WASHINGTON – A gathering of influential figures convened by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to discuss the impact on business of laws and rules born of the 2002 corporate scandals likely will produce some ideas that could quickly be turned into policy changes, a top administration official said Monday.
Robert Steel, the Treasury undersecretary for domestic finance, spoke to reporters Monday about a conference being held in Washington on Tuesday that is expected to provide a serious hearing to the monthslong campaign by business interests for a softening of the regulations.
An array of companies and business leaders have been making the case that the requirements spawned by the crisis of corporate malfeasance are overly onerous and costly — and hurt the competitiveness of U.S. financial markets by driving some companies away from them.
"Our plan here is to bring together a very diverse group of people," Steel said, making it impossible to predetermine the outcome. "If you wanted to, I don't think you could pre-bake it," he said.
Paulson and Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, are moderators for panel discussions. The panelists include billionaire investor Warren Buffett, General Electric Co. Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, brokerage founder and CEO Charles Schwab, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While the conference likely will yield some proposals that are "actionable and more immediate," others will lay groundwork for possible longer-term action, Steel said.
In November, a committee of business, legal and academic figures offered proposals to clip back corporate governance rules, class-action lawsuits against companies and auditors, and criminal prosecution of companies by the government.
A second group, formed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is unveiling its report and recommendations this week.
It calls for "quick and decisive adjustments in the U.S. legal and regulatory framework ... to ensure that U.S. investor and business interests are best served in the global marketplace." Among its key recommendations: Public companies should stop issuing quarterly earnings guidance and policymakers should seriously consider proposals to reduce the liability of accounting firms in litigation over company audits.
Some experts, including Lynn Turner, a former SEC chief accountant, have warned against a softening of the rules, saying that would erode investor protection.
And Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs took issue with the business campaign's premise.
"The regulatory climate does matter. ... Nonetheless, we do not think this is the main problem," Goldman Sachs said in a recent research paper. "Instead we see the growth of capital markets outside the U.S. as a natural consequence of economic growth and market maturation elsewhere. The U.S. has in fact been losing market share for several decades."
Paulson, who headed Goldman Sachs before coming into the administration last summer, gave the campaign traction when he said last fall that "the right regulatory balance should marry high standards of integrity and accountability with a strong foundation for innovation, growth and competitiveness."
In December, culminating an intense monthslong lobbying campaign by a companies, the SEC tentatively adopted a plan giving corporate managers more flexibility in assessing the strength of internal financial controls under the Sarbanes-Oxley law.
The internal-controls provision of the sweeping anti-fraud law, enacted in 2002 at the height of the scandals that engulfed Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc. and other big corporations, is a key target of the business push against regulations. Companies have complained to the SEC that the rules are overly burdensome and costly, especially for smaller businesses.