As any business journalist knows, the ASIC search is the lifeblood of transparency and accountability in corporate Australia.
There are 2 million companies in Australia. Only 2000 of those are listed on the ASX and subject to continuous disclosure obligations. For the rest, we are reliant on the reporting requirements set out in the corporations law, which establishes the national companies register administered by the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and spells out who must file what.
It is absolutely vital to be able to discover who a company's shareholders and directors are and, in the case of public companies, access financial details in annual returns (however late they've been filed), loans and offer documents.
Unfortunately, searching ASIC's companies register is also hugely expensive, and the cost will only increase if the companies register is sold off, as was proposed in last week's federal budget.
As widely flagged, the government set aside $12 million for scoping studies into the privatisation of the Defence Housing Authority, the Mint, Australian Hearing and the registry function of ASIC. The idea has been canvassed since chairman Greg Medcraft described the registry as a "technology business" that could be hived off without any impact on ASIC's regulatory responsibilities.
The graph below shows ASIC's registry business has enjoyed explosive growth over the last 20 years, pulling in revenue of some $680 million in 2012-13, of which about half was generated by the $232 annual fee all companies have to pay, year-in, year-out. Prices are recommended by ASIC but set by the government, and bear absolutely no relation to the $142 million cost of administration ...
Revenue and costs -- companies, business names and searches 1991-2013 (nominal terms)