Friday, October 15, 2021

Meme Stocks, Hypermateriality, and Insider Trading

Can "hypermaterial" public information about a stock render the company's (once material) nonpublic internal data immaterial? Consider the following scenario involving social-media-driven trading in a meme stock:

XYZ Corporation’s stock price had been falling over the last month (from a high of $12 down to $10), due to a short-sale attack by a small group of hedge funds. In the past week, a group of individuals in a social media chatroom have attempted a now well-publicized short squeeze, motivated by a desire to punish what they view as predatory behavior by the hedge funds. As a result, the stock price has been driven up to $300, significantly above where the stock was trading before the short-sale attack. The company's nonpublic data (earnings, etc.) that will be reported next week reflects the "true" price of the company's shares should be $8. With knowledge of the above public and nonpblic information, XYZ and some of its insiders issue/sell XYZ shares.

Has XYZ and its insiders committed insider trading in violation of the antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act?

Insider trading liability arises under the classical theory when the issuer, its employee, or an affiliate seeks to benefit from trading (or tipping others who trade) that firm’s shares based on material nonpublic information. In such cases, the insider (or constructive insider) violates a fiduciary or other similar duty of trust and confidence by failing to disclose the information to the firm’s shareholder (or prospective shareholder) on the other side of the trade.

In Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 231-2 (1988), the Supreme Court has held that information is “material” for purposes of insider trading liability if “there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would consider it important” in making an investment decision, and there is a “substantial likelihood that the disclosure of the omitted fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information made available.”

Prior to the onset of the social-media-driven trading, I think it's pretty clear that the insiders' nonpublic information that the company's stock (currently trading at $10) is actually worth $8 is material. In other words, there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would consider important information that a stock trading at $10 is actually worth $8. But is that same information still material after the social-media-driven trading has pushed the stock's price to $300? 

In our forthcoming article, Expressive Trading, Hypermateriality, and Insider Trading, my coauthors Jeremy Kidd, George A. Mocsary, and I argue that once material nonpublic internal data can be drowned out (and be rendered immaterial) by subsequent hypermaterial public information like a dramatic price movement resulting from a well-publicized social-media-driven run on a stock.

If the issuer's and insiders' nonpublic information about the firm is immaterial, then they may trade while in possession of it without violating the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. We welcome your comments! Here's the abstract:

The phenomenon of social-media-driven trading (SMD trading) entered the public consciousness earlier this year when GameStop’s stock price was driven up two orders of magnitude by a “hivemind” of individual investors coordinating their actions via social media. Some believe that GameStop’s price is artificially high and is destined to fall. Yet the stock prices of GameStop and other prominent SMD trading targets like AMC Entertainment continue to remain well above historical levels.

Much recent SMD trading is driven by profit motives. But a meaningful part of the rise has been a result of expressive trading—a subset of SMD trading—in which investors buy or sell for non-profit-seeking reasons like social or political activism, or for aesthetic reasons like a nostalgia play. To date, expressive trading has only benefited issuers by raising their stock prices. There is nothing, however, to prevent these traders from employing similar methods for driving a target’s stock price down (e.g., to influence or extort certain behaviors from issuers).

At least for now, stock prices raised by SMD trading have been sticky and appear at least moderately sustainable. The expressive aspect, which unites the traders under a common banner, is likely a reason that dramatic price increases resulting from profit-seeking SMD trading have persisted. Without a nonfinancial motivation to hold the group together, its members would be expected to defect and take profits.

Given that SMD trading appears to be more than a passing fad, issuers and their compliance departments ought to be prepared to respond when targeted by SMD trading. A question that might arise is whether and when SMD-trading-targeted issuers, and their insiders, may trade in their firms’ shares without running afoul of insider trading laws.

This Article proceeds as follows: Part I summarizes the current state of insider trading law, with special focus on the elements of materiality and publicity. Part II opens with a brief summary of the filing, disclosure, and other (non-insider-trading-related) requirements issuers and their insiders may face when trading in their own company’s shares under any circumstance. The remainder of this Part analyzes the insider trading-related legal implications of three different scenarios in which issuers and their insiders trade in their own company’s shares in response to SMD trading. The analysis reveals that although the issuer’s and insiders’ nonpublic internal information may be material (and therefore preclude their legal trading) prior to and just after the onset of third-party SMD trading in the company’s stock, subsequent SMD price changes (if sufficiently dramatic) may diminish the importance of the company’s nonpublic information, rendering it immaterial. If the issuer’s and insiders’ nonpublic information about the firm is immaterial, then they may trade while in possession of it without violating the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws.

John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink


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