by Roy Harris

Taking the Side of Sarbanes-Oxley

Feb 09, 20122 mins

CFO and other complaints are everywhere, but one reporter not-so-fondly remembers the pre-SOX world.

The Diamond Foods scandal is just the latest to remind us that accounting regulation is important.

Of course, it has to be designed so that it doesn’t hamstring the normal conduct of business — the major complaint against Sarbanes-Oxley. But take a look at this cogent argument from the ProPublica nonprofit investigative website, managed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, about the upside for everyone from putting the dark days of Enron and WorldCom behind us.

The commentator is Jesse Eisinger, one of two ProPublica journalists named last year as winners of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year, for detailing “questionable practices on Wall Street that contributed to the nation’s economic meltdown, using digital tools to help explain the complex subject to lay readers.”

Eisinger’s commentary this week notes the power of having CEOs and CFOs personally sign off on company financial statements. While that may seem minor to those who see evil corporate monsters behind every scandal, he writes, “blackhearts aren’t the typical accounting fraudsters. At huge corporations, corruption usually develops slowly, incrementally, starting with minor crossing of the line. At the end of a quarter, a sale is booked before it was actually ordered — to make the numbers for Wall Street. Over time, the fraud builds on itself and it’s easier to keep the game going than to clean it up.”

He goes on: “Requiring a step where the top dogs actually have to mark the books as their own territory halts that process. It steels their concentration and improves the culture, preventing those initial halting steps toward fraud.”

Eisinger recounts some of the positives that have grown out of changes over the past decade — including the warnings to accounting firms that Arthur Andersen’s failure carried with it. Indeed, it does seem that accounting abuses are surfacing much earlier than they used to be, a benefit for all investors. So let’s not forget what’s better these days when we try to fix the regulatory overreaching within SOX and Dodd-Frank that complicates the day-to-day life of corporate finance.