Mason researcher helps the SEC walk the talk


Research by Mason Accounting Professor Bret Johnson, a former SEC staff accountant and academic fellow, shows how seemingly mundane intra-agency policies can have unintended effects that benefit Wall Street over Main Street.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has long seen itself as a friend to the retail investor, doing everything it can to ensure that financial markets offer both large and small players roughly equal opportunity to succeed. Most recently, that mandate provided the rationale for a slate of sweeping rule changes that would, among other things, shine a light on the opaque business arrangements between wholesale brokers and trading apps such as Robinhood. It adds up to what some industry insiders are calling the largest-scale SEC intervention in nearly 20 years.

George Mason University Accounting Faculty Member Bret Johnson
Bret Johnson

To its credit, the SEC is just as committed to promoting fairness and transparency in-house as it is to ambitious industry reforms. The agency even invites accounting academics to research its inner workings via the SEC Academic Fellowship Program. George Mason University School of Business accounting professor and former SEC staff accountant Bret Johnson was selected for the year-long program starting in August 2020.

Johnson says, "My role was to be a liaison between the SEC and the academic community…Often, my research uncovers some problem or something they can improve on, some inefficiencies. And I found they are very open to embracing this type of research."

For example, Johnson's recent research paper in Review of Accounting Studies co-authored by Michael Iselin of the University of Minnesota, Jacob Ott of the London School of Economics, and Jacob Raleigh of Monash University, finds that while the SEC's monitoring arm – the Division of Corporation Finance (DCF), where he worked for six years – seems to focus less on firms with a high percentage of retail ownership, the Division of Enforcement (DOE) appears to take a harder line with these firms. In other words, irregularities are less likely to be spotted early and addressed through non-punitive means when the firm in question has a larger proportion of retail investors.

"My role was to be a liaison between the SEC and the academic community…Often, my research uncovers some problem or something they can improve on, some inefficiencies. And I found they are very open to embracing this type of research." - Bret Johnson

The SEC's enforcement-heavy approach may disadvantage retail investors because once the enforcement action becomes common knowledge, the "Main Street" investors who hold disproportionate stock in the target company will lose out when the share price falls. In this way, the SEC does not seem to be acting in accordance with its stated mission to protect mom and pop investors.

Johnson can only guess at what's going on here. He speculates that firms that attract retail investors may share other characteristics that cause the SEC to flag them for enforcement rather than monitoring. For instance, the paper finds that retail ownership was positively associated with firm visibility and performance volatility, and negatively associated with external monitoring and structural complexity. The discrepancy may also have to do with how resources are distributed between the DOE and DCF.

In other cases, the agency's good-faith attempts to increase market transparency on behalf of less savvy investors can backfire. Based on analytics from the publicly available filings database on the SEC website, Johnson's 2020 paper in The Accounting Review, co-authored by Michael S. Drake and Jacob R. Thornock of Brigham Young University, and Darren T. Roulstone of The Ohio State University, concluded that institutional users (e.g. investment banks, hedge funds, asset managers, and financial institutions) were profiting handsomely from their search activities on the online resource, while retail investors saw little to no benefit. Abnormal search volume from Wall Street was associated with future returns for the focal firms of up to 10.5 percent. No such pattern was seen on Main Street.

In addition, how the SEC balances the need for transparency against its relationships with companies can have unintentional knock-on effects. Johnson’s 2022 paper in Management Science, co-authored by Marshall A. Geiger and Abdullah Kumas of the University of Richmond, and Keith L. Jones of the University of Kansas, found that for companies that had just received an SEC comment letter, there was a sizeable uptick in sell-offs among mutual funds and other major players during the short period (initially 45 days, then shortened to 20 days) before the letter went public. The best explanation was that high-ranking executives were sharing non-public information with investors close to the company concerned. 

The 20-day privacy window is meant to prevent companies’ confidential information from being accidentally released through an over-hasty process. But it may also create information asymmetry that benefits industry insiders at the expense of retail investors – the very favoritism that the agency intends to combat.

There are no simple answers to the questions posed by Johnson’s research. Even seemingly mundane intra-agency decisions, such as resource allocations and the length of the confidentiality window for comment letters, can have complicated ripple effects. Sometimes, it takes an informed outsider to trace these ripple effects and draw evidence-based conclusions. "I am happy to see that the SEC continues to solicit – and take seriously – academic research into its policies and practices," Johnson says. After all, sweeping industry reforms may make headlines, but fine-tuning how the agency itself functions is a quieter but no less material way of promoting fairness and transparency in financial markets.