol pumps rise, or with furious bank customers bellowing at call centre staff about a mislaid standing order, is famous. Banks and oil companies are fair game when ‘fat cattery’ is the theme.
But the banks and oil companies are fighting back. First they are targeting the general public and trying to explain why profit might be good for the ordinary person in the street, even though the man atop the Clapham bus may be paying higher fares because of rising oil prices.
One of the best avenues of defence was that put forward by HSBC when it released its annual results in early March. It established a link between profits and the general well-being of a sizeable tranche of the public.
It simply made the point that a third of the UK’s adult population owned shares in the bank, either directly or indirectly, through pension funds.
If the bank did well, then one-third of the population was better off.
It is a difficult point because the great British public, short as ever of business nous, has never properly taken on board – unlike Americans – the connection between good business performance and the decent performance of their pension investments. But it still remains a useful point to keep hammering home year in, year out.
The other sector that large companies are targeting is the regulators.
It has always been the City cliche that chairmen gripe away in their annual statements about the amount of time and money their companies spend on fulfilling the demands of the regulators, and how it diverts both talent and resources away from wealth creation.
But now companies are sharpening up this side of their explaining. Increasingly, they are producing what they say are specific figures for the internal costs of complying with the growing range of the demands of regulators.
And, inevitably, the figures are huge. Much of it is blamed on the inept but all-pervading Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, which sprang out of the US with all the speed and confused logic of a knee-jerk. But no one is going to stint on Sarbanes-Oxley. It is the only bit of legislation which says that if the CEO and CFO sign the figures, and they are subsequently found to be flawed, then one or both of them will end up behind bars.
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As soon as the identification of the specific amounts spent on corporate governance compliance costs starts to become universal, then we shall see two developments. First there will be a bidding war as companies claim to have spent more than their competitors in the hope that the regulators will smile upon them. Then there will have to be more explanation because the investor community will mark them down for appearing to put more resource into governance than competitiveness. And, finally, the gripes about corporate governance being an unreasonable burden will grow into a steady chorus which growls away in the background of any debate about corporate behaviour.
This is what the newly relaunched Financial Reporting Council (FRC) needs to get a grip on. It now has a structure and reach of regulatory and oversight bodies which ought to be the envy of the world. And the balance is about right as well. The bodies that produce domestic accounting standards and critique international ones, warn about or insist on restatement of dodgy accounts, take disciplinary action against errant accountants, sort out auditing or ethical standards, or provide serious oversight of the behaviour the accountancy profession generally have the right balance of powers. The aim is to provide a serious framework within which accountants will be expected to behave, and to provide the wherewithal for serious retribution if they don’t come up to scratch.
The trouble is that the business world is easing its way into prosperity once more. The cycle has tilted. Before long, the great corporate disasters of a couple of years ago will be history. Regulatory and advisory bodies such as the FRC will find themselves on the back foot. Companies will become more confident, more vociferous and gain growing support in their targeting of the regulatory burden of corporate governance measures.
The FRC needs to keep its side of the argument out there in the public eye. And it needs to ensure that when astronomical compliance costs are publicised by companies, its side of the story is told as well.