SEC Demurs on More Frequent Disclosure by Mutual Funds - TheStreet

If you were waiting for a sign that regulators planned to expose mutual funds to greater light for shareholders, it looks like you'll have to wait some more.

At a symposium in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, one of the top dogs at the

Securities and Exchange Commission

indicated that the agency will roll out some rules that will be beneficial to mutual fund holders, but he demurred on the pivotal issue of more-frequent disclosure of mutual fund holdings.

Paul Roye, director of the SEC's investment management division, told a gathering sponsored by mutual fund watchdog

Fund Democracy

that the agency has no immediate plans to enact a rule that would require fund managers to disclose their holdings more frequently. Roye also voiced concern about whether more-frequent disclosure would actually be good for the average investor.

What's at stake? Mutual funds are currently required to report their holdings twice a year, although some funds opt to report more frequently. Critics of this rule say that less-frequent disclosure allows portfolio managers to make their performances look better by engaging in practices such as "window dressing," or buying hot stocks at the end of a reporting period to make the fund's holdings look more impressive, and "portfolio pumping" -- bidding up the price of a stock to boost its return at the end of the quarter. They also say more information is better for all investors.

Big fund companies that oppose this push counter that more-frequent disclosure would undermine their investment strategies, essentially tipping their hat to competitors when they make a move into or out of a stock.

Roye did offer fund watchers a few morsels that indicated some changes may be afoot. He said that by the end of the year the agency plans to pass a rule that would require fund managers to invest 80% of their assets in the type of securities implied by their funds' names. That is, if a fund were called a

U.S. Treasury

fund, then at least 80% of that fund's holdings would have to be composed of Treasury securities.

The agency also plans to pass a rule that would force mutual funds to disclose their after-tax gains, and a fund governance ruling that would require greater disclosure of fund directors' potential conflicts of interests, as well as revisions to its rules concerning advertising in the mutual fund industry.

In the past few months, many industry groups, including Fund Democracy, the

National Association of Investors Corporation

and the

Financial Planning Association

have filed petitions to the SEC asking the agency to require funds to disclose their holdings more frequently.

Industry watchers present at Thursday's meeting, such as Fund Democracy CEO Mercer Bullard,

Morningstar

CEO Don Phillips and prominent financial planner Harold Evensky, have suggested that funds disclose their holdings monthly, with a two- to three-month lag so that other investors don't jump on what other funds are trying to do.

"I am not advocating instantaneous disclosure but I do think if you had more uniform disclosure and a significant lag, then what you do is you create accountability," said Morningstar CEO Phillips. "I'm more interested in this information looking backwards. To be able to say, OK, let's go back and really see who's been more consistent in their style and who's moved around more. When you only see that twice a year, it's pretty hard to get a good handle on that."

Roye said the agency is in the process of evaluating the proposals and has no immediate plans to formulate a disclosure rule until other rules he detailed at the conference have been put into place. The SEC already has responded to calls for more disclosure by establishing a task force to investigate window dressing and portfolio pumping earlier this year, said Roye.

Roye said one of the SEC's concerns is that it doesn't want to inundate investors with too much information, which the agency fears might lead to investors switching in and out of investments as they see fund managers changing positions. He said that one of the SEC's current crusades is to make fund filings easier to read and understandable for investors.

"I think we have to continually think about what's needed and what's important for investors," said Roye. "There are different types of investors. There are the Harold Evenskys that want this information to do a better job for their clients, but there are also investors who read a prospectus and buy a fund because it has a certain investment objective, and they're hiring the manager to do it. They don't want to know what's in the portfolio on a day-to-day basis, they want to understand generally what they're doing and are they achieving their objectives."

But many of the fund-industry experts on the panel disagreed, saying the full disclosure of mutual fund holdings can only be a good thing for investors because it increases their knowledge of what their investment managers are actually doing with their money.

Fund Democracy CEO Bullard said he expects the SEC to decide on a course of action about more open disclosure by around February or March 2001. Bullard expects a quarterly disclosure requirement to be the most likely outcome of a ruling.

Other participants in the symposium pushed for an industry-backed initiative for fuller disclosure rather than a government-mandated one.

"I'm almost saddened that we've gotten to the point where we have to talk about an SEC ruling," said Dave Nadig, co-founder of

MetaMarkets.com

, a mutual fund firm that continuously and instantaneously shows its funds' portfolio changes on its Web site. "I think the industry still has a chance to get in front of this without the SEC coming in and trying to make a one-size-fits-all rule about all this. I think it's inevitable that eventually we're going to end up with rule making on this if the industry doesn't get in front of this."

Still, the symposium participants agreed that the fact that the SEC's Roye came to hear their concerns and suggestions is a positive step toward more disclosure in the industry.

"It's great that they're here and listening and part of the debate," Phillips said.