Friday, September 3, 2021
I suggested in my last two posts (here and here) that as Congress and the SEC contemplate reforms to our current insider trading regime, it is important for us all to explore our intuitions about what we think insider trading is, why it is wrong, who is harmed by it, and the nature and extent of the harm. If we are going to rethink how we impose criminal and civil penalties for insider trading, we should have some confidence that the proscribed conduct is wrongful and why. One way to do this is to place ourselves in the shoes of traders and ask, “What would I do?” or “What do I think about that?” With this in mind, I developed some scenarios designed to test our attitudes regarding trading scenarios that distinguish the four historical insider trading regimes (laissez faire, fiduciary-fraud, equal access, and parity of information).
In the previous post, I offered a scenario that would result in liability under equal-access and parity-of-information regimes, but not under the fiduciary-fraud and laissez-faire models. Those of you who were not convinced that the trading in that scenario was wrongful may favor one of the less restrictive models.
In today’s post, I offer two scenarios to test our attitudes regarding trading under the fiduciary-fraud model. This model recognizes a duty to disclose material nonpublic information or abstain from trading on it, but only for those who share a recognized fiduciary or similar duty of trust and confidence to either the counterparty to the trade (under the “classical” theory) or the source of the information (under the “misappropriation” theory). The trading in the following scenario would incur liability under the classical theory of the fiduciary-fraud model (as well as under the more restrictive parity-of-information and equal-access models), but not under the misappropriation theory:
A senior VP at BIG Corp., a publicly traded company, took the lead in closing a big deal to merge BIG Corp. with XYZ Corp. The shares of BIG Corp will skyrocket when the deal is announced in seven days. The senior VP asks the CEO and board of Big Corp if he can purchase shares of BIG Corp for his personal account in advance of the announcement. The CEO and board approve the senior VPs trading. The senior VP buys Big Corp. shares in advance of the announcement and he makes huge profits when the deal is announced.
Note the difference between this scenario and the scenario in last week’s post. Here the counterparties to the trade are existing Big Corp shareholders who (if they had the same information as the senior VP) presumably would not have proceeded with the trade at the pre-announcement price. The theory assumes that such trading on the firm’s information (even with board approval) breaches a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the firm’s shareholders (fair assumption?). In last week’s post, the counterparties to the trade were XYZ Corp.’s shareholders, so the board-approved trade did not breach any fiduciary duty. Do you agree that the senior VP’s trading in the scenario above is deceptive, disloyal, or harmful to shareholders? If so, do you think such trading should be subject to civil or criminal sanction (or both)?
The trading in the next scenario would incur liability under the misappropriation theory of the fiduciary-fraud model (as well as under the more restrictive parity-of-information and equal access models), but not under the classical theory:
A senior VP at BIG Corp., a publicly traded company, took the lead in closing a big deal to merge BIG Corp and XYZ Corp. The shares of BIG Corp and XYZ Corp will both skyrocket when the deal is announced in seven days. At the closing party, the CEO and Board of BIG Corp explain to everyone on the deal team that they would like to keep the deal confidential until it is announced to the public the following week. Immediately after the party, the senior VP goes back to his office and buys shares of XYZ Corp for his personal online brokerage account. The senior VP makes huge profits from his purchase of XYZ Corp shares when the deal is announced a week later.
Here the senior VP at BIG Corp. trades in XYZ Corp. shares, so he does not breach any fiduciary duty to his shareholders. Assuming a reasonable person would conclude that a request of confidentiality includes a request not to trade (fair assumption?), the VP’s trading does, however, breach a duty of loyalty to BIG Corp. Is this trading wrongful? If so, is it more/less/equally wrongful by comparison to the trading in the classical scenario above? Finally, if you do think this trading is wrongful, should it be subject to civil or criminal sanction?
Again, the hope is that walking through these scenarios will help bring some clarity to our shared understanding of when trading on material nonpublic information is wrong and harmful—and (given our answers to these questions) the nature and extent to which it should be regulated.