Friday, March 18, 2022
For some time now, the insider trading enforcement regime in the United States has been criticized by market participants, scholars, and jurists alike as lacking clarity, theoretical integrity, and a coherent rationale. One problem is that Congress has never enacted a statute that specifically defines “insider trading.” Instead, the current regime has been cobbled together on an ad hoc basis through the common law and administrative proceedings. As the recent Report of the Bharara Task Force on Insider Trading puts it, the absence of an insider trading statute “has left market participants without sufficient guidance on how to comport themselves, prosecutors and regulators with undue challenges in holding wrongful actors accountable, those accused of misconduct with burdens in defending themselves, and the public with reason to question the fairness and integrity of our securities markets.”
Congress appears to be responding, and a number of bills that would define insider trading and otherwise reform the enforcement regime are receiving bipartisan support. But it would be a mistake to pass new legislation without first taking the time to get clear on the economic and ethical reasons for regulating insider trading. This is particularly true in light of the fact that the general public is clearly ambivalent about whether and why insider trading should be regulated.
Mike Guttentag's new article, Avoiding Wasteful Competition: Why Trading on Inside Information Should Be Illegal, offers an important new (or at least heretofore underappreciated) lens through which the potential costs of insider trading may be identified. For Guttentag, inside information is generally created as a mere byproduct of otherwise productive economic activity. But though it takes no additional effort to create, it has significant economic value for those who can trade on it. The rush to capture this surplus results in “wasteful competition because competition for surplus (or rent-seeking in the terminology economists prefer) is both hard to prevent and inherently wasteful.” Absent comprehensive regulation of insider trading, vast resources would be wasted in efforts by market participants to capture what Guttentag estimates may amount to tens of billions of dollars in potential insider trading profits each year.
Since the problem of wasteful competition arises whenever trading with material nonpublic information is permitted, Guttentag recommends “(1) that federal insider trading legislation should be enacted that prohibits all trading on inside information regardless of whether the information is wrongfully acquired, (2) courts should not require proof that a tipper received a personal benefit to find tippers and tippees culpable, and (3) the mere possession of inside information should be sufficient to trigger a trading prohibition.”
Guttentag’s arguments are original and compelling, but I am not convinced they justify the reforms he proposes. Here are some of my reasons:
- First, Guttentag’s wasteful competition argument turns on the claim that all inside information is a mere byproduct of otherwise productive activity. But this seems to beg the question against Henry Manne and others who have argued that insider trading as compensation can be an effective incentive for entrepreneurship and innovation at firms. And this incentive can come at a savings to shareholders by reducing the need for other forms of compensation. If the production of inside information is part of the motivation behind innovation, it is not a surplus. Guttentag does address some (though not all) of Manne’s arguments concerning insider trading as compensation, but I would like to see a more complete treatment.
- Second, even if we are convinced that insider trading drives wasteful rent-seeking, I’m not sure Guttentag has shown that the broad enforcement regime he recommends is the appropriate response. Under the comparative institutional approach to market failure, the proponent of regulation needs to show the regulation would improve matters. Rent-seekers come in all shapes and sizes, and government agencies such as the SEC are by no means immune to the temptation to engage in rent-seeking and rent-selling. Expanded authority would no doubt increase the opportunities and incentives for such wasteful action on the part of the regulators. Guttentag fails to address this concern.
- Third, Guttentag fails to acknowledge the internal compliance costs his proposed expansion of liability will impose on issuers. I address the significant costs of insider trading compliance in my article, Solving the Paradox of Insider Trading Compliance. I suspect these already significant costs (and incentives to rent-seek from regulators) would only increase under Guttentag’s proposed regime. This concern should be considered as part of a comparative institutional analysis.
- Fourth, Guttentag’s proposed reform would impose liability for trading while in possession of inside information even if that information played no part in the trading. But trading for reasons unrelated to inside information does not evidence wasteful competition for that information. Guttentag’s rationale cannot therefore justify this rule. He suggests that this mere possession rule can be justified as a prophylactic measure—simplifying enforcement of insider trading that does derive from wasteful competition. Guttentag fails, however, to consider the significant costs (e.g., in terms of [a] liquidity for those who are compensated with equity and [b] the preclusion of otherwise innocent, value-enhancing trades) the broad restriction would impose on the insiders, the issuers, and the market more broadly.
- Finally, Guttentag considers it a virtue of his wasteful competition model that it does not rely on any controversial claims regarding the ethics of insider trading to justify its regulation. His model imposes liability on those who trade while possessing inside information because it is wasteful—not because it is wrongful. But insider trading liability in the United States has historically carried stiff criminal penalties. Guttentag is comfortable with the idea that these penalties be imposed under his proposed regime as well. This makes me wonder what other criminal sanctions for morally innocent but wasteful behavior this logic might justify. Guttentag seems to anticipate this concern and hedges a bit by suggesting that wasteful behavior may not be morally innocent after all. He notes that, for example, those who engage in wasteful behavior like cutting in line typically elicit “strong feelings of moral disapproval.” First, this may be true, but what about those who ask permission to cut (for some good reason)—and receive that permission? Such persons’ behavior would be just as wasteful, but would probably not receive the same moral disapproval. Second, to the extent Guttentag considers detaching his model from the debate over the morality of insider trading, this line-cutting example pulls him right back in.
Despite these concerns, I am convinced that Guttentag’s new article advances the discussion about why insider trading is (or can be) harmful to markets and society. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to be educated on the subject. Here’s the abstract to Mike’s article:
This article offers a new and compelling reason to make all trading based on inside information illegal.
The value realized by trading on inside information is unusual in two respects. First, inside information is produced at little or no incremental cost and is nevertheless quite valuable. Second, profits made from trading on inside information come largely at the expense of others. When the value of something exceeds the cost to produce it, a wasteful race to be the first to capture the resulting surplus is likely to ensue. Similarly, resources expended solely to take something of value from others are wasted from an overall social welfare perspective. Thus, both at its source and in its use inside information invites wasteful competition. A law prohibiting insider trading is the best way to avoid this wasteful competition.
Previous scholarship misses this obvious conclusion because of its reliance on one of three assumptions. First, wasteful competition is assumed to be a problem that markets can rectify. Second, private ordering solutions are assumed to be available even when market mechanisms fail to address this problem. Third, a wasteful race to acquire and use inside information is viewed as otherwise unavoidable. None of these assumptions is correct.
The findings here have immediate policy implications. First, insider trading legislation should be enacted that bans all insider trading and not just trading based on wrongfully acquired information. Second, there is no reason to require proof that a tipper received a personal benefit to prosecute someone for tipping inside information. Third, the possession and not the use of inside information should be enough to trigger a trading prohibition.