June 17, 2024

Deal Professor: In Netflix Case, a Chance to Re-examine Old Rules

Deal ProfessorHarry Campbell

Netflix is in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s sights over a post on Facebook by Reed Hastings, its chief executive, saying that the video streaming company’s monthly viewing had reached a billion hours. Yet, the case is more convincing as an illustration of how the regulator clings to outdated notions of how markets work.

In July, Mr. Hastings posted three lines stating that “Netflix monthly viewing exceeded 1 billion hours for the first time ever in June.”

While his comments may have seemed as innocuous as yet another Facebook post about cats, for the S.E.C., it was something more sinister, a violation of Regulation FD.

Regulation FD was the brainchild of Arthur Levitt, a former chairman of the commission. During Mr. Levitt’s time, companies would often disclose earnings estimates and other important information not to the markets but to select analysts. Companies did so to preserve confidentiality and drip out earnings information gently to the markets, and in that way avoid the volatility associated with a single announcement.

For Mr. Levitt, this was heresy. He believed not only in disclosure, but in the principle that all investors should have equal access to company information. Regulation FD was the answer.

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In general, Regulation FD says that when a public company gives material nonpublic information to anyone, the company must also publicly disclose that information to all investors. Regulation FD in that way prevents selective leaks and, according to the S.E.C., promotes “full and fair disclosure.”

It seems so simple. How can more disclosure be bad? But both public companies and investment banks argued that the rule would actually reduce the flow information, as companies, now forbidden from disclosing only to analysts, would simply choose not to release the information. And because analysts would no longer have that advantage in knowledge, their value would be harder to justify, resulting in fewer analysts. Stockholders would be worse off as less information was in the market.

The S.E.C. disputed these arguments, and Regulation FD went into effect over a decade ago.

Subsequent studies of Regulation FD’s effects have shown that the critics may have been right. One of the most-cited studies found that analyst coverage of smaller companies dropped. And since there was now less information in the market about these smaller companies, investors subsequently demanded a bigger premium to invest, increasing financing costs. Another study found that the introduction of Regulation FD increased market volatility because information was no longer informally spread. In fairness, some studies found different results, but the bulk of findings are that Regulation FD is at best unhelpful.

Despite these studies and companies’ complaints about the costs of compliance, the S.E.C. has stuck to the rule. Until the Netflix case, however, the agency appeared to try to keep the peace by seeking redress in only the most egregious cases.

In all, there have been only about a dozen Regulation FD cases since its adoption, including one against Office Depot in 2010, for which it was fined $1 million for hinting its earnings estimates to analysts. But while enforcement actions have been rare, it has required that companies fundamentally change the way they disclose information.

Then Netflix came along.

The S.E.C.’s case appears to be rest on much weaker grounds than previous ones involving Regulation FD. To make a Regulation FD claim, the agency must show the information was released privately and that it was material. But neither element seems certain here.

Mr. Hastings’s announcement that the milestone of one billion hours was achieved seems more like a public relations stunt than a disclosure of material information. And Netflix had previously said that it was close to this milestone, so followers knew it was coming.

But while it seems like this information was a nonevent, this post occurred as Netflix’s stock was beginning to rise, and by two trading days later, it had jumped almost 20 percent. While some may view this as proof of the post’s materiality, it is hard to read too much; Netflix shares can be volatile, and a Citigroup analysts’ report released during that time could have also moved the stock.

Then there is the issue of whether this was privately disclosed information.

Some have seized on this requirement to claim that the S.E.C. is in essence saying that Facebook is not a “public” Web site. This is laughable; after all, Mr. Hastings is popular — he has more than 200,000 subscribers to his Facebook account. It is certain that more people read this comment on Facebook than if it had been in an S.E.C. filing.

But the S.E.C.’s argument is likely to be more technical than saying Facebook is private. In a 2008 release on Web site disclosure, the S.E.C. asserted that a Web site or a blog could be public for Regulation FD purposes but only if it was a “recognized channel of distribution of information. ”

In other words, a public disclosure is not about being public but about being made where investors knew the company regularly released investor information.

So the S.E.C. is likely to sidestep the issue of Facebook’s “public” nature and simply argue that Netflix never alerted investors that Facebook was the place to find Netflix’s investor information. Mr. Hastings appeared to concede this, and in a Facebook post last week, he argued that while Facebook was “very public,” it was not where the company regularly released information. If this dispute goes forward, expect the parties to spend thousands of hours arguing about whether the post contained material information rather than whether Facebook is public.

But it all seems so silly and technical and shows the S.E.C.’s fetish of trying to control company disclosure to the nth degree. It’s easy to criticize the agency for not understanding social media, but I would argue that in trying to bring a rare Regulation FD enforcement action, it truly missed an opportunity. Rather than focus on technicalities that few people understand, it could have used this case to examine what it means to be public and how social media results in more, not less, disclosure.

If the idea behind Regulation FD is to encourage disclosure, then allowing executives to comment freely on Facebook and Twitter, recognizing them as a public space akin to a news release, is almost certain to result in more disclosure, not less, and reach many more people than an S.E.C. filing would. The agency’s position will only force executives to check with lawyers and avoid social media, chilling disclosure.

And this leads to the bigger issue. Regulation FD was always about principles of fairness that belied the economics of the rule. If the S.E.C. really wanted to encourage disclosure, then it might want to take a step back and consider whether after a decade, Regulation FD is worth all the costs. Perhaps shareholders would even prefer more disclosure on Facebook and fewer regulatory filings. I suspect they might, if it meant more information and generally higher share prices.

In any event, this case still has a way to go. Netflix disclosed only the receipt of a Wells notice, which meant the S.E.C. staff was recommending to the commissioners that an enforcement action be brought. It is now up to the commissioners to decide. Given the issues with this case, they may decide it isn’t worth it. It would still leave Netflix with substantial legal fees, but perhaps save the agency from another embarrassing defeat.

But while that may end the matter, it shouldn’t. The regulator could use the Netflix case to rethink its disclosure policies in light of not only the rise of social media but how the market actually works. After all, even the S.E.C. has a Twitter account these days.

Article source: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/in-netflix-case-a-chance-for-the-s-e-c-to-re-examine-old-regulation/?partner=rss&emc=rss