Friday, June 24, 2022
Rethinking Insider Trading Compliance Policies in Light of the SEC's New "Shadow Trading" Theory of Insider Trading Liability
In August 2021, the SEC announced that it had charged Matthew Panuwat with insider trading in violation of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Panuwat was the head of business development at Medivation, a mid-sized biopharmaceutical company when he learned that his company was set to be acquired by Pfizer at a significant premium.
If Panuwat had purchased Medivation stock in advance of the announcement of the acquisition, it is likely he would have been liable for insider trading under the classical theory. Liability for insider trading under the classical theory arises when a firm issuing stock, its employees, or its other agents strive to benefit from trading (or tipping others who then trade) that firm’s stock based on material nonpublic information. Here the insider (or constructive insider) violates a fiduciary duty to the counterparty to the transaction (the firm’s current or prospective shareholders) by not disclosing the information advantage drawn from the firm’s material nonpublic information in advance of the trade.
If Panuwat had purchased shares of Pfizer in advance of the announcement, then it is likely he would have been liable under the misappropriation theory. Liability for insider trading under the misappropriation theory arises when one misappropriates material nonpublic information and trades (or tips another who trades) on it without first disclosing the intent to trade to the information’s source. As the Supreme Court held in United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 652 (1997), the “misappropriation theory premises liability on a fiduciary-turned-trader’s deception of those who entrusted him with access to confidential information” by duping them out of “the exclusive use of that information.”
But Panuwat did not trade in either Medivation or Pfizer. Instead, he purchased stock options in Incyte, another pharmaceutical company that was similar in size and market focus to Medivation. According to the SEC’s litigation release, “Panuwat knew that investment bankers had cited Incyte as a comparable company in discussions with Medivation and he anticipated that the acquisition of Medivation would likely lead to an increase in Incyte’s stock price.” Panuwat’s gamble paid off. Incyte’s stock price increased 8% when Pfizer’s acquisition of Medivation was announced. Panuwat earned $107,066 from his trade.
Panuwat moved to dismiss the SEC’s insider trading charges, arguing that his trading in the shares of an unrelated third-party issuer did not violate any recognized theory of insider trading liability. While the district court acknowledged this was a case of first impression, it denied Panuwat’s motion and permitted the SEC to proceed with its first enforcement action under the "shadow trading" theory of insider trading liability.
The principal basis for the court’s decision seems to be that Panuwat’s trading arguably violated the misappropriation theory by breaching the broad terms of Medivation’s insider trading policy, which includes the following language:
During the course of your employment…with the Company, you may receive important information that is not yet publicly disseminated…about the Company. … Because of your access to this information, you may be in a position to profit financially by buying or selling or in some other way dealing in the Company’s securities…or the securities of another publicly traded company, including all significant collaborators, customers, partners, suppliers, or competitors of the Company. … For anyone to use such information to gain personal benefit is illegal.
To me, the most interesting question raised by the Panuwat case, and the problem of shadow trading more generally, is why would Medivation (or any company) adopt such a broadly worded insider trading policy? How did this broad proscription on employee trading benefit Medivation’s shareholders?
Medivation’s shareholders could not have been harmed by Panuawat’s trading. Such trading could not affect Medivation’s stock price, nor could it put the acquisition in jeopardy. So why is the blanket proscription against trading in “another publicly traded company” in the policy at all? The final sentence of the policy as quoted above suggests that the drafters were under the impression that such trading would be illegal under the securities laws. This may be true under the misappropriation theory, but only because Medivation chose to make it so by including the language in the policy. What if Medivation’s policy had instead provided something like the following language:
Because of your access to this information, you may be in a position to profit financially by trading in the Company’s securities, or the securities of its customers and suppliers. Such trading is strictly prohibited. Nothing in this policy should, however, be read as prohibiting your trading or dealing in any other issuers’ securities unless expressly restricted by the Company.
Under this policy, the SEC would have had no basis for the charge that Panuwat’s trading violated the misappropriation theory. In other words, it is entirely up to issuers whether they want to expose themselves and their employees to “shadow trading” liability. But if such exposure to liability does not benefit an issuer’s own shareholders, it can only hurt them (by needlessly exposing the company’s employees and the company itself to direct or derivative insider trading liability). So what business justification is there for issuers to include the broader language in their insider trading compliance policies? I hope readers will offer their thoughts in the comments below.