As gobsmacked as I am that no one can seem to find the people running Bain Capital from 1999 to 2002, when Mitt Romney was officially listed as its CEO, Chairman, and President, I’m equally shocked by Glenn Kessler’s claims that SEC documents are not to be trusted.
Kessler’s scarequoted SEC documents
On Thursday, Kessler suggested SEC filings don’t mean what they say.
There appears to be some confusion about how partnerships are structured and managed, or what SEC documents mean. (Just because you are listed as an owner of shares does not mean you have a managerial role.)
Then on Friday, he mocked the journalistic convention that treated “SEC documents” (his scarequotes) as factual.
There is a journalistic convention that appears to place great weight on “SEC documents.” But these are public filings by companies, which usually means there are not great secrets hidden in them. The Fact Checker, in an earlier life covering Wall Street, spent many hours looking for jewels in SEC filings.
We had examined many SEC documents related to Romney and Bain in January, and concluded that much of the language saying Romney was “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president” was boilerplate that did not reveal whether he was actually managing Bain at the time. (For instance, there is no standard definition of a “chief executive,” securities law experts say, and there is no requirement for anyone to have any responsibilities even if they have that title.)
Trillions of dollars are traded based on what these documents say, but a purportedly respectable journalist who used to cover Wall Street says they’re just boilerplate.
Only, he didn’t used to say that.
As Kessler reminds his readers, he used to cover finance. So to see how he, as a finance reporter, treated SEC documents, I thought I’d review what he wrote during precisely the period Mitt’s corporate whereabouts are in such dispute, 1999 to 2002. Kessler covered finance at the WaPo from the time he moved there in 1998 until about May 2, 2002, when he started covering foreign affairs. Thus, Kessler stopped covering finance just weeks after the time Mitt resigned from the boards of Marriott and Staples (presumably Mitt’s severance deal with Bain was around the same time).
SEC filings, more SEC filings, and no boilerplate
It was an interesting time to cover finance, too. In addition to a slew of articles engaged in one-side, other-side journalism citing experts warning that Bush’s tax cuts might bring back deficit spending but Pete Domenici and Ari Flesicher saying they wouldn’t so he couldn’t really be sure, Kessler covered growing awareness about tax havens, the end of the Dot-Com bubble, the AOL Time-Warner merger, and Enron. And in a number of those stories he treated earnings reports and other SEC documents as transparent truth.
Kessler pointed to corporate earnings reports for a January 29,1999 story predicting the economy would begin to slow.
Corporate earnings are closely watched on Wall Street because, in a world of dreams, deals and wild bets, earnings are real; they are the equivalent of batting averages for baseball addicts. Corporate earnings also provide hints on the general direction of the economy, which is why some analysts remain downbeat about the economy in the coming year despite the string of positive earnings reports. [my emphasis]
And he looked at them in very close detail.
Individual corporate earnings reports also turn up nuggets of how companies have boosted their profits. Compaq Computer Corp., the world’s number two computer maker, said Wednesday that fourth-quarter earnings rose a better-than-expected 2.2 percent. Profits rose to 43 cents a share, compared with 42 cents in the same period of 1997. But tax credits from Compaq’s purchase of Digital Equipment Corp. last year significantly cut the company’s tax rate, boosting net income about 5 cents a share.
In a January 13, 2000 story explaining different estimates for the value of the AOL Time-Warner deal, Kessler reveals the WaPo was the only paper to look beyond stock price in its calculations; it included Time-Warner’s debt, presumably gleaned from SEC documents.