Shift from Voluntary to Mandatory Disclosure of Risk Factors

The following post comes to us from Karen K. Nelson, the Harmon Whittington Professor at Accounting at Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business, and Adam C. Pritchard, the Frances and George Skestos Professor of Law at University of Michigan Law School.

In our paper, Carrot or Stick? The Shift from Voluntary to Mandatory Disclosure of Risk Factors, we investigate public companies’ disclosure of risk factors that are meant to inform investors about risks and uncertainties. We compare risk factor disclosures under the voluntary, incentive-based disclosure regime provided by the safe harbor provision of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, adopted in 1995, and the SEC’s subsequent disclosure mandate, adopted in 2005.

The PSLRA’s safe harbor provision shields firms from liability for forward-looking statements provided they are accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements identifying important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those in the forward looking statement.” The voluntary disclosure of risk factors provides a direct means for firms to reduce the often substantial expected costs of securities fraud class actions. Thus, the safe harbor provides an important incentive for public companies to disclose risk factors, but that incentive is likely to vary with firms’ perception of their potential vulnerability to securities class actions.

Risk factor disclosure shifted from a voluntary, incentive-based regime to a mandatory one in 2005 when the SEC added Item 1A to Form 10-K. Item 1A requires most public companies to disclose risk factors annually and update them quarterly as necessary in Form 10-Q.

We study how these two changes in the law affect the disclosure of risk factors. Our tests focus on three questions: First, we examine whether litigation risk plays an important role in firms’ disclosure practices, particularly during the voluntary disclosure period from 1996 to 2005. Second we test whether the SEC’s 2005 disclosure mandate narrows the gap between firms with a litigation–related incentive to provide risk factor disclosure and those compelled to disclose because of the mandate. Third, we assess whether differences in the quality of the disclosure affect its usefulness to investors in assessing firm risk.

To conduct our analyses, we use three metrics designed to capture characteristics of “meaningful” disclosure suggested by the PSLRA’s legislative history, subsequent court decisions, and the SEC:

  • (i) the amount of risk factor disclosure;
  • (ii) the extent to which the risk factors are updated year-to-year; and
  • (iii) the readability of the risk factors.

All else equal, risk factor disclosure is more “meaningful” if it is comprehensive, if it is not a boilerplate copy from the prior year, and if it can be understood by the average investor.

We use these disclosure metrics to investigate whether firms at greater risk of securities fraud lawsuits provide more “meaningful” risk factor disclosure, and how the SEC’s 2005 mandate affects this disclosure. Controlling for other factors that could affect the disclosure decision, we find that, on average, firms with greater litigation risk provide more risk factor disclosure, revise their disclosure more from year-to-year, and use more readable language than firms with low litigation risk. When we allow these effects to vary with the disclosure regime, we find significant differences in disclosure between high and low risk firms in the voluntary regime. After the SEC mandate in 2005, however, firms with low litigation risk increase converge with high risk firms in their risk factor disclosure.

We conclude that the SEC’s mandate had a material effect on the disclosure decisions of companies that had relatively little incentive to provide meaningful disclosure under the PSLRA’s safe harbor provision alone. We also find, however, that firms with high litigation risk continue to provide a significantly greater amount of risk factor disclosure in the mandatory regime. Moreover, in both disclosure regimes, high risk firms disclose significantly more risk factor information as litigation risk increases.

Finally, we find evidence that risk factor disclosures provide information useful to investors in assessing future firm risk, although here again the findings vary predictably with firms’ disclosure incentives and the disclosure regime. For firms with high litigation risk and hence greater incentive to provide meaningful disclosure, one-year-ahead beta and stock return volatility are increasing in the unexpected portion of risk factor disclosure. Moreover, in the voluntary disclosure regime, firms with high litigation risk provide risk factor disclosures that are significantly more informative about systematic and idiosyncratic risk than firms with low litigation risk. Subsequent to the SEC mandate, however, there is no statistical difference, consistent with a convergence in the meaningfulness of risk factor disclosures.

Overall, our findings suggest managers respond to high ex ante litigation risk with risk factor disclosures designed to reduce the expected costs of litigation. In contrast, low risk firms perceiving little net benefit to disclosure did not provide meaningful risk factor disclosure until compelled to do so by the SEC. Understanding risk factor disclosures is important to managers and legal counsel responsible for formulating a disclosure strategy, to regulators and courts charged with evaluating the quality of these disclosures, and to investors interested in assessing the risks posed by firms.

The full paper is available for download here.

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