Arthur Levitt to Chair Academic 'Think Tank'

Morgan Stanley, IBM Corp. and General Electric Co.’s GE Foundation will join forces and resources with Columbia University’s business school to create an academic think tank to take the lead in improving accounting standards and stock research.

Called the Center for Excellence in Accounting and Security Analysis, the center will be chaired by Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Trevor Harris, director of Morgan Stanley’s global valuation and accounting team for equity research, will be a co-director of the center.

“We will follow the basic concepts of independent academic endeavors,” Stephen Penman, an accounting professor at Columbia and co-director of the center, told Reuters, adding that the goal is to “identify who in the world are the best minds in these areas, assemble them into a project team and thrash it out.” He did not disclose how much the three companies contributed to the project.

All of corporate America has been affected by the issues the center will address, including its three supporters, who have not been untouched by the scandals that have spurred numerous accounting industry reforms. Morgan Stanley agreed to pay $1.4 billion along with nine other banks to settle SEC claims that they tilted research to attract investment-banking customers away from corporate clients. IBM announced in June that the SEC is looking into its revenue accounting practices from 2000 and 2001.

Despite this, the firms involved in the Center told Reuters they would support the research findings the Center generates even if they conflict with the companies’ interests.

“As with the funding of any academic center in a university, the independence is maintained,” Penman told Reuters. “It could be that the center's project teams may reach conclusions that are not consistent with their interests.”

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