Wednesday, September 21, 2016
The enticing facts of insider trading have me writing about the topic again (see an earlier post here) as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear oral argument in Salman v. US on October 5th. In Salman, the Supreme Court is asked to draw some careful lines in the questions: what benefit counts and how to prove such a benefit under Dirks v. SEC.
Recall that in Dirks, the Supreme Court focused the test on whether an insider benefitted—either by trading or by tipping in exchange for a benefit from the person to whom she tipped material nonpublic information. After Dirks, the 10b inquiry is whether the insider breached a duty by conveying the information for the insider’s personal benefit, and whether the tippee knows or at least should know of the breach. The Court explained that even in a case against a tippee who trades "Absent some personal gain [by the insider], there has been no breach of duty to stockholders. And absent a breach by the insider, there is no derivative breach [by the tippee]."
The Salman case highlights a circuit split: the Second Circuit case United States v. Newman and the Ninth Circuit's ruling in Salman. In Salman, the question is whether prosecutors had to prove that the brother-in-law, Maher Kara, disclosed nonpublic securities information in exchange for a personal benefit. Is it enough that the insider and the tippee shared a close family relationship or must there be direct evidence as required in Newman?
The Ninth Circuit framed the benefit requirement inquiry, established in Dirks, as a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or a friend. The prosecution offered direct evidence of nonpublic information as a gift. The Ninth Circuit, and the Government, relied upon this passage in Dirks:
There may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient. The elements of fiduciary duty and exploitation of nonpublic information also exist when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend. The tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.
The Second Circuit read the Dirks benefit test more narrowly, saying it required “proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”
So what is the right answer? The Government lamented the Newman decision as "dramatically limit[ing] the Government’s ability to prosecute some of the most common, culpable, and market-threatening forms of insider trading.” Whereas others (see here) have criticized the Government's position in Newman and the subsequent basis of the Salman ruling as reviving the “parity of information” standard rejected by Supreme Court in both Chiarella and Dirks. Focusing on friendship and defining it broadly weakens the benefit test advanced in Dirks.
As someone who teaches insider trading and has followed the fascinating case facts for years, I am looking forward to oral argument and see the next step in the evolution of insider trading. Co-blogger Ann Lipton tee'd up the Salman case in her post earlier this week with her usual whit and charm.