To disclose or not to disclose? Corporate America's question

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Is there such a thing as too much corporate information?

Two new reports offer divergent conclusions about whether big companies are offering too few disclosures about their operations, or perhaps too many.

In a report released last week, Transparency International said that of 124 of the world's largest companies, 90 of them withhold key data such as the taxes they pay in foreign markets. Of that number, 54 offer no information on what they earn in other countries—with U.S. technology giants among the worst offenders.

The watchdog organization said U.K.-based companies were the most open, yet singled out American tech behemoths such as Amazon, Apple, Google and IBM as being too obscure about what they pay in taxes and what they earn abroad.

The companies did not immediately reply to a request for comment from CNBC.

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The study's findings come amid a political outcry over deals that let big companies escape the long shadow of tax authorities. Earlier this year, a furor broke out over "tax inversion" deals that allow large U.S. firms to acquire overseas firms and pay less in taxes.

The implications may be far reaching for tech companies, many of which are known to guard trade information zealously, and have been known to strike deals with foreign governments to pay as little tax on earnings as possible. Last year, Apple was hammered by reports that it was sheltering more than $100 billion in offshore profits.

"Tech companies are driving changes that are making our societies more open and accountable," said Cobus de Swardt, Transparency International's managing director, in a statement. "They should be setting an example for other companies on transparency."

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Public perceptions of major companies are important, given the issues corporate America has faced in the last decade. Confidence in large firms has been eroded by successive scandals involving accounting fraud, corporate governance failures, and the financial crisis that battered the global economy.

More recently, disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance has brought with it suspicions that some of the tech world's mainstays were cooperating with the government—leading to more skepticism about how open they are about what they do. For their part, Google and Yahoo both flatly denied granting access to the NSA when allegations first surfaced last year.

Too much information?

Against this backdrop, companies are being pressed to disclose as much information as possible to investors and clients. Last month, joint researchers at Iowa State University and The Institute for Financial Research authored a paper that cast doubt on whether companies should be as transparent as some advocate.

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Opening up the books to too much scrutiny carries "real consequences," said James Brown and Gustav Martinsson, the paper's authors. They argued "the benefits of increased transparency may be offset by higher proprietary costs from information leakage to competitors."

Brown and Martinsson acknowledged transparency affects financial market outcomes. However, by looking at a wide range of metrics such as investment, earnings, and research and development (R&D) costs, the authors found that more openness "may [also] be detrimental to innovative activity, given the costs associated with information leakage to competitors."

Meanwhile, recent events suggest too much transparency about a company's finances can be costly in more ways than one. Over the last year, U.S., Canadian and European officials have all moved to shut loopholes that lead to tax evasion, or other activities such as "inversions," which may result in lost revenue.