By Paul McBeth
Jan. 7 (BusinessDesk) - New Zealand's ministers and officials have been given a new set of rules outlining how they can talk about listed companies as the government gets ready to kick off its partial privatisation programme this year.
Public service bosses, government ministers and their staff, and state sector spin doctors and legal teams have been told they need to treat information about public companies with caution and need to take care when commenting about listed firms even when they don't have any inside information. That includes telling ministers to be wary of making any comment to media about a listed company, and to steer clear from talking about share prices.
"Ministers should focus comments on government policy rather than commenting on the value of particular securities or the prospects of a particular public issuer," acting Cabinet Secretary Michael Webster says in the note.
"A minister should never directly or indirectly encourage or advise people to buy, sell or hold the securities of a public issuer and must take care to ensure that comments cannot be interpreted or perceived as false or misleading," he said.
The how-to note comes as the government prepares for a final showdown with the Maori Council in the Supreme Court over its decision to proceed with partial privatisations of state-owned energy companies via floats on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.
Government regulators have often worn the ire of investors who say an activist agency can unfairly destroy shareholder value, and the Commerce Commission's recent flagging of new price controls of listed telecommunications network operator Chorus prompted outrage when it shaved a fifth from its share price.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet issued the new guidelines for dealing with inside information about public issuers on Dec. 20, firming up rules from a 10-year old Cabinet Office circular.
The rationale for the new circular is to ensure the government sticks to its policy to "maintain confidence and inform market participation," which can be eroded if information isn't released in a "fair, orderly and transparent manner" which treats all investors fairly, the circular said.
DPMC's guidance note sets out how ministers and officials should talk publicly about listed companies, stressing the importance of making any market-moving decision outside of trading hours.
Ministers should only make a major statement that could affect a listed company when trading is open when there is a compelling reason, the note said.
If inside information will be announced by the government, it should be given to the affected company under embargo to let it figure out whether it needs to halt trading in its shares or make a statement of its own to meet disclosure rules.