Saturday, July 21, 2007

SEC Terrorist Sponsor List Deep-Sixed

Not the brightest bunch, but at least they have something of a learning curve. By that, I mean the folks in SEC chairman Christopher Cox's office who came up with the "search tool" that was really just a blacklist of US-listed companies that somewhere, somehow, in some connection mentioned Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and/or Syria in their SEC filings. "Context," unfortunately, wasn't a feature built into this search tool, with the result that a company mentioning that it was completely divesting of all its assets in Iran (for example) joined the blacklist just as readily would "Bombs 'R' Us" when it mentions that North Korea is its brightest future market.

Cox's statement on this about-face is here. Seems the SEC decided to pull this little fiasco after both Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) publicly said it was a boneheaded idea. (On the bright side, Cox should be congratulated for helping forge a bipartisan consensus here.)

It's hard for me to feel all that worked up on this issue, particularly since some of the biggest whiners about this have been European companies that really are working too closely with some bad people and are worried that European human rights activists might actually call them on it, via the SEC's blacklist. But the SEC's execution was pathetic enough to give these companies enough ammunition to make themselves look like victims. Cox's office initiated this half-assed scheme as a way to keep Congress from enacting even more draconian rules (though why Cox would care if Congress wanted to shoulder the blame is beyond me).

A much better approach would have been to develop a real search tool--perhaps one based on Cox's beloved XBRL. Such a tool would let an investor (or anyone, for that matter) run a search for a specific country (any country) and pull up their own private blacklist of companies mentioning the nasty country in question, with links to the references so they can do their own research on whether Company X deserves to be blackballed for whatever reason your heart fancies. If you care about only the 5 countries that the US State Department lists as state-sponsors of terrorism, then you just punch in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. If you don't like China because of the way they treat Tibetians, then punch in "China." You don't like the Belgians because they share a border with the Dutch, then... you get the point. Some kind of electronic data gathering, analysis and research tool. Just, you know, more so.

Why didn't the SEC do this? Well, probably because this was being driven by politics rather than real concern over investor interests. Bloody shame. But, hey, that's Washington.

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