MENLO PARK, Calif. (CNN/Money) -
Give some credit to the Securities and Exchange Commission for its investigation into the activities of hedge funds.
The commission got started on its "fact-finding" mission in mid-2002, well before the scandals arose currently linking hedge funds with mutual funds. That's the good news.
The bad news? The SEC's voluminous recommendations to increase regulations on hedge funds probably won't amount to much.
To review, the SEC staff -- hired professionals, as opposed to the commissioners, who are appointed by politicians -- issued a comprehensive set of recommendations Monday suggesting hedge funds should be regulated more than they currently are, which is not much.
The report, "Implications of the Growth of Hedge Funds," (available at the SEC's Web site), accomplishes one thing for sure: It's a fantastic primer on just what the heck hedge funds are.
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Basically, they are unregulated investment funds in which only rich people invest, and they account for as much as $650 billion worth of invested wealth. And the SEC report, while thick, is an excellent backgrounder written for non-lawyers in fairly plain English.
The staff would like the companies that operate hedge funds to register with the SEC, which most currently don't do. They'd like to raise the bar on who can invest in hedge funds -- the wealthier the better. (That is on the assumption that those folks don't really need protecting.) They also want to add protection even for the swells who can get into hedge funds, primarily by instilling uniform valuation techniques and other best practices.
This is all well and good, aside from its impracticality. As the staff notes in its own report, hedge fund operators are already subject to antifraud provisions of federal securities law. What the SEC wants is more information at its fingertips in terms of monitoring hedge funds.
The SEC, of course, can get whatever it wants. Requesting more upfront will facilitate the process. Then again, the SEC hasn't done such a good job so far of marshalling all the information that even public companies give it. Enron, remember, hid its nasty news in the plain sight of an SEC filing.
Boosting wealth requirements might help, too, but not by much. If the SEC thinks funds of all kinds should be regulated, then regulate them. Arbitrary decisions about who's rich aren't necessary.
Making uniform standards for valuation techniques is a neat idea, but if I agree to put money into a private fund and I agree to the terms under which I'll get money back, it's not really my place to gripe about accounting methods. If I don't like them, I don't have to invest.
Perhaps the SEC should focus on valuation techniques of public companies. That might be a bigger public service.
You can't blame the SEC for trying. On the contrary, it is to be commended for trying. What's not clear is if their efforts will make a difference.
They don't call me -- here's why
I've been a bemused bystander to this whole do-not-call debate. That's because I get absolutely zero unsolicited phone calls at home. I dealt with the problem long ago.
First, I unlisted my number, a privilege for which I pay SBC 28 cents each month. How difficult is it to make sure all your friends have your phone number, e-mail address, work number or some other way of getting in touch with you?
Second, I never -- repeat, never -- give out my phone number just because some merchant or other service provider asks for it. If I think it's important that they be able to contact me, I give them my cell phone, which I turn off when I don't want to be disturbed.
If a store clerk insists on having my phone number, rather than pick a fight with someone who's just doing their job I simply make up a number. After all, my number is none of their business; I'm the customer, and I know how to contact them.
So send in your number to do-not-call lists all you want and listen to the debate over free speech and other high-falutin' topics. The easiest way to avoid getting bugged at dinnertime is to just say no.
Adam Lashinsky is a senior writer for Fortune magazine. Send e-mail to Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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