A great deal has been written about the recent reversal of two insider trading convictions. Specifically, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the convictions of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson, hedge fund traders found guilty at the District Court level.
The press reports have treated the reversal as a major slap in the face for Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Bharara has made a big name for himself on the backs of numerous alleged – and quite a few convicted – insider traders, including Raj Rajaratnam. While I’m sure Mr. Bharara isn’t happy about the reversal, he should take solace from the convoluted – no, byzantine – legal route by which insider trading convictions are achieved.
I suspect that most readers will not remember the SEC’s pursuit of Ray Dirks and a few others charged with insider trading many years ago. Dirks, a securities analyst, uncovered a massive fraud perpetrated by a company named Equity Funding. He alerted the SEC and some media about the matter, but neither did anything. When he couldn’t gain any traction, Dirks advised his clients to sell the company’s stock. For reasons that remain murky (including rumors of bad blood between the SEC and Dirks), the SEC decided to pursue insider trading charges against Dirks and a few other people who arguably should never have been prosecuted.
The courts have a way of dealing with cases that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place, and in this and some other prosecutions the outcome was the “misappropriation” theory of insider trading. Simplistically stated, insider trading is not insider trading unless the tipper owed some duty to the company whose information was misappropriated (though not necessarily the company about which information was leaked) and derived a personal benefit from leaking the information. Subsequent cases have generated many more wrinkles in what the theory really means. As for Messrs. Newman and Chiasson, their convictions were reversed because even though their tipper derived a personal benefit from giving the tip, they didn’t know that he was deriving that benefit.
So if you think that the point of insider trading prosecutions is to maintain a level playing field, think again. It’s not about what you know, or who you know; apparently, it’s about what you know about who you know. There ought to be a law, but this isn’t it.
I’d like to know what you think.