Treasury Wants Changes to Financial Disclosure Rules

Peter R. Fisher, the undersecretary of Treasury in charge of financial markets, told an insurance group that he had devoted the past eight years to spearheading government reviews conducted after previous financial disasters only to see his recommendations gather dust because of industry's reluctance to make changes.

``If we don't make real progress soon, then I fear that the financial catastrophes of recent years will continue to haunt our financial markets and questions will continue to be raised about our system of investor-based capitalism on which our economy depends,'' he told the American Council of Life Insurers.

The group was meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. Fisher's remarks were released in Washington by the Treasury Department.

The Bush administration disclosed Friday that Fisher was one of several top administration officials who received phone calls from Enron executives last fall as the company was collapsing.

Fisher had been a top official at the Federal Reserve in New York in 1998 when federal officials helped organize a private-sector bailout for a Connecticut hedge fund. The fund's imminent collapse was threatening to further destabilize U.S. financial markets already suffering from the Asian financial crisis and Russia's default on billions of dollars in bonds.

Fisher, along with other administration officials, said they took no action to help Enron. Fisher has said he did not believe the collapse of Enron would destabilize markets in the same way that the failure of the hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, would have.

In his speech, Fisher noted that while he was at the Fed in 1994, he chaired a working group of the world's richest industrial countries looking into how disclosure requirements could be improved. He followed this up in June 1999 by chairing another working group of rich nations which made similar recommendations.

In both cases, the groups sought to upgrade reporting requirements for investments made in derivatives, which often are high-risk bets on the future direction of an underlying asset or financial index. But no major changes were made as a result of the reports.

Part of Enron's financial difficulties have been linked to its trading in derivatives. Enron's auditor, accounting giant Arthur Andersen, on Tuesday fired the partner who led its audits of Enron, saying he had directed a hurried destruction of documents after learning that federal regulators were beginning to look at Enron's books.

Fisher made no specific recommendations for changes in auditing or financial disclosure requirements, but he praised proposals made by Harvey Pitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fisher urged the life insurance group to support reform, saying it had much to gain since it managed trillions of dollars in private investments that could be put at risk if disclosure standards aren't strengthened.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is heading a working group that includes the SEC and other federal regulators, looking into what changes should be made.

The SEC, which is responsible for the oversight of auditing firms, is also working on a set of proposals to tighten financial reporting requirements.

Even before the Enron collapse, significant accounting problems have occurred at such companies as America Online Inc., Cendant Corp., MicroStrategy Inc., Rite Aid Corp., Sunbeam Corp., Waste Management Inc. and Xerox Corp. The SEC has brought several cases.