14779792521_b054cf2506_zIn the few days since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Salman v. United States, many commentators have said, in effect, that criminal prosecutions for insider trading are alive and well.  Alive, yes; well, maybe not.

At the risk of quoting myself, almost exactly two years ago I posted an item on this blog entitled “There ought to be a law”.  My belief at the time was that insider trading law is so byzantine that it’s impossible to know where legally permissible behavior becomes legally impermissible behavior.  For better or worse (worse, IMHO), nothing has changed all that much.  In the Salman decision, SCOTUS says that a prosecutor need not prove that a tipper received something of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” to convict the tipper of illegal insider trading.  So far, so good.  However, as many commentators have pointed out, Salman leaves any number of other issues wide open.

Continue Reading Insider trading: there still ought to be a law

Last December, I wrote an UpTick (“There ought to be a law”) about a decision in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that appears to be wreaking havoc with insider trading prosecutions past and present. The Second Circuit has now rejected a Justice Department request to reconsider the decision, and so we now face a period of uncertainty regarding whether and to what extent insider trading can be prosecuted.

Since the terms “inside information” and “insider trading” have never been defined, one suggestion is that Congress should enact legislation that would define one or both terms. That’s a good idea in principle, but the proposals that have been bandied about thus far provide little confidence that legislation would clarify the situation. For example, one bill would prohibit trading on information that “is not publicly available” but not “information that the person has independently developed from publicly available sources”. I’m not sure this helps; after all, Ray Dirks (the subject of an SEC vendetta that, in my opinion, led to the current confusion on what is and is not insider trading) independently developed the information in question, but the SEC prosecuted him anyway.

Another bill would (1) define inside information as nonpublic information obtained illegally from the issuer “with an expectation of confidentiality” or “in violation of a fiduciary duty” and (2) remove the requirement that a tipper receive a personal benefit for leaking the information. I like the second part, but I’m not sure that the first part works; for example, if I hear the information from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from the issuer, does that remove the taint?

There are also suggestions that Congress may consider a broader approach – i.e., making it illegal to trade when in possession of confidential information regardless of how it’s obtained. This reminds me of a hypothetical posed years ago by Stanley Sporkin, then the very feisty Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division: you’re flying in a plane and look out of your window to see XYZ Corporation’s biggest plant going up in flames. As interpreted by Mr. Sporkin, if you got off the plane and called your broker with a sell order, you would be engaging in illegal insider trading. Of course, these days you could place the order online well before the plane lands. Is that really how we’d like it to turn out?

It seems to me that before Congress even thinks about acting (not that Congress can act on very much if anything these days), we need to think about what goal we’re trying to achieve. If the objective is to create a level playing field for all investors, that’s one thing, and would probably require a much broader approach. If the goal is less ambitious — i.e., to curtail trading based on knowing leaks and thefts of inside information — that’s another. In any case, wishing for legislation on this topic reminds me of the old saw about being careful what you wish for.

Your thoughts?

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.

Imagine the following scenario. Your company is publicly traded. As such, senior management is keenly aware of the potential for executives and employees trading in the company’s securities on the basis of material nonpublic information in violation of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and the infamous Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder. To prevent improper trading, the company has instituted an insider trading policy which, among other things, requires certain high-level executives to pre-clear trades internally, prohibits directors and officers from trading during “blackout periods” (i.e., the period immediately prior to fiscal quarter and year ends), and requires periodic training for all employees on the scope of insider trading laws. As model corporate citizens, all of the company’s directors, officers, and employees follow the company’s policies precisely. No one would dare to take the risk of attempting to gain illicit profits by trading the company’s stock while in possession of material nonpublic information.

One day, just before the end of a quarter (and therefore during a blackout period), analysts covering your company reduce their estimates for the company’s quarterly results which in turn, causes the company’s share price to decline. The company’s officers know that the analysts’ revised estimates are accurate and that the company will report sub-par earnings results the following week but none of those officers initiated any trades to improperly take advantage of this material nonpublic information. However, as a result of the decline in share price alone, one of the company’s executive officers unknowingly violated Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 and both he and the company are now potentially on the hook for insider trading liability. 

How can this be if none of the officers executed any trades you ask? The problem arises from the fact that company policy does not prohibit margining company securities. When the share price declined, the value of the securities in the executive’s margin account dropped sufficiently to trigger a margin call requiring the executive to deposit additional collateral to make up the shortfall or risk having the broker sell a portion of the pledged securities (this is similar to what happened to the founder and chairman of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. earlier this year). Regardless of which route is taken, the executive is in a problematic situation. 

If the executive does nothing and allows the broker to sell company stock, he’d be violating company policy by trading during the blackout Continue Reading Margin calls: The insider trading trap