ASIC widens probe into disclosure

The corporate regulator is widening its probe into briefings by Australia's biggest companies by putting accountants, investment bankers and stockbrokers under the microscope.

The corporate regulator is widening its probe into briefings by Australia's biggest companies by putting accountants, investment bankers and stockbrokers under the microscope.

The broader focus builds on a surveillance campaign of analyst briefings this coming earnings reporting season in the wake of attention to a series of market briefings by goldminer Newcrest.

Newcrest's relationship with certain analysts has been under scrutiny weeks after the company's share price fell by close to 15 per cent in the 72 hours before the major restructure.

The company has long denied giving "selective briefings" before June 7, a defence that ultimately means the company denies leaking market-sensitive information to preferred analysts.

ASIC has launched an investigation of Newcrest's disclosure performance.

At the same time Newcrest launched its own review, headed by former ASX chairman Maurice Newman.

In a speech on Wednesday night, ASIC commissioner John Price said the "confidential information project" would examine whether tougher penalties or more guidance were warranted. Companies needed more guidance on the rules of how they communicate to the market.

"We will be speaking to accountants, investment banks, brokers and listed companies to understand how they handle confidential information prior to its announcement to the market," Mr Price told a Sydney Australasian Investor Relations Association.

"We think it important to address any perception about there being unfair differences in access to material information in our market."

He said it was essential that listed companies have in place proper systems and procedures for handling confidential information.

"If confidentiality is lost it can have significant implications for the company's disclosure obligations."

Mr Price said ASIC intended to "focus people's attentions on their existing legal obligations", and if the briefings uncovered evidence of "market abuse" the regulator would seek appropriate penalties.

"Let me be clear that the abuse of confidential information is market misconduct," he said. Anyone that trades on confidential information could also be breaking insider trading rules, he added.

But it seems the public outrage that followed the Newcrest saga has already imposed a mood of extreme caution on those employed by ASX-listed companies, and those working in the financial industry.

Several employees of large listed companies have confided to BusinessDay that much higher levels of caution are being taken when arranging interviews and information for public consumption.