While the ruling does not completely let top executives off the hook -- Schiff still faces charges of making misleading statements in his conference calls -- it does prevent prosecutors from presenting the calls and the SEC filings together in the case. The ruling indicates that BMS's SEC filings were technically GAAP compliant, and therefore not misleading, and therefore Schiff may not be charged with lying in them by omission or otherwise, even if they are misleading when cross-referenced with his conference calls.
This is, of course, totally insane.
Everyone knows that even in the U.S., the most transparent nation of all for investors, it's extremely difficult to get an accurate picture of what's really going on inside a company. Investors take conference calls, SEC filings and press releases together when they make judgments about a company. If an executive says "we don't see anything unusual," as Schiff did when asked about wholesaler inventories, and he then neglects to fully explain his company's channel stuffing policy in a later SEC filing, then that looks to me like a lie.
Here are some recent examples of disclosure that, to put it politely, understate what's really going on:
- Merck (MRK) disclosed it was being sued over its Nuvaring contraceptive, but neglected to say that the litigation involves more than 300 cases, some alleging fatalities.
- Sequenom (SQNM) disclosed that mistakes in its data required it to start over on development of a new test for Down syndrome, but has yet to disclose how those mistakes were made. Investors are currently flying in the dark on this company.
- Elan (ELN) disclosed it had loaded itself up with another poison pill, this one courtesy of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), but didn't tell investors for five months.
- And Pfizer (PFE) CFO Frank D'Amelio told Wall Street analysts that he included Wyeth's Animal Health unit in his revenue estimates for the merger of the two companies even though he knew the unit would have to be divested, according to a transcript of a recent conference call.
4/25/01 Schiff â€" "We look at, very closely, the wholesaler stocking inventories. ... [T]here are no unusual items that we see in the inventory levels."You can see how helpful it would have been if Schiff had chosen to "elaborate" on his remarks. But he didn't. On April 1, 2002, BMS came clean and president Rick Lane left the company. The stock plunged on the news.
7/25/01 Schiff â€" "we don't see anything unusual" in the "wholesaler inventories."
Lane â€" when asked whether there were inventory issues, he responded "no."
10/23/01 Schiff â€" inventory was "up a couple of weeks" and expected "to be lower in the fourth quarter."
12/13/01 Schiff â€" "We don't see any significant changes" in the prior call's statements that "inventory levels are slightly higher" and "would be reduced by the end of the year."