Legal restrictions are crippling the battle against the millennium bug, warned a gathering of Year 2000 experts yesterday.
The chief economist at Deutsche Bank, Ed Yardeni, was hosting an Internet conference as part of Year 2000 Day - celebrating, or commiserating, 500 days to go until the millennium.
More than 25 experts from around the world took part. Many highlighted the common nightmare that self interested lawyers were restricting the availability of crucial corporate and government information, which could help other companies in their own compliance work, and more importantly in their contingency planning.
"There is very little disclosure in the US. There are antitrust concerns about sharing information and we are having to put a law through Congress," said Yardeni.
The Securities Exchange Commission, regulator of US stock exchanges, has at least required all US companies to disclose in detail their progress on Y2K compliance. So far in the UK, most of the information that has been made public has been done so voluntarily by companies like Sainsbury, Tesco and BT.
"Companies are still concerned that disclosure could threaten share prices but we have been talking to the stock market and the Bank of England about that," said Gwynneth Flower, managing director of government initiative Action 2000.
On the plus side, she noted that some companies that normally compete - such as Ford, Rover and Nissan, and many high street retailers - were putting differences aside in the battle against the common enemy.
Senator Bob Bennett, chair of the US Senate committee on Year 2000, said the lack of information meant the government was still flying blind.
"Why? Because everyone is terrified to tell. They either don't know or are afraid to tell the truth because their lawyers say they can't disclose information for fear of legal troubles. I say to them: you are going to have serious legal troubles down the road if you stonewall now," he said.
Maurice Newman, chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, said all the 1,200 companies listed had been required to provide a full report on Y2K progress by 30 June but that intervention by corporate legal advisers had damaged the initiative.
"It seems lawyers who serve parochial interests to organisations have sanitised the reports. It is only when investment banks start poring over the information that we may get some transparency," he said.
Jan Timmer, chair of the millennium effort in the Netherlands, said much more progress could be made without interference from lawyers.
"We are seriously hampered by legal impediments... We should get on with solving the problem and worry about the legal consequences later," he argued.
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