Transparency in the Financial Markets and the Materiality Standards
The disclosure requirements at the heart of the federal securities laws involve a delicate and complex balancing act. Too little information provides an inadequate basis for investment decisions; too much can muddle and diffuse disclosure and thereby lessen its usefulness. The legal concept of materiality provides the dividing line between what information companies must disclose, and must disclose correctly, and everything else. Materiality, however, is a highly judgmental standard, often colored by a variety of factual presumptions.
Transparency in Financial Markets
The guiding purpose of the many and complex disclosure provisions of the federal securities laws is to promote “transparency” in the financial markets. However, the task of winnowing out the irrelevant, redundant and trivial from the potentially meaningful material falls on corporate executives and their professional advisors in the creation of corporate disclosure, and on investment advisors, stock analysts and individual investors in its interpretation. The concept of materiality represents the dividing line between information reasonably likely to influence investment decisions and everything else. However, materiality is a notoriously elusive, ever changing and unpredictable concept.
Only those misstatements and omissions that are material violate many provisions of the securities laws, including the bedrock provisions requiring accurate financial reporting. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard for a materiality evaluation, which standard remains today. In TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., the Supreme Court held that information should be deemed material if there exists a substantial likelihood that it would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the total mix of information available to the public.
All Facts Must be Considered
Despite this standard, the concept remains fact driven and difficult to apply. There are no numeric thresholds to establish materiality, and market reaction is inconsistent and not always available. Ultimately professionals and company management must consider all facts and circumstances available to them on any given day to determine the materiality of a given disclosure in light of the standard established by the Supreme Court in TSC Industries.
Generally, professionals and company management must look in the first instance at specific disclosure guidelines set out in the federal securities rules and regulations (such as Regulations S-X and S-K and Forms 10-Q, 10-K and 8-K). Secondly, professionals and company management must consider all facts presently affecting the Company. For instance, a specific disclosure may be highly relevant in light of current economic conditions and of little importance in a different economic climate. Ethical issues are generally not considered material, unless specifically required by statute (such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act).
Selective Disclosure Prohibited
The SEC has issued further guidance on materiality in Staff Accounting Bulletin No. 99 (SAB 99). Although SAB 99 is meant to clarify some materiality issues, many practitioners find that it confuses rather than clarifies. For the most part SAB 99 simply reiterates that materiality cannot be defined by law or standards but must be determined anew for each fact and disclosure issue.
In determining materiality practitioners should keep in mind Regulation FD which prohibits the selective disclosure of material information. That is, Regulation FD requires that if material information is to be disclosed, it must be disclosed to the entire market, either through a press release or Form 8-K or both, and not selectively, such as to certain analysts or market professionals.
Professionals and company management should also consider that the SEC has consistently pushed for greater and more complete disclosures. Accordingly, it is better to err on the side of disclosure than against it.
Securities attorney Laura Anthony provides expert legal advice and ongoing corporate counsel to small public Companies as well as private Companies seeking to go public on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board Exchange (OTCBB). Ms. Anthony counsels private and small public Companies nationwide regarding reverse mergers, due diligence on public shells, corporate transactions and all aspects of securities law.
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