Corporations are required to disclose specific types of information to the public, but only the federal securities laws impose generalized disclosure obligations that produce a holistic overview of corporate operations. While these disclosures are intended to benefit investors, they are accessible to anyone, and thus have long been relied upon by regulators, competitors, employees, and local communities to provide a working portrait of the country’s economic life.
Today, that system is breaking down. Congress and the SEC have made it easier for companies to raise capital without triggering securities reporting obligations, allowing modern businesses to grow to enormous proportions while leaving the public in the dark about their operations. Meanwhile, investors’ governmentally conferred informational advantage allows them to tilt managers’ behavior in their favor, at the expense of consumers, employees, and other corporate stakeholders. As a result, securities disclosures do not provide the comprehensive picture necessary to maintain social control over corporate behavior.
This Article recommends that we explicitly acknowledge the importance of disclosure for noninvestor audiences, and discuss the feasibility of designing a disclosure system geared to their interests. In so doing, this Article excavates the historical pedigree of proposals for stakeholder-oriented disclosure. Both in the Progressive Era, and again during the 1970s, efforts to create generalized corporate disclosure obligations were commonplace. In each era, however, they were redirected towards investor audiences, in the expectation that investors would serve as a proxy for the broader society. As this Article establishes, that compromise is no longer tenable.