Poll: Investors See Financial Governance Regulation As Too Lenient

October 20, 2005

Despite the passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation three years ago, more than half (55%) of U.S. investors think that the financial and accounting regulations governing publicly held companies are too lenient, according to a new Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance. The percentage number jumps to 77 percent among male investors aged 45 to 54.

Regardless of government regulation, investors are more likely to believe that punishment for poor corporate governance should be directed at certain individuals rather than the company as a whole. In addition, almost one-third (30%) of investors say they have reduced or divested their holdings in a company as a result of poor corporate governance.

The online survey of 2,061 U.S. adults was conducted between Oct. 4 and 6, 2005, for The Wall Street Journal Online’s Personal Journal Edition.

Given what they know or may have heard about the provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley, including its restrictions and penalties for misinterpretation or misuse of company financial information, only one-quarter (25%) of investors feel this legislation has made the communication of financial information by companies much more or somewhat more transparent.

Interestingly, about one in 10 (11%) investors believes the legislation has had the opposite intended effect, having made communication much less or somewhat less transparent. However, most notable is the 41 percent of investors who say they are not sure about the effect Sarbanes-Oxley has had on communication transparency, suggesting that many may not have an understanding of this legislation and its impact on businesses today.

“The effect of Sarbanes-Oxley seems to have blown by the average investor,” says Anne Aldrich, senior vice president of the Financial Services Research Practice at Harris Interactive. “More concerning, among those who are attuned to the legislation, one-tenth believes that communication has become even less transparent with Sarbanes-Oxley in effect. Even as corporate scandals have waned and other economic news on energy prices and natural disasters has taken over the airwaves, organizations will need to continue to find ways to build trust in public companies among the investing population.”

Responsibility for Poor Corporate Governance
While just under half (45%) of investors believe boards of directors are most responsible for corporate governance, ahead of the CEO (22%), senior management (19%) and all employees (14%), about two-thirds (66%) think boards of directors are only somewhat or not at all effective in overseeing the companies they govern. However, should a company exhibit poor corporate governance, investors are split as to who should receive punishment. Similar numbers believe the executives (48%) and the board of directors (42%) should be punished and only 10 percent believe punishment should be directed at the company.

“The clear message, when you look at recent corporate scandals, is the folks who got hurt the most were the employees and this poll indicates that’s not what the public wants,” says Robert Fronk, senior vice president of the Harris-Wirthlin Brand and Strategy Consulting Practice, Harris Interactive. “Someone needs to pay the price, but they want that someone to be those who were personally responsible.”

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