Mackey’s Sock-Puppetry is No Joke

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page weighs

in today on the subject of John Mackey and his sock-puppetry.

"Apparently U.S. financial regulators don’t get the joke," says the

leader-writer, although I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.

That’ll teach Mr. Mackey to flog the virtues of his company on the Web…

we can’t see how any reasonable person could conclude that Rahodeb’s opinions

were going to have any appreciable effect on the Whole Foods share price.

The fact that they weren’t was precisely the point: At a time when corporate

execs are often accused of being isolated, Mr. Mackey seems to have enjoyed

the Web engagement and used the semi-informed opinions voiced on a Yahoo message

board as his own sounding board to sample the mood of his customers.

The straitjacket that has descended on CEOs, including Sarbanes-Oxley and

the SEC’s Regulation FD ("Fair Disclosure"), has often had the perverse

effect of restricting the flow of information — and thus preventing informed

corporate insiders from participating in the market’s increasingly democratic

information free-for-all. In some cases, these prohibitions only keep news

and informed views under wraps, leading to volatility and "surprises"

that can themselves create incentives for insider trading.

All this is predictable enough, coming as it does from an editorial page which

will always oppose any kind of SEC regulation at all. But it’s worth spelling

out exactly why it’s wrong, and noting that SEC chairman Christopher Cox is

actually extremely blog-friendly:

On his blog, [Jonathan] Schwartz, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, challenged

the commission to clarify that the use of blogs like his could be consistent

with our regulations requiring public companies to share news with the public

at the same time they give it to market professionals. As a result of that

exchange, the SEC is moving forward on that initiative, aided by thoughtful

commentary from outside our own cathedral, some of it found on blogs.

The fact is that Mackey, or any other executive, is more than welcome to "flog

the virtues of his company on the Web", whether doing so has "any

appreciable effect on the Whole Foods share price" or not. Mackey has his

own blog, which accepts

comments, and which other bloggers are more than welcome to link to. He doesn’t

post there very often – certainly not nearly as often as he posted to

the Yahoo message boards. But if he simply moved his Yahoo postings to his personal

blog, and used his own name to invite the particpants on the Yahoo boards to

join him over at wholefoodsmarket.com, then no one would have any problem with

what he did.

It is true that compliance types tend to be scared of Reg FD, and would rather

err on the side of saying nothing rather than risk falling foul of it. And frankly

I’ve been unimpressed

at criticism of Mackey which has concentrated on Reg FD, rather than the simple

ethics of what the CEO of a public company should and shouldn’t do. But Reg

FD can and will be clarified so that blog posts count as public disclosure,

at which point no blog post, by definition, can run afoul of it. And I very

much doubt that Cox’s SEC would go after a CEO who posted about his own company

on his own blog.

"The market’s increasingly democratic information free-for-all" is

here to stay, and that’s a good thing, which has been embraced by the SEC. What

Mackey did is a bad thing, and the SEC is investigating it. Let’s not get the

two confused.

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1 Response to Mackey’s Sock-Puppetry is No Joke

  1. Suvarna says:

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