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The SEC's Material Weakness

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Implementing the "internal controls" provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley has been immensely costly for publicly held businesses in the United States while the concrete evidence of it's benefits has been scant. By some estimates, the direct costs of implementation are as high as $35 billion each year. And the real costs might be even higher. Nonetheless, because non-compliance with Section 404 can be disastrous for a public company due to regulatory sanctions and massive stock declines, companies continue to spend and spend to implement Section 404.
It's clear the regulation is broken but we're unlikely to be rid of it any time soon. The regulation's defenders insist the regulation is helping us avoid the kind of accounting scandals we saw in the late nineties, and that government enforcement of the regulation is necessary because the market can't be trusted to regulate itself. There's some truth in this argument: the market won't necessarily price internal controls over financial accounting at the price regulators think is appropriate, much less at some level that optimizes efficiency over the long term.
But it's a half truth because it rests on a double standard. It insists we focus on the reality of imperfect markets but not notice the reality of imperfect government. There's no evidence that the government has arrived at the right level of internal controls, or that it can efficiently police this regulation.
Yesterday we got a reminder of the reality of imperfect government when the General Accounting Office declared that the Securities and Exchange Commission had a material weakness in the internal controls over its own financial reporting. This is a serious blow to the SEC's credibility, which avoided getting tagged with the "material weakness" finding last year only by promising to improve things. But things haven't improved. Indeed, they may now be worse.
Fortunately for the SEC, there is no market accountability for government agencies. You can't short the SEC, and lawmakers are unlikely to penalize the commission by denying it authority or funds. Indeed, we expect that this GAO finding will somehow become an argument for the SEC to get more funding. That's the way it works in our nation's capital: failure is only evidence of the need to get more of the people's treasure.
And for those of you who miss the irony of this we'll make it clear: the SEC is the agency charged with enforcing Section 404 on public companies. Of course, no government agency has ever let the glass facades of its own house prevent it from throwing stones.
SEC Flunks Internal Controls Audit []