Friday, October 30, 2020
The courts have interpreted Section 10b of the Securities and Exchange Act as prohibiting insiders from trading in their own company’s shares only if they do so “on the basis of” material nonpublic information. This element of scienter for insider trading liability is sometimes tricky for regulators and prosecutors to satisfy because insiders who possess material nonpublic information at the time of their trade will often claim they did not use that information. The insider may claim that her true motives for trading were entirely innocent (e.g., to diversify her portfolio, to pay a large tax bill, or to buy a new house or boat). Such lawful bases for trading can be easy for insiders to manufacture and are often difficult for regulators and prosecutors to disprove.
Historically, the SEC and prosecutors sought to overcome this challenge by taking the position that knowing possession of material nonpublic information while trading is sufficient to satisfy the "on the basis of" test. This strategy met mixed results before the courts, with some circuits holding that proof of scienter under Section 10b requires proof that the trader actually used the inside information in making the trade.
Facing a circuit split, the SEC attempted to settle the “use-versus-possession” debate by adopting Rule 10b5-1, which defines trading “on the basis of” material nonpublic information for purposes of insider trading liability as trading while “aware” of such information. A number of commentators, however, question the statutory authority for Rule 10b5-1, and some courts have simply “ignored” it. See Donald C. Langevoort, “Fine Distinctions” in the Contemporary Law of Insider Trading, 2013 Columbia Bus. L. Rev. 429, 439 (2013).
Professor Andrew Verstein’s forthcoming article, Mixed Motives Insider Trading, (Volume 106 of the Iowa Law Review) charts a “third way” to resolve the ongoing use-versus-possession controversy. Professor Verstein would impose liability for mixed-motives insider trading only where material nonpublic information provides the “primary motive” for the trading. While I have argued elsewhere that a strict “use” test best complies with Section 10b’s scienter requirement, Professor Verstein’s primary-motive test offers a significant improvement over the strict awareness test reflected in both SEC Rule 10b5-1 and the Insider Trading Prohibition Act recently passed by the House of Representatives. For these reasons, Professor Verstein’s proposal warrants serious consideration as regulators and legislators consider paths to reform.
The SSRN abstract to Professor Verstein’s article follows:
If you trade securities on the basis of careful research, then you are a brilliant and shrewd investor. If you trade on the basis of a hot tip from your brother-in-law, an investment banker, then you are a criminal. What if you trade for both reasons?
There is no single answer, thanks to a three-way circuit split. Some courts would forgive you according to your lawful trading motives, some would convict you in keeping with your bad motives, and some would hand the issue to the jury. Sometimes called the “awareness/use” debate or the “possession/use” debate, the proper treatment of mixed motive traders has occupied dozens of law review articles over the last thirty years.
This Article demonstrates that courts and scholars have so far followed the wrong reasons to the wrong answers. Instead, this Article takes trader motives seriously, drawing on insights and solutions from the broader jurisprudence of mixed motive. This analysis generates a new legal test and demonstrates the test’s superiority.