August 07, 2014
New Directions in Corporate Disclosure: Politics, Environment, and Religion
Posted by Eric Orts

Corporate disclosure, especially in securities regulation, has been a standard regulatory strategy since the New Deal. Brandeisian “sunlight” has been endorsed widely as a cure for nefarious inside dealings. An impressive apparatus of regulatory disclosure has emerged, including annual and quarterly reports enshrined in Forms 10K and 10Q. Other less comprehensive disclosures are also required: for initial public offerings and various debt issuances, as well as for unexpected events that require an update of available information in the market (Form 8K).

For the most part, corporate disclosure has focused on financial information: for the good and sufficient reason that it is designed to protect investors – especially investors who are relatively small players in large public trading markets. Some doubts have been raised about the effectiveness of this kind of disclosure and, indeed, the effectiveness of mandatory disclosure in general. A recent book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Scheider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, advances a wide-ranging attack on all mandatory disclosure. (I think that their attack goes too far: I’ll be coming out with a short review of the book for Penn Law’s RegBlog called “Defending Disclosure”).   Assuming, though, that much financial disclosure makes sense, what about expanding it to include other activities of business firms?

Consider three types of nonfinancial information that might usefully be disclosed: information about a business firm’s activities with respect to politics, the natural environment, and religion.

1. Politics. One good candidate for enhanced corporate disclosure concerns business activities in politics. Lobbying laws require various disclosures, and various campaign finance laws do too. It is possible to obscure actual political spending through the complexity of corporate organization. (For a nice graphic of the Koch brothers’ labyrinth assembled by the Center for Responsive Politics, see here.) Good reporters can ferret out this information – but they need to get access to it in the first place. My colleague Bill Laufer has been an academic leader in an effort to encourage public corporations to disclose political spending voluntarily, with Wharton’s Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research teaming up with the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability to rank companies with respect to their transparency about corporate political spending. The rankings have been done for three years now, and there are indications of increased business participation.  Recently, even this voluntary effort has been attacked by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for being “anti-business.” See letter from U.S. Chamber of Commerce quoted here.  Jonathan Macey of Yale Law School has also objected to the rankings in an article in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the purpose of political disclosure is somehow part of “a continuing war against corporate America.” These objections, however, seem overblown and misplaced. What is so wrong about asking for disclosure about the political spending of business firms? One can Google individuals to see their record of supporting Presidential and Congressional candidates via the Federal Election Commission’s website, yet large businesses should be exempt? Political spending by corporations and other business should be disclosed in virtue of democratic ideals of transparency in the political process. Media, non-profit groups, political parties, and other citizens may then use the resulting information in political debates and election campaigns. Also, it seems reasonable for shareholders to expect to have access to this kind of information.

In Business Persons, I’ve gone further to argue (in chapter 7) that both majority and dissenting opinions in Citizens United appear to support mandatory disclosure as a good compromise strategy for regulation. One can still debate the merits of closer control of corporate spending in politics (and I believe that though business corporations indeed have “rights” to political speech these rights do not necessarily extend to unlimited spending directed toward political campaigns). It seems to me hard to dispute that principles of political democracy – and the transparency of the process – support a law of mandatory disclosure of corporate spending in politics.

2. Natural environment. Increasingly, many large companies are also issuing voluntary reports regarding their environmental performance (and often adding in other “social impact” elements). Annual reports issued under the International Standards Organization (the ISO 14000 series), the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Carbon Disclosure Project are examples. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also established a mandatory program for greenhouse gas emissions reporting, which is tailored to different industrial sectors. One can argue about whether these kinds of disclosures are sufficiently useful to justify their expense, but my own view is that they help to encourage business firms to take environmental concerns seriously. Many firms use this reporting to enhance their internal efficiency (often leading to financial bottom-line gains). As important, however, is the engagement of firms to consider environmental issues – and encouraging them to act as “part of the solution” rather than simply as a generating part of the problem.

One caveat that is relevant to all nonfinancial disclosure regimes:   The scope of firms required to disclose should be considered.  I do not believe that the case is convincing that only public reporting companies under the securities laws should be included.  (For one influential argument to the contrary, see Cynthia A. Williams, “The Securities and Exchange Commission and Corporate Social Transparency,”  112 Harvard Law Review 1197 (1999)).  Instead, it makes to sense for different agencies appropriate to the particular issue at hand to regulate:  the Federal Election Commission for political disclosures and the EPA for environmental disclosures.

3. Religion? In the wake of the Hobby Lobby case, some have called for greater disclosure about a firm’s values on this score both with respect to employment and investors. See, e.g., Joan Heminway’s piece here. Stephen Bainbridge has also called attention to this question here.  Probably it makes sense to consider disclosure as a partial solution, though the idea of mandatory government disclosure of religious characteristics makes me nervous on “separation of church and state” grounds. It might be better to “wait” (as Frank Partnoy advises us often to do in his recent book) and see how the Hobby Lobby line of cases develops. My guess is that some tensions will become apparent that may result in keeping Hobby Lobby limited to the context of close and usually small corporations (though Hobby Lobby itself is an exception, having more than 10,000 employees).
 
But a rule of disclosure might not be the best approach with respect to religion and firms. Better in this context perhaps to bite the bullet and ascertain when for various legal purposes a business firm “crosses the line” from a private organization (with rights of self-organization and self-determination with respect to many internal business practices) to a public-facing organization (with duties to treat public customers, employees, and business partners in a non-discriminatory manner). These issues are not easy. As I suggest in Business Persons (chapter 3), a central problem in business theory concerns “the public/private distinction” which I conceive as involving “two faces of the business enterprise.” Here, the religious preferences of private owners require balancing with the public role undertaken when holding out one’s shingle in public markets. Drawing legal lines isn’t always easy, but often it’s necessary.  And disclosures alone will not always be sufficient.

Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Employees, Environment, Finance, Financial Institutions, Hobby Lobby, Legal Theory, Organizational Theory, Politics, Religion, Securities, Social Responsibility | Bookmark

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