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Tackling a good problem for all the wrong reasons

There’s no accounting for the way people will react in a crisis. Some people
have inspired moments of clarity, others… well, others don’t.

Take former US presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Dole. A woman of
impeccable education (including Harvard Law School), Dole last week decided to
throw her hat in the credit crunch ring by insisting that compliance with
certain parts of the Sarbanes-Oxley act should be ‘voluntary’ for banks.

The parts she mentioned were section 404 ­ the bit about having auditors
verify that you have decent internal controls ­ and section 302, the part that
says CEOs and CFOs should certify that they have checked the internal controls.
If they don’t they could go to jail.

We all know that 404 has been a pain and that administrators in the US have
perhaps regretted introducing such a heavy handed piece of legislation. There
have been good arguments for why 404 should be, shall we say, mediated in some
way ­ but there’s a time and a place for such arguments.

It strikes me that it is supremely naive to believe you should call for a cut
in regulation for banks at a time when the judgement of those who run the banks
doesn’t appear to be something they’d shout about.

And there’s a lesson in there because Dole’s argument is that 404 costs a lot
for the banks, which is worsening their financial position.

Well, boo hoo. But regulators should beware of being seduced by such dodgy
thinking when considering how to deal with the credit crunch. There’s always a
temptation to tip the wrong way in the rush to help, but the questions should
always be, is this the kind of help needed and which problem needs addressing?

Dole decided to tackled a good problem for the wrong reasons. It is no
surprise that she’s unlikely to get her way.

Gavin Hinks is the editor of Accountancy Age

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