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Article from SFGate.

In recent years, LinkedIn, Groupon and Demand Media all suggested they were profitable while privately held. But when the businesses were forced to file audited financial statements as they prepared to go public, those years or quarters in the black mysteriously vanished.

That’s just one of many reasons why it’s disturbing to see legislators hard at work on laws that would actually make it easier for companies to seek investments without also providing thorough and transparent financial data. And it’s why the proposals demand serious scrutiny.

This week, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced a bill that would raise the number of shareholders that companies are allowed to have before being forced to routinely disclose finances. Under the proposal, the threshold would rise from 500 to 2,000, minus employees.

Companies often feel compelled to go public when they near the 500 mark, because the disclosure requirements are nearly the same as those for a public company. Observers were quick to note that the law could ease IPO pressure on businesses like Facebook, which is bumping up against that threshold, further inflating private trading markets without adding any financial clarity.

“Lots of companies with fairly substantial market capitalizations would avoid the transparency of being reporting companies,” said John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University.

Crowd funding

Separately this week, the House approved legislation proposed by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., that would allow small businesses to raise capital through what is called crowd funding. That would mean startups could solicit investments from a pool of small investors, not just high-net-worth investors.

Individuals could invest the lesser of $10,000 or 10 percent of their annual income. As long as the firms raise less than $1 million a year, they could provide scant if any financial disclosures (though they would have to highlight the risky nature of the offerings).

Meanwhile, the private-equity and investment-banking industries are pushing for even bigger changes. Last month, a group calling itself the IPO Task Force – including representatives from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati – submitted an audacious wish list for policymakers.

Complaining about the paucity of IPOs in recent years, it recommended a looser set of rules for “emerging growth companies” with less than $1 billion in annual gross revenue.

These companies would be able to take advantage of a five-year “on-ramp” period that would reduce requirements for disclosures of historical financial data. The bill would also exempt companies from regulations concerning shareholder voting rights on executive compensation and loosen rules regarding analyst conflicts of interests.

Some corporate governance experts think the very premise of an on-ramp is flawed.

The first five years “is exactly when you would need to have the best disclosures,” said Charles Elson, director of the center for corporate governance at the University of Delaware.

The argument in favor of these proposals is that freeing companies from onerous regulations put in place in recent years would allow them to more easily build capital, accelerate innovation and create jobs.

Advocates for the task force recommendations contend that the rules are directly responsible for the decline in IPOs in recent years. Without that potential payday, venture capitalists and other investors have less incentive to take chances on young companies.

“Given the urgency to get America back on the path to economic growth, we need to get capital back in the hands of companies that create jobs,” said Kate Mitchell, chair of the task force and managing director of Scale Venture Partners, in a statement.

These are all tantalizing promises in the current economic climate. But we’ve seen again and again why transparent information is critical for the investing public..

Shareholders of Enron lost $11 billion and employees saw their life savings evaporate when it turned out the company was hiding billions in shell firms and fudging its balance sheet.

More recently, Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns and AIG crashed and nearly took the global financial system with them after losing highly leveraged, complicated and opaque bets on toxic mortgages.

These economic crises prompted laws like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which required more thorough disclosures of things like off-balance-sheet transitions. Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, granted greater oversight of complex instruments like credit default swaps.

Watering down

But political memories are short, and the instinct to enact reforms to prevent future catastrophes fades as constituents shift their frustrations to stubborn unemployment rates. And so now, we see proposals to water down the protections that were just passed.

From the moments these rules went into effect, industry has lamented how the burdensome and expensive regulations harm business and discourage IPOs. But maybe these things should be burdensome and expensive.

There’s a great responsibility that goes along with accepting millions of dollars from college endowments, pension funds, mom-and-pop stock pickers and, yes, even accredited investors.

I’d submit that the decline in IPOs had at least as much to do with the market crashes brought about by dot-com pump-and-dump schemes and the subprime mortgage and derivatives fiasco.

In other words, the private-equity and investment-banking industries haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of lighter regulations. On the contrary, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated an unconscionable eagerness to get away with exactly as much as they can, even at immense cost to the broader economy.

Obviously, this isn’t universally true, and not all startups, venture capitalists or investment banks should be tarnished by the acts of a few. But the best way for the rest of us to know the difference is through crystal-clear transparency.”

Read more here.

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Here is a good article from Bloomberg.

“The cost of fixing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that last year bought or guaranteed three-quarters of all U.S. home loans, will be at least $160 billion and could grow to as much as $1 trillion after the biggest bailout in American history.

Fannie and Freddie, now 80 percent owned by U.S. taxpayers, already have drawn $145 billion from an unlimited line of government credit granted to ensure that home buyers can get loans while the private housing-finance industry is moribund. That surpasses the amount spent on rescues of American International Group Inc., General Motors Co. or Citigroup Inc., which have begun repaying their debts.

“It is the mother of all bailouts,” said Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae, who is now a consultant to the mortgage-finance industry.

Fannie, based in Washington, and Freddie in McLean, Virginia, own or guarantee 53 percent of the nation’s $10.7 trillion in residential mortgages, according to a June 10 Federal Reserve report. Millions of bad loans issued during the housing bubble remain on their books, and delinquencies continue to rise. How deep in the hole Fannie and Freddie go depends on unemployment, interest rates and other drivers of home prices, according to the companies and economists who study them.

‘Worst-Case Scenario’

The Congressional Budget Office calculated in August 2009 that the companies would need $389 billion in federal subsidies through 2019, based on assumptions about delinquency rates of loans in their securities pools. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget estimated in February that aid could total as little as $160 billion if the economy strengthens.

If housing prices drop further, the companies may need more. Barclays Capital Inc. analysts put the price tag as high as $500 billion in a December report on mortgage-backed securities, assuming home prices decline another 20 percent and default rates triple.

Sean Egan, president of Egan-Jones Ratings Co. in Haverford, Pennsylvania, said that a 20 percent loss on the companies’ loans and guarantees, along the lines of other large market players such as Countrywide Financial Corp., now owned by Bank of America Corp., could cause even more damage.

“One trillion dollars is a reasonable worst-case scenario for the companies,” said Egan, whose firm warned customers away from municipal bond insurers in 2002 and downgraded Enron Corp. a month before its 2001 collapse.

Unfinished Business

A 20 percent decline in housing prices is possible, said David Rosenberg, chief economist for Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc. in Toronto. Rosenberg, whose forecasts are more pessimistic than those of other economists, predicts a 15 percent drop.

“Worst case is probably 25 percent,” he said.

The median price of a home in the U.S. was $173,100 in April, down 25 percent from the July 2006 peak, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Fannie and Freddie are deeply wired into the U.S. and global financial systems. Figuring out how to stanch the losses and turn them into sustainable businesses is the biggest piece of unfinished business as Congress negotiates a Wall Street overhaul that could reach President Barack Obama’s desk by July.

Neither political party wants to risk damaging the mortgage market, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and White House economic adviser under President George W. Bush.

“Republicans and Democrats love putting Americans in houses, and there’s no getting around that,” Holtz-Eakin said.

‘Safest Place’

With no solution in sight, the companies may need billions of dollars from the Treasury Department each quarter. The alternative — cutting the federal lifeline and letting the companies default on their debts — would produce global economic tremors akin to the U.S. decision to go off the gold standard in the 1930s, said Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who helped create the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes of property values.

“People all over the world think, ‘Where is the safest place I could possibly put my money?’ and that’s the U.S.,” Shiller said in an interview. “We can’t let Fannie and Freddie go. We have to stand up for them.”

Congress created the Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, in 1938 to expand home ownership by buying mortgages from banks and other lenders and bundling them into bonds for investors. It set up the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., Freddie Mac, in 1970 to compete with Fannie.”

Read the full article here.

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