Disclosure Regulations Often Have Unintended Consequences

(p. B5) . . . , some disclosure works. Professor Levitin cites two examples. The first is an olfactory disclosure. Methane doesn’t have any scent, but a foul smell is added to alert people to a gas leak. The second is A.T.M. fees. A study in Australia showed that once fees were disclosed, people avoided the high-fee machines and took out more when they had to go to them.
But to Omri Ben-Shahar, co-author of a recent book, “More Than You Wanted To Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure,” these are cherry-picked examples in a world awash in useless disclosures. Of course, information is valuable. But disclosure as a regulatory mechanism doesn’t work nearly well enough, he argues.
First, it really works only when things are simple. As soon as transactions become complex, disclosure starts to stumble. Buying a car, for instance, turns out to be several transactions: the purchase itself, the financing, maybe the trade-in of old car and various insurance and warranty decisions. These are all subject to various disclosure rules, but making the choices clear and useful has proved nigh impossible.
In complex transactions, we then must rely on intermediaries to give us advice. Because they are often conflicted, they, too, become subject to disclosure obligations. Ah, even more boilerplate to puzzle over!
And then there’s the harm. Over the years, banks that sold complex securities often stuck impossible-to-understand clauses deep in prospectuses that “disclosed” what was really going on. When the securities blew up, as they often did, banks then fended off lawsuits by arguing they had done everything the law required and were therefore not liable.
“That’s the harm of disclosure,” Professor Ben-Shahar said. “It provides a safe harbor for practices that smell bad. It sanitizes every bad practice.”

For the full review, see:
JESSE EISINGER. “In an Era of Disclosure, an Excess of Sunshine but a Paucity of Rules.” The New York Times (Thurs., FEBRUARY 12, 2015): B5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date FEBRUARY 11, 2015.)

The book under review is:
Ben-Shahar, Omri, and Carl E. Schneider. More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

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