Friday, October 1, 2021
Douglas on "Creepy" Concepts and Insider Trading Reform
Insider trading reform has been a consistent theme in my last few posts (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). In keeping with this theme, I’d like to highlight a new article, How Creepy Concepts Undermine Effective Insider Trading Reform, which was posted just yesterday by Professor Kevin R. Douglas (Michigan State College of Law). Professor Douglas is an important new voice in the areas of securities regulation, corporate finance, and business law more generally. Here’s the abstract:
Lawmakers are building momentum towards codifying our insider trading laws to clarify which kind of trading is illegal. In May 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the Insider Trading Prohibition Act for the second time in two years. In January 2020, a Securities and Exchange Commission sponsored task force on insider trading released a report containing proposed legislation. Both the House Bill and the task force proposal would prohibit trading while in possession of “wrongfully obtained” information and prohibit trades that involve a “wrongful use” of information. This article explains why the concept of “wrongful” trading is too ambiguous to improve insider trading law and explores the requirements of effective legislative reform.
For decades, scholars have described insider trading doctrine as mystifying and called for reform. Many explain the confusion by pointing to the stark difference in how enforcement officials and federal courts apply insider trading law. Others argue that the confusion is caused by policymakers failing to choose between fostering efficient markets and fostering fair or equitable markets. This article argues that the conflict between courts and enforcement officials is a symptom of two deeper conceptual problems—one at the doctrinal level and one at the policy level. The doctrinal confusion is more precisely caused by the attempt to simultaneously invoke two conflicting concepts of “fairness.” Fairness meaning consensual transactions, versus fairness meaning transactions in which all parties enjoy equal access to all material information and other economic values. Attempting to simultaneously apply these mutually exclusive notions of fairness has caused a slow and inconsistent conceptual creep, resulting in an incoherent doctrine.
The policy confusion is caused by officials relying on economic models that use misidentified theories of “economic efficiency.” Officials describe the policy goal of our insider trading regime as encouraging capital formation in US securities markets and economic growth in general. These goals imply an exclusive commitment to promoting “allocational efficiency”—or maximizing wealth. However, scholars usually rely on the concept of “market efficiency” when evaluating the law and practice of insider trading. The definition of market efficiency relies on assumptions that embody an unacknowledged focus on economic distribution—equalizing wealth. This includes the assumptions that all investors (1) trade at the same price (the correct price) and (2) have equal access to all available information. Conflating these forms of efficiency causes officials to unintentionally oscillate between promoting opaque distribution goals and promoting economic growth.
This article recommends clarifying insider trading law by prioritizing one of the two conflicting fairness doctrines and a compatible policy goal. Clarity requires specifying whether consent is a defense against insider trading liability. Enforcing only one fairness doctrine gives everyone the option of attempting to privately adhere to both principles while successfully applying one of the principles through law.