Greenberg on the Stock Market: Why Investigations No Longer Matter

NEW YORK (Real Money) -- Green Mountain Coffee (GMCR) said on Friday that it received notification that the SEC has completed its four-year investigation into the company and wouldn't be recommending any enforcement action.

This just underscores something I've been saying privately for years now. Investigations -- certainly the announcement of investigations -- aren't big deals, certainly not outside of the penny stock world.

I can't remember the last time a regulatory investigation of a company, save Worldcom, Enron, Arthur Andersen and the Chinese reverse mergers (which were more like penny stocks) led to anything more than a slap on the wrist, if that.

Just last week, the street barely yawned when the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission slapped AT&T (T) with a $150 million fine. By the time the one agency that appears to have teeth -- the Consumer Financial Protection Agency -- sued Corinthian Colleges (COCO) last month, it had already gone through the mostly state regulatory wringer and was already a penny stock.

Even though the drug company Questcor (QCOR) was under investigation by multiple agencies, including the Justice Department, Mallinckrodt (MNK) wasn't scared off from acquiring it. The deal is expected to close imminently.

Reality: In general, if and when investigations are announced investors are conditioned to respond in two ways:

  1. It's in the past, so it doesn't matter.
  2. It's just an investigation and most investigations go nowhere. Both, for the most part, are right. It's the same with lawsuits: They're just allegations and most class action lawsuits are settled out of court.

While there are always exceptions, if investigations go the distance, the fines tend to be minimal. And if there are restatements, no matter how big, they're generally regarded as non-events by investors who are only looking to the future.

The irony in all of this is that on news that Green Mountain had been exonerated, its stock fell.

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Greenberg does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published at 11:12 a.m. ET on Real Money on Oct. 17.

Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security. He can be reached at herbonthestreet@thestreet.com.

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