Friday, September 17, 2021
The SEC Can't Have Its Cake and Eat It Too: Some Concerns for Proposed Trading Plan Reforms
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Chairman, Gary Gensler, recently directed the staff to present recommendations to "freshen up" and tighten some provisions in Exchange Act Rule 10b5-1. In response, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee proposed new restrictions on the use of 10b5-1(c) trading plans as an affirmative defense against insider trading liability. The proposed changes are designed to address concerns that "some plans are used to engage in opportunistic trading behavior that contravenes the intent behind the rule," and they are consistent with recommendations outlined in the Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act that passed the House of Representatives in April 2021.
But any proposed restrictions to trading plans must be considered in light of the broader context of Rule 10b5-1, and the motivation behind the affirmative defense’s adoption.
The courts have interpreted Section 10b of the 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 intent for insider trading liability can be difficult for regulators and prosecutors to satisfy because insiders who possess material nonpublic information at the time of their trade can often claim that they did not use the information to trade. They may claim, for example, that they only sold stock to pay their child’s college tuition bill, and the material nonpublic information had nothing to do with the trade.
Prior to 2000, the SEC and prosecutors sought to defeat this defense strategy by taking the position that knowing possession of material nonpublic information while trading satisfies the “on the basis of” element of insider trading liability. But when pressed, this strategy met with only mixed results in the courts. In an attempt to settle a circuit split over this “use-versus-possession” issue, the SEC adopted 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.
The SEC anticipated two problems for its new awareness test: (1) It anticipated concern from the courts that imposing liability on a person who is merely aware of material nonpublic information while trading (without a causal relation between the information and the trade) would exceed the commission’s statutory authority by failing to satisfy the requirement of scienter under the general antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act. (2) There was also a concern that the broad awareness test may chill legitimate trading by insiders (e.g., for portfolio diversification), which would negatively impact the value of firm shares as a form of compensation. The 10b5-1 trading plan as an affirmative defense to insider trading liability was designed to mitigate these concerns.
Now, the SEC is considering significant new restrictions on the use of trading plans that include (a) a “cooling off” period of at least four months between plan adoption and trading or modification; (b) a prohibition on overlapping plans; and (c) new disclosure requirements.
In two recent articles, Anticipating a Sea Change for Insider Trading Law: From Trading Plan Crisis to Rational Reform and Undoing a Deal with the Devil: Some Challenges for Congress's Proposed Reform of Insider Trading Plans, I argue that additional restrictions on trading plan use like those being proposed by the SEC risk defeating the very purposes for which the affirmative defense was adopted. For example, new restrictions on 10b5-1(c) trading plans may force courts to conclude that the SEC exceeded its authority with the adoption of its broad 10b5-1(b) awareness test. Moreover, since new restrictions on trading plans will make it more difficult for employees to sell shares issued to them as equity compensation, those shares will be less valuable to employees. Firms will therefore have to offer more shares to employees to achieve the same remunerative effect. This will impose new costs on shareholders. Will the anticipated benefits of the new restrictions offset these costs?
My hope is that the SEC will take these considerations (and others I have raised) into account as it mulls the question of 10b5-1(c) trading plan reform. After all, the Commission cannot have its cake and eat it too!