Controversy over reporting scheme
Is it a case of the blind leading the bland? That is certainly the doom-mongers' view of a government plan to get companies to give more relevant, forward-looking information to their shareholders.

The cynics say that ministers, blind to their bureaucratic meddling, will encourage companies to produce bland, boiler-plate reports that will add nil to investor knowledge at vast expense.

That could be the fate of the so-called Operating and Financial Review, which the government wants listed companies to produce along with their annual report. A public discussion period on the plans has just closed.

The idea is for the OFR to set out the main factors affecting a company's performance - including in the future. In theory, this looks excellent. Company reports and accounts now are largely backward-looking and boastful. What investors would like is more insight into where businesses are going, and what the dangers are.

The idea is not that new. More than 60 per cent of listed companies currently prepare a voluntary and more limited OFR, and the Accounting Standards Board (ASB) has been issuing guidance for more than a decade. There is, moreover, widespread agreement that, properly handled, the OFR could prove a genuine improvement. But the devil really is in the detail and the proposals need work.

Take, for a start, the timetable. The ASB has yet to draw up an OFR standard, yet ministers want the system introduced for the financial year beginning in January. Given the importance of getting this right, a year's delay looks sensible.

More importantly, the OFR piles yet more responsibility on directors, who can be fined for non-compliance yet are expected to put their necks out with statements about the future.

At a time when they face increasing legal threats, that looks a recipe for the most bland and cautious of statements, carefully vetted by a company's lawyers, unless board members can be assured they will not be dumped on for honest futurology.

The Confederation of British Industry has a useful suggestion here: introduce a so-called safe harbour that protects directors from liability under certain circumstances. Such a provision already applies in the US, and UK directors should be no worse off than those across the Atlantic.

Certainly, the US provides the clearest example of how a properly conceived OFR from a clear-thinking management really can add to investors' knowledge. Warren Buffett's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Berkshire Hathaway is remarkably frank. Alas, few executives have quite his confidence - or record.

No cruise
If turning round a fund manager is like trying to shift an ocean liner, Schroders is probably now past the 90 degree mark. It is more than halfway into a four-year recovery plan and the men on the bridge, Michael Dobson and Jonathan Asquith, have steered the company away from the rocks.

Costs are down, revenues, performance and profits are up and the company is maintaining healthy net inflows in retail funds. But how to complete the about-turn, especially when it is still experiencing choppy institutional outflows?

Size matters in the industry and Schroders must be tempted to use its £700m cash pile to bulk up. With the risk-averse Schroder family watching on, Mr Dobson has so far resisted splashing out, opting to grow organically, with an eye on the US, which only accounts for 11 per cent of £100bn of funds under management.

Schroders also revealed yesterday that it is moving into hedge funds. With equity markets flat, it has clearly decided that cruising is not an option.

Float joke
Jim Zockoll, the 74-year-old ex-airline pilot who founded Dyno-Rod, is known as the drain brain. Perhaps after yesterday's cancellation of the company's initial public offering he should be renamed the floater joker.

Mr Zockoll, who has a reputation for being tough to deal with, was supposed to be selling his company to a management buy-in team and institutions, advised by broker Seymour Pierce, who would then immediately list it on Aim.

This technique is widely known as an accelerated initial public offering, though some purists argue that that description should only apply to deals won as part of a fast-moving auction and not to a simple sale.

Whatever the semantics, according to the buyers Mr Zockoll decided at the last minute not to sell, even though they had met his asking price. Last night he was not telling his side of the story. Did he - like other entrepreneurs - suffer last-minute qualms about losing his baby? Did a delay in the buyers coming up with the money affect his views? Or might there be a higher offer out there - despite the buy-in team's having exclusive negotiating rights?

Whatever the reason, this case looks sui generis rather than a reflection on the wider, stuttering IPO market.

martin.dickson@ft.com

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