Newly minted Securities and Exchange Commission General Counsel Brain Cartwright told the Mutual Fund Directors Forum last week that going forward, independent directors would serve as the centerpiece of the mutual fund regulatory regime.
"As independent directors, you are the arbiters of fairness," said Cartwright, who was standing in for SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, as he is recovering from his recent surgery.
Cartwright added that since they come from varied backgrounds and bring many different skills to bear, the industry's independent chairmen would be a vital link between the SEC and fund shareholders, particularly on the topic of disclosure.
"You can provide a fresh and insightful view on what investors need to make the most informed investment decisions," he said. "We are sincerely interested in your viewpoints."
Whether their viewpoints will ever be heard, however, remains in the hands of a Court of Appeals in Washington. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit against the rule last year, and arguments concluded in January. The court is expected to deliver its opinion in the coming months, a decision that could either add fresh faces to mutual fund boards or send the SEC back to the rulemaking table.
Cartwright also reiterated Cox's desire to use mutual funds as a test-bed for its experiment in Extensible Business Reporting Language. Commonly known as XBRL, the SEC thinks the data-tagging tool would "democratize" financial information and analysis by making it easier for investors to compare fund performance numbers in an apples-to-apples format online.
"We hope to make it possible for end-users to pick and choose exactly what data they want and need and to analyze and compare just that data," he explained. "Call it personalized 'slicing and dicing.'"
Most experts agree that the technology would indeed make the process of fund research more efficient for investors, but they've also warned that it's a complicated software that could be "a tough nut to crack" for some mutual funds.
In other news out of the forum's meeting, Congressman Richard Baker (R-La.) said the only way Washington would rid of the industry of soft dollars is if investors petition lawmakers.
"It's virtually impossible to get anything done in Washington unless constituents prod their representatives," said Baker, who serves on the important House Financial Services Subcommittee on the Capital Markets.