Friday, November 25, 2022
Zhaoyi Li, Visiting Assistant Profoessor of Law at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh School of Law, has published a new article, Judicial Review of DIrectors' Duty of Care: A Comparison Between U.S. & China. Here's the abstract:
Articles 147 and 148 of the Company Law of the People’s Republic of China (“Chinese Company Law”) establish that directors owe a duty of care to their companies. However, both of these provisions fail to explain the role of judicial review in enforcing directors’ duty of care. The duty of care is a well-trodden territory in the United States, where directors’ liability is predicated on specific standards. The current American standard, adopted by many states, requires directors to “discharge their duties with the care that a person in a like position would reasonably believe appropriate under similar circumstances.” However, both the business judgment rule and Delaware General Corporate Law (“DGCL”) Section 102(b)(7) shield directors from responsibility for their actions, which may weaken the impact of the duty of care requirement on directors’ behavior.
To better allocate the responsibility for directors’ violations of the duty of care and promote the corporations’ development, it is essential that Chinese company law establish a unified standard of review governing the duty of care owed by directors to companies. The majority of Chinese legal scholars agreed that a combination of subjective and objective standards would function best. Questions remain regarding how to combine such standards and implement them. In order to promote the development of China’s duty of care, these controversial issues need to be solved. This article argues that China’s Company Law should hold a first-time violator of the duty of care liable only in cases of gross negligence but hold directors liable in the cases of ordinary negligence if they have violated the duty of care in the past.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Professor Caleb Griffin (University of Arkansas School of Law) offered testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in June of 2022 on problems associated with the fact that the “Big Three” index fund managers (Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street) cast almost a quarter of the votes at S&P 500 companies. As a result, enormous power is concentrated in the hands of just a few index fund managers, whose interests and values may not align with those whose shares they are voting. Professor Griffin proposed two solutions to this problem: (1) “categorical” pass-through voting, and (2) vote outsourcing. Professor Griffin’s remarks were recently posted here, and here’s the abstract:
In recent years, index funds have assumed a new and unprecedented role as the most influential players in corporate governance. In particular, the “Big Three” index fund managers—Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street—occupy a pivotal role. The Big Three currently cast nearly a quarter of the votes at S&P 500 companies, and that figure is expected to grow to 34% by 2028 and over 40% in the following decade.
The best solution to the current problem—where we have virtually powerless index investors and enormous, concentrated power in the hands of index fund management—is to transfer some of that power to individual investors.
There are two primary ways to do so. The first is to allow individual investors to set their own voting instructions with “categorical” pass-through voting, where investors are able to give semi-specific instructions on common categories of topics. The second approach is vote outsourcing, where investors could instruct management to vote their shares in alignment with a third party representative.
Pass-through voting preserves the economies of scale at the Big Three while addressing the root of the problem: concentrated voting power in the hands of a small, unaccountable group. Ultimately, index funds occupy a unique and important role in financial markets, not least because they're disproportionately owned by smaller, middle-income investors. These investors have a valuable voice, and pass-through voting would help us hear it.
Monday, October 3, 2022
It was so wonderful to be able to host an in-person version of our "Connecting the Threads" Business Law Prof Blog symposium on Friday. Connecting the Threads VI was, for me, a major victory in the continuing battle against COVID-19--five healthy bloggers and a live audience! Being in the same room with fellow bloggers John Anderson, Colleen Baker, Doug Moll (presenting with South Carolina Law friend-of-the-BLPB Ben Means), and Stefan Padfield was truly joyful. And the topics on which they presented--shadow insider trading, exchange trading in the cloud, family business succession, and anti-ESG legislation--were all so salient. (I offered the abstract for my own talk on fiduciary duties in unincorporated business associations in last week's post.) For a number of us, the topic of our presentations arose from work we have done here on the BLPB.
This year, as I noted in my post last week, we had a special guest as our luncheon speaker. That guest would be known to many of you who are regular readers as "Tom N." Tom has commented on our blog posts here on the BLPB for at least eight years. (I rooted around and found a comment from him as far back as 2014.) And Tom lives right here in Tennessee--in middle Tennessee, to be exact (closer to Haskell Murray than to me). You can check out his bio here. I am delighted that we were able to coerce Tom to give up a day of law practice to come join us at the symposium.
The title/topic for Tom's talk was "A Country Boy Busines Lawyer's View from Down in the Weeds." The talk was, by design, a series of reflections on Tom's wide-ranging business law practice here in the state of Tennessee. He tries to stay out of the courtroom, but by his own recounting, he has been in court in every county in the state--and Tennessee has 95 counties!
In the end, Tom ended up offering a bunch of tips for law students and lawyers (both of whom were in attendance at the symposium). I took notes during Tom's talk. I have assembled them into a list below. The key points are almost in the order in which they were delivered. The stories that led to a number of these snippets of practical advice were priceless. You had to be there. Anyway, here is my list, together with a few editorial comments of my own. Tom can feel free to add, correct, or dispute my notes in the comments!
- Take tax courses; if you fear they may hurt your GPA, audit them.
- Use all available resources to get more knowledge. (Tom indicated that he bought Westlaw/used Practical Law as a solo practitioner for many years but recently gave it up. he also noted that he regularly reads a number of the law prof blogs.)
- Be a bar association member and access the resources bar associations provide. (Tom noted the excellent written materials published by the American Bar Association and the superior continuing legal education programs produced by the Tennessee Bar Association.)
- “You are going to learn to write in law school.” (Tom advised focusing on clear, efficient writing—something I just emphasized with my Business Associations students last week.)
- Publish in the law. (Tom shared his view that writing in the law improves both knowledge and analysis.)
- Expect the unexpected, especially in court (e.g., confronting in court transactions in pot-bellied pigs involving a Tennessee nonprofit). And as a Corollary: "You can't make this stuff up." The truth often is stranger than anything you could make up . . . .)
- In business disputes, never assume that an attorney was there on the front end. (And yes, there was mention of the use by many unknowledgeable consumers of online entity formation services.)
- As a lawyer, be careful not to insert your own business judgment. The business decision is the client's to make.
- Relatedly, let the business people hand you the framework of the deal.
- Along the same lines: "I am not paying people to tell me I can’t do it; I am paying people to tell me how to do it.” (As heard by Tom from his father, a business owner-manager. I think many of us have heard this or learned this—sometimes the hard way . . . . I do try to prevent my students from learning that lesson the hard way by telling them outright.)
- And further: “You want to screw up a deal, put the lawyers in the center of it.”
- As a courtroom lawyer, know the judges and—perhaps more importantly—court clerks!
- Introduce yourself to everyone; they may be in a position to help you now or later (referencing the time he introduced himself, unknowingly, to John Wilder, the former Lt. Governor of Tennessee, who proceeded to introduce him to the local judges).
- Preparation for the bar exam is a curriculum of its own. (That's close to a quote.)
- “A lot of things go more smoothly of you can get people talking.” (Tom is more of a fan of mediation than arbitration.)
- Local rules of court may not be even published; sometimes, you just need to pick up the phone and call the court clerk. (Another reason to get to know local court clerks!)
- Developing rapport with a judge is incredibly important to successful courtroom lawyering.
- Saying "I don’t know" does not hurt anything; in fact, it may help judges/others develop confidence in you and your integrity.
- Your law school grades will not matter after your first or second job. Employers will be looking at you and your professional record, not your grades.
I am sure I missed something along the way. Maybe my fellow bloggers in attendance will have something to add. But this list alone is, imv, pure gold for students and starting lawyers.
October 3, 2022 in Colleen Baker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Family Business, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, John Anderson, Lawyering, Securities Regulation, Stefan J. Padfield, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, September 26, 2022
After two years of the "Zoom version" of the annual Business Law Prof Blog symposium, Connecting the Threads VI, the live, in-person symposium is back. Scheduled for this coming Friday, September 30, the symposium features presentations by me and fellow BLPB bloggers John Anderson, Colleen Baker, Doug Moll (with co-presenter and special guest Ben Means), and Stefan Padfield. The agenda and more can be found here. UT Law looks forward to hosting this event for a sixth year!
I will be speaking on The Fiduciary-ness of Business Associations. A brief summary follows.
Fiduciary duty has historically been a core value of statutory business associations. However, with Delaware leading the charge, limited liability company and limited partnership statutes in some jurisdictions allow equity holders to contractually eliminate fiduciary duties. In addition, state legislatures in jurisdictions like Wyoming and Tennessee have adopted legislation that allows decentralized autonomous organizations—blockchain-based associations of business venturers—to organize as limited liability companies and avoid statutory fiduciary duties without engaging in private ordering.
The public policy ramifications of some of these legislative moves have not been fully vetted in traditional ways or have not been completely explored in certain contexts. Moreover, business lawyers now have more options in advising businesses and their constituents, adding to already complex matrices applicable to choice-of-entity decision making. This presentation offers a window on recent fiduciary-related legislative developments in business entity law and identifies and reflects on related professional responsibility questions impacting lawyers advising business entities and their owners.
I look forward to seeing my co-bloggers in person, sharing some ideas, and hearing from the commentators--my UT Law colleagues and students. BLPB commenter Tom N. is making a special appearance as the symposium lunch speaker, too. It should be a great day all around!
Friday, August 19, 2022
Mississippi College School of Law Invites Applications for Multiple Entry-Level Tenure-Track Faculty Positions
Mississippi College School of Law invites applications from entry-level candidates for multiple tenure-track faculty positions expected to begin in July 2023. Our search will focus primarily on candidates with an interest in teaching one or more of the following subject areas: Civil Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, First Amendment, Commercial Law, Cyber Law/Law & Technology, Estates & Trusts, and Race and the Law. We seek candidates with a distinguished academic background (having earned a J.D. and/or Ph.D.), a commitment to excellence in teaching, and a demonstrated commitment to scholarly research and publication. We particularly encourage applications from candidates who will enrich the diversity of our faculty. We will consider candidates listed in the AALS-distributed FAR, as well as those who apply directly.
Applications should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, a Mississippi College Faculty Application (found on this website), a scholarly research agenda, the names and contact information of three references, and teaching evaluations (if available).
Applications should be sent in a single PDF to Professor Jonathan Will, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's a link to the job posting.
Friday, August 5, 2022
Back in March, I posted about a paper, "Censorship and Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas," that Professor Jeremy Kidd and I presented at a research roundtable on Capitalism and the Rule of Law hosted by the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. A complete version of that paper is now available here. Here is the abstract:
Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will reliably arrive at truth. But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is a market characteristic (e.g., monopoly power) that precludes the maximization of consumer welfare.
The last few years have witnessed increased calls for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of fora. The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.
Though on their face these calls for censorship appear anti-liberal and contrary to the marketplace model, they can be made consistent with both if they are understood as a response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. While recent calls for censorship have not been justified expressly as a response to market failure, reframing the debate in these terms may prevent parties on both sides of the issue from engaging at cross purposes by locating the debate within an otherwise familiar model.
The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II articulates a model of the marketplace of ideas that jibes with contemporary economic concepts, defines its components (e.g., sellers, buyers, intermediaries, etc.), considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical justifications for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in the marketplace of ideas as modeled here. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded may itself reflect a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.
Friday, July 22, 2022
Professor Timothy D. Lytton, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Georgia State Univeristy, recently published his new article, Using Insurance to Regulate Food Safety: Field Notes from the Fresh Produce Sector, in the New Mexico Law Review. Here's the abstract:
Foodborne illness is a public health problem of pandemic proportions. In the United States alone, contaminated food sickens an estimated 48 million consumers annually, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Nowhere is this crisis more acute than in the fresh produce sector, where microbial contamination in growing fields and packing houses has been responsible for many of the nation’s largest and deadliest outbreaks. This Article examines emerging efforts by private insurance companies to regulate food safety on farms that grow fresh produce.
Previous studies of using insurance to regulate food safety rely on economic theories that yield competing conclusions. Optimists argue that insurance can promote efficient risk reduction. Skeptics counter that insufficient information regarding the root causes of contamination renders insurance impotent to reduce food safety risk. This Article adds a sociolegal perspective to this debate. Based on interviews with insurance professionals, the Article documents how, notwithstanding limited information, underwriters employ a variety of techniques to encourage compliance with government food safety regulations and conformity to industry standards. These techniques include premium discounts for clients who adopt state-of-the-art food safety practices, coverage exclusions for high-risk activities, and loss control advice about how to avoid contamination.
Insurance plays a growing and potentially transformative role in advancing food safety. Government food safety regulation has traditionally been hampered by inadequate inspection resources. This Article advocates expanding insurance to fill oversight gaps in the U.S. food safety system, and it offers specific recommendations for how to nurture emerging markets for food safety coverage.
The findings presented in this Article have implications for understanding how insurance regulates risk more generally. Economic analysis of many well-established types of insurance—for example, life, health, homeowners, and auto—emphasizes the role of actuarial data in pricing premiums, determining coverage limits, and informing loss control advice. However, the underwriting professionals in this Article who describe their efforts to improve food safety on farms tell a different story. They operate in an emerging market with a low volume of claims and a dearth of actuarial data. Three aspects of their work stand out. First, underwriting in this area is more impressionistic than economic analysis assumes. When assessing the risk of microbial contamination on farms, underwriters rely more on their intuitions about a farmer’s competence and on media coverage of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks than on actuarial data. Second, the mindset of these underwriters is more administrative than economic. They think in terms of regulatory compliance and standards conformity rather than optimal risk reduction. Third, farm size determines the role of insurance in managing risk. High-premium coverage for larger farms provides more underwriting resources for risk management than low-premium policies priced for small farms. These findings suggest that although economics explains the logic of insurance as form of risk regulation, understanding how underwriters regulate risk in practice, especially in emerging markets, requires attention to professional judgment, bureaucratic thinking, and resource constraints.
Friday, July 8, 2022
Samuel Sturgis, a 2022 graduate of MC Law, was recenty honored by the Tax Law Section of the Federal Bar Association for his excellent scholarship. Sam received second place in the Donald C. Alexander Tax Law Writing Competition for his paper, "The Wealth Tax--Egalitarian Dream or Utilitarian Nightmare?" A full version of the paper, which Sam is planning to develop for submission to law reviews, is available on the FBA website (here). Sam will enter the Graduate Tax Program at the University of Florida Levin College of Law this fall; they are very lucky to have him! Here is an abstract of his article:
In the Nottingham of literary folklore, the poor starved while the wicked feasted. To survive, ordinary people needed a savior, and they found it in Robin Hood. Taking from the rich feed the poor, the green-clad yeoman emboldened the hopeless and became a hero of the proletariat for centuries to come. Today, the poor face a similar plight—castles and kings have disappeared, but an uncrossable moat seems to be widening between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Ordinary working people need a hero. Instead of Robin Hood, many are beginning to howl for a new solution, one that would turn the tables on the wealthy and give them a taste of their own medicine. Their answer: tax the rich.
The urge is timeless. Landed gentry, titled aristocracy or silicon-valley elite, the rich have always occupied an enviable spot in society. But in a world that has recently ground to a halt under the pandemic, the divide between ordinary and elite has only grown. As interest rates and inflation rise and hard-working Americans watch their industries dwindle, America’s billionaire class is thriving. While Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk battle for the title of world’s richest man, normal Americans seem to inch daily towards a Nottingham reality.
As a result, many businessmen, economists, and policymakers and have come forward with a new solution: tax the assets of the ultra-wealthy. This so-called “wealth tax” would be a form of redistributive justice aimed at closing the wealth gap and putting money where it is most needed: in the hands of hard-working Americans. To do so, it would levy an annual tax on the standing wealth of the financial elite. But is this really a workable solution? At first blush, a tax on standing wealth sounds workable, even desirable. Surely the uber-wealthy can afford to lose a bit of their massive wealth; and think of all the wrongs that could be righted with the revenues such a tax would generate. Utopia, it might seem, is within grasp.
But these claims must be tested. If a wealth tax is to produce tangible good, it must be measured against a tangible standard. While the proponents of a wealth tax laud it as a modern-day Robin Hood, its detractors stand ready to point out that in the long run, the ends might not justify the means. To truly judge a policy as socially disruptive as a wealth tax, discernable standards must be applied to answer a simple question: is a wealth tax good?
This Article attempts to answer that question by applying Utilitarian moral framework to current wealth tax proposals. Armed with a historical understanding of the progressive U.S. tax system and an eye toward cumulative effects, it seeks to determine whether a wealth tax is morally defensible, both as an economic solution and a philosophical ideal.
Ultimately, the answer is clear: a tax on wealth, while attractive in theory, is ultimately not the best solution for a struggling society. A wealth tax might feel good; it might even succeed in sticking it to the rich. But at the end of the day, its costs outweigh its benefits. Its downstream effects, as well as its ideological underpinnings, are less effective and far more sinister than they appear. As the Article will show, enacting any of the current wealth tax proposals would be a bad choice—one with potentially devastating consequences. It would do more harm than good, and could leave the country looking a lot less like Robin Hood than Prince John.
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.
Friday, June 10, 2022
There have been number of recent BLPB posts representing a diversity of viewpoints concerning the SEC's proposed rule to "Enhance and Standardize Climate-Related Disclosures for Investors". For example, co-blogger Joan MacLeod Heminway recently posted on a comment letter drafted by Jill E. FIsch, George S. Georgiev, Donna Nagy, and Cynthia A. WIlliams (and signed by Joan and 24 others) that affirms the proposed rule is within the SEC's rulemaking authority. I have offered a couple posts raising concerns about the proposed rule from the standpoint of utility and legal authority (see here and here). One of the concerns I have raised is that the SEC's proposed disclosure regime may compel corporate speech in a manner that runs afoul of the First Amendment. SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce raised this same concern, and now Professor Sean J. Griffith has posted a new article, "What's 'Controversial' About ESG? A Theory of Compelled Commercial Speech under the First Amendment", which offers a more comprehensive treatment of this problem. Professor Griffith has also submitted a comment letter to the SEC raising this issue. Here's the abstract for Professor Griffith's article:
This Article uses the SEC’s recent foray into ESG to illuminate ambiguities in First Amendment doctrine. Situating mandatory disclosure regulations within the compelled commercial speech paradigm, it identifies the doctrinal hinge as “controversy.” Rules compelling commercial speech receive deferential judicial review provided they are purely factual and uncontroversial. The Article argues that this requirement operates as a pretext check, preventing regulators from exceeding the plausible limits of the consumer protection rationale.
Applied to securities regulation, the compelled commercial speech paradigm requires the SEC to justify disclosure mandates as a form of investor protection. The Article argues that investor protection must be conceived on a class basis—the interests of investors qua investors rather than focusing on the idiosyncratic preferences of individuals or groups of investors. Disclosure mandates that are uncontroversially motivated to protect investors are eligible for deferential judicial review. Disclosure mandates failing this test must survive a form of heightened scrutiny.
The SEC’s recently proposed climate disclosure rules fail to satisfy these requirements. Instead, the proposed climate rules create controversy by imposing a political viewpoint, by advancing an interest group agenda at the expense of investors generally, and by redefining concepts at the core of securities regulation. Having created controversy, the proposed rules are ineligible for deferential judicial review. Instead, a form of heightened scrutiny applies, under which they will likely be invalidated. Much of the ESG agenda would suffer the same fate, as would a small number of existing regulations, such as shareholder proposals under Rule 14a-8. However, the vast majority of the SEC’s disclosure mandates, which aim at eliciting only financially relevant information, would survive.
Friday, May 27, 2022
Kevin Douglas on "Has the Strong-Form of the Efficient Capital Market Hypothesis Crept into U.S. Securities Regulation?"
In the fall, I posted on Professor Kevin R. Douglas's article, "How Creepy Concepts Undermine Effective Insider Trading Reform" (linked below), which is now forthcoming in the Journal of Corporation Law. The following post comes from Professor Douglas. In it, he develops one theme from that article:
Would U.S. officials imprison real people for failing to adhere to the most unrealistic assumptions in prominent economic models? Yes, if the assumption is that no one can generate risk-free profits when trading in efficient capital markets. What are risk-free profits, and why should you go to jail for trying to generate them? Relying on the ordinary dictionary definition of “risk” makes the justification for criminal penalties described above seem absurd. One dictionary defines risk as “the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance,” and another simply defines risk as “the possibility of something bad happening.” Why should someone face criminal liability for attempting to generate trading profits without something bad happening—without losing money? The absurdity is especially jarring when thinking about securities markets, where hedge fund managers rely heavily on risk reduction strategies.
However, if we turn to the definition of “risk” used in prominent models of the efficient capital market hypothesis (ECMH), punishing investors who attempt to generate risk-free profits seems logical, if not sensible. The ECMH is the hypothesis that securities prices reflect all available information. Additional assumptions transform this hypothesis into the implication “that it is impossible to beat the market consistently on a risk-adjusted basis since market prices should only react to new information.” Here “beat the market” means generating profits that are greater than the returns of some index of the market. With these assumptions in mind, criminalizing the attempt to generate no-risk profits can seem logical if the existence of no-risk profits indicates market inefficiencies…and we accept that a proper role of government is increasing the efficiency of securities markets. Whether or not this approach is sensible depends on whether this model of risk bears any resemblance to anything operating in the real world. And even Eugene Fama who is thought of as the father of the ECMH, acknowledges that the model “is obviously an extreme null hypothesis. And, like any other extreme null hypothesis, we do not expect it to be literally true.”
Sensible or not, I argue that U.S. courts have relied on the ECMH’s model of risk for almost 60 years. Consider just one of several examples cataloged in my forthcoming article, How Creepy Concepts Undermine Effective Insider Trading Reform. The Court in SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. provides the following justification for imposing insider trading liability under Rule 10b-5:
It was the intent of Congress that all members of the investing public should be subject to identical market risks,—which market risks include, of course the risk that one’s evaluative capacity or one’s capital available to put at risk may exceed another’s capacity or capital. … [However] inequities based upon unequal access to knowledge should not be shrugged off as inevitable in our way of life, or, in view of the congressional concern in the area, remain uncorrected.
It may seem arbitrary to expect equal “risk” for market participants to mean equality of information, but not equality of capital or skill. However, this disconnect is in harmony with models of market efficiency that focus on whether securities prices always “fully reflect” available information. Other cases identifying the attempt to generate risk-free profits to justify imposing liability for insider trading include two cases related to Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion in United States v. O’Hagan. To differentiate acceptable and unacceptable information advantages, Justice Ginsburg states that the “misappropriation theory targets information of a sort that misappropriators ordinarily capitalize upon to gain no-risk profits through the purchase or sale of securities.”
Can explaining liability for securities fraud by reference to “risk-free profits” mean anything other than the implicit adoption of the strong form of the ECMH? If prominent economic models inspire the reference to risk-free profits in these cases, then it is astounding how little has been said about this fact. It was a big deal when the United States Supreme Court relied on some assumptions of the semi-strong form of the ECMH to justify adopting the fraud on the market theory. It is puzzling how quietly this feature of the ECMH crept into the insider trading case law.
Friday, May 13, 2022
Earlier this month, I came across a fun Wall Street Journal article, "Great Novels About Business: How Much Do You Know?" The article got me thinking about business-themed novels more generally. What are the greatest all-time novels about business? I came across another, related article from Inc.com that offers the following list of the 10 best classic novels about business:
- The Financier by Theodore Dreiser
- The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan
- The Magnificent Ambersons by Both Tarkington
- The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
- The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
- North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- JR by William Gaddis
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- Nice Work by David Lodge
I have to admit that I've yet to read a few of these books, and I plan to add them to my summer reading list. But I'm also surprised to find at least one book missing, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. How could we leave Scrooge, Marley, and old Fezziwig off the list.....
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Can you think of other novels that should be added--or some that should be removed from the list above? Please share your thoughts in the comments--and share some lines from your favorite business-themed novels!
Thursday, May 5, 2022
The Southeastern Association of Law Schools is holding its annual conference in Sandestin, Florida from July 27 through August 3. The current draft program is available here. I hope a number of you are planning to come.
In addition to my usual co-moderation (with the inimitable John Anderson) of an insider trading discussion group at the conference, I am looking to moderate the following discussion group:
Elon Musk and the Law
Moderator: Joan Heminway, The University of Tennessee College of Law
Enigmatic entrepreneur Elon Musk has found himself—and his businesses and his family—in the crosshairs of law and regulation. The legal and regulatory issues span a wide range, including First Amendment questions, securities disclosure challenges, legal contests involving the name of his son born in 2020 (with the musician Grimes), and more. This discussion group aims to identify, classify, and analyze these legal and regulatory interactions and interpret their effects on law reform, regulatory entrepreneurship, legal and administrative process, business venturing, and other areas of inquiry. Comparisons to and contrasting views of other public figures and their legal and regulatory tangles may be explored in the process.
Email me if you are interested in participating.
Also, I wish all a feliz Cinco de Mayo. Wikipedia reminds me that Cinco de Mayo is both a celebration of Mexican-American food and culture in the United States and a commemoration of "Mexico's victory over the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862." The Wikipedia article notes that "[t]he victory of a smaller, poorly equipped Mexican force against the larger and better-armed French army was a morale boost for the Mexicans." Ukraine immediately comes to mind. And I guess (feebly tying all this back to Elon Musk) one could take the view that a smaller, poorly equipped Twitter lost out to a larger and better armed acquiror in it recent kerfuffle-turned-takeover-battle with Elon Musk . . . . I know many of us will continue to have commentary on the Twitter acquisition as the transaction proceeds.
Friday, April 29, 2022
"We Know Wrongful Trading When We See It" - Some Observations Concerning the Recent Senate Hearing on the Insider Trading Prohibition Act
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing on the Insider Trading Prohibition Act (ITPA), which passed the house with bipartisan support in May of last year. Some prominent scholars, like Professor Stephen Bainbridge, have criticized the ITPA as ambiguous in its text and overbroad in its application, while others, like Professor John Coffee, have expressed concern that it does not go far enough (mostly because the bill retains the “personal benefit” requirement for tipper-tippee liability).
My own view is that there are some good, bad, and ugly aspects of the bill. Starting with what’s good about the bill:
- If made law, the ITPA would end what Professor Jeanne L. Schroeder calls the “jurisprudential scandal that insider trading is largely a common law federal offense” by codifying its elements.
- The ITPA would bring trading on stolen information that is not acquired by deception (e.g., information acquired by breaking into a file cabinet or hacking a computer) within its scope. Such conduct would not incur Section 10b insider trading liability under the current enforcement regime.
- The ITPA at least purports (more on this below) to only proscribe “wrongful” trading, or trading on information that is “obtained wrongfully.” Since violations of our insider trading laws incur criminal liability and stiff penalties, I have argued for some time that liability should be limited to conduct that is morally wrongful.
- The ITPA preserves the “personal benefit” test as a limiting principal on what otherwise would be an ambiguous and potentially overbroad test for when tipping would breach a fiduciary or similar duty of trust and confidence. Traders need (and justice demands) bright lines that will allow them to determine ex ante whether their trading is legal or will incur 20 years of prison time (but more on this below).
Now, turning to what is bad about the bill, I share some concerns raised by Professor Todd Henderson in his testimony before the Senate Committee:
- Though the ITPA codifies the personal benefit test as a limit on liability, it includes “indirect personal benefit[s]” within its scope. As Henderson points out, “[i]t is possible to describe virtually any human interaction as providing an ‘indirect benefit’ to the participants. Instead, the law should reflect the common sense notion that the source of information either received something tangible and valuable in return or what amounts to a monetary gift to a relative or friend.” The personal benefit test only fulfills its intended function as a limiting principle if it imposes real limits on liability. The test should therefore only be satisfied by objective evidence of self-dealing. If indirect psychological or other benefits that can be found in any voluntary human action can satisfy the test, then it cannot function as a limit on liability.
- At least some versions of the ITPA include a catchall provision to the definition of wrongfully obtained or used information that would include “a breach of a confidentiality agreement, [or] a breach of contract.” Not only does this challenge the time-honored concept of efficient breach in the law of contracts, but as Professor Andrew Verstein has argued, this provision can open the door to the weaponization of insider trading law through the practice of “strategic tipping.” Professor Henderson raised this concern before the Senate committee, noting that so broad an understanding of wrongful trading is “ripe for abuse, with companies potentially able to prevent individual investors from trading merely by providing them with information whether they want it or not.” The recent examples of Mark Cuban and David Einhorn come to mind.
- The ITPA would impose criminal liability for “reckless” conduct. As Henderson explained to the Committee, under the ITPA, “anyone who ‘was aware, consciously avoided being aware, or recklessly disregarded’ that the information was wrongfully obtained or communicated can have a case brought against them. The ITPA is silent on the meaning of ‘recklessly disregarded,’ which would appear to rope in innocent traders along with actual wrongdoers.” Moreover, permitting mere recklessness to satisfy the mens rea element of insider trading liability will no doubt have a chilling effect on good-faith transactions based on market rumors that would otherwise be value enhancing for traders, their clients, and the markets. The loss of such trades will diminish market liquidity and reduce price accuracy.
- Finally, Henderson raised the concern that the ITPA lacks an “exclusivity clause stating that it will be the sole basis for bringing federal insider trading claims.” Henderson explained that “allowing prosecutors to cherry pick their preferred law is no way to provide clear rules for the market.” Professor Karen Woody has written about how prosecutors may be starting to bring insider trading cases under 18 U.S.C. § 1348 to avoid the court-imposed personal benefit test under Exchange Act §10b. Without an exclusivity clause, prosecutors will be free to make the same end run around the personal benefit test imposed by the ITPA.
Finally, the ITPA is straight-up ugly because, while it promises that it will limit insider trading liability (which can be punished by up to 20 years imprisonment) to only “wrongful” conduct, the bill defines the term “wrongful” in a way that suggests the drafters have no intention of delivering on that promise. For example, as noted above, some versions of the bill define any breach of contract as “wrongful,” but this is in clear tension with common sense, common law, and the doctrine of efficient breach.
In addition, though there is ambiguity in the text, current versions of the ITPA appear to embrace SEC Rule 10b5-1’s “awareness” test for when trading on material nonpublic information incurs insider trading liability. Under the awareness test, a corporate insider incurs insider trading liability if she is aware of material nonpublic information while trading for totally unrelated reasons. In other words, liability may be imposed even if the material nonpublic information played no motivational role in the decision to trade. But if the material nonpublic information played no motivational role, then the trading cannot be judged “wrongful” under any common-sense understanding of that term.
For these (and other reasons there is no space to address here), the ITPA leaves too much room for play in its definition of what constitutes “wrongful” trading and tipping to cohere with our common-sense understanding of that term. Former SEC Commission Robert J. Jackson assured the Committee that “we know wrongful trading when we see it.” Presumably Professor Jackson’s implication was that the SEC and DOJ can be trusted to exercise sound discretion in interpreting the play in the statutory language. In response, I offer the following question for Professor Jackson or any reader of the ITPA to consider: Would issuer-licensed insider trading violate the statute? I have defined “issuer licensed insider trading” as occurring where:
(1) the insider submits a written plan to the firm that details the proposed trade(s);
(2) the firm authorizes that plan;
(3) the firm has previously disclosed to the investing public that it will permit its employees to trade on the firm’s material nonpublic information when it is in the interest of the firm to grant such permission; and
(4) the firm discloses ex post all trading profits resulting from the execution of these plans.
I have argued that trading under these conditions is neither morally wrongful nor harmful to markets. If it violates ITPA, what provisions? I hope some readers will share their thoughts on this in the comments below!
Friday, April 15, 2022
Shortly after President Barack Obama’s first press conference in 2009, the Huffington Post published an article, "When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?", that challenged the false premises of many of the questions being asked of the new president. The article opens by noting:
Sooner or later every human being on the face of this planet is confronted with tough questions. One of the toughest and most common is the infamous loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife?” which implies that you have indeed been beating your wife. How do you answer without agreeing with the implication? How do you not answer without appearing evasive?
The author’s solution is that you should refuse to answer the question by simply responding, “no,” or by challenging the false assumption imbedded in the question. But what if the question is not asked at a press conference, by opposing counsel in the courtroom, or at a cocktail party, but as part of a federally mandated disclosure regime? This is a dilemma issuers may face if the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) proposed rule to "Enhance and Standardize Climate-Related Disclosures for Investors" is adopted.
Existing SEC disclosure rules and guidance already require that issuers disclose man-made-climate-change-related risks that would materially impact market participants’ investment decisions concerning the company. Nevertheless, the SEC has determined that the existing regime grants boards too much discretion in deciding whether and how to disclose climate risk—which has resulted in climate-related disclosures that are insufficiently "consistent," "comparable," and "clear."
The SEC’s proposed changes to the disclosure regime would compel all publicly-traded companies to answer specific, standardized climate-related questions concerning, for example, the physical risks of human-caused-climate-related events (e.g., “severe weather events and other natural conditions”) on their business models and earnings in a manner that will be consistent and comparable with the answers of the thousands of other regulated issuers. But what if the boards’ honest answers to these difficult questions cannot be made to fit the SEC’s proposed one-size-fits-all mold? What if some issuers question the premises of the questions?
What if, for example, a board is not convinced that extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, etc., can be traced directly to human versus non-human causes? In such circumstances, mandatory reporting on either transitional or physical risks due to human-caused climate change might look a lot like mandatory disclosures on questions like “When did you stop beating your spouse?” Can issuers satisfy the SEC’s reporting requirements by simply answering “no,” as the Huffington Post author suggested President Obama should have answered such questions, or by challenging the premise of the question?
There is no doubt that the extent, effects, and appropriate response to human-caused-climate change is a partisan issue in the United States. One Vanderbilt survey found that 77.3% of respondents who identify as “liberal” believe that climate change is a serious problem, but only 17.2% of those who identify as “conservative” regard climate change as a serious problem. Moreover, the division over the impacts and appropriate responses to climate change are not just political—they exist in the scientific community as well. For example, Steven E. Koonin, a former Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Obama, and member of the Academy of Sciences, recently published a book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, which questions a number of the premises informing the SEC’s proposed disclosure regime.
Take, as just one example, the proposed rule’s mandatory disclosure of “physical” risks to issuers due to extreme weather events resulting from human-caused-climate change. The home page of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which the SEC credits as a principal source for its proposed rule, includes a video presentation by former Democratic Presidential Candidate, Michael Bloomberg, stating that climate change is a “crisis that shocked the [financial] system” in 2021: “wildfires, heat, flooding, and other extreme weather events have devastated communities and cost trillions of dollars this year alone.”
The premise of Bloomberg’s statement, which the SEC has effectively adopted, is that our models can reliably trace these extreme weather events to human causes. But is this true? Koonin points out that while a recent U.S. government climate report claims that heat waves across the U.S. have become more frequent since 1960, it “neglected to mention that the body of the report shows they are no more common today than they were in 1900.” Koonin also points out similar holes in common claims that human-caused climate change is responsible for extreme weather events like flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes. More fundamentally, Koonin argues that the new field of “event attribution science,” which provides the principal basis for claimed causal links between human influences and extreme weather events is “rife with issues,” and he is “appalled such studies are given credence, much less media coverage.”
None of the above should be interpreted as an attempt on my part to take sides in the climate debate. (I am no authority; my PhD is in philosophy, not in anything useful.) It is just to illustrate how these issues continue to be highly contested subjects of debate in both political and scientific circles.
The worry I raise here is that this sphere of discourse is far too contested and politically charged to be the subject of a mandatory disclosure regime. In response to challenges by Commissioner Hester Peirce and others that the SEC’s proposed rule on climate disclosure compels speech in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment, Commissioner Gensler has responded that the reporting requirements do not mandate content. But, again, is this correct? If the disclosure questions are loaded, don’t they (at least implicitly) dictate the content of the response—particularly if the questions are carefully designed to elicit “standardized,” “consistent,” “comparable,” and “clear” answers?
Friday, April 1, 2022
Volume 14 of the William & Mary Business Law Review is currently accepting submissions for publication in 2022 and 2023. The Journal aims to publish cutting-edge legal scholarship and contribute to significant and exciting debates within the business community. Submissions for consideration can be sent via Scholastica, or if need be, via email to wm.blr.articlesubmission@
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
The following comes to us from Professor Mike Guttentag in response to my recent post on his excellent and thought-provoking new article, Avoiding Wasteful Competition: Why Trading on Inside Information Should be Illegal. This is a worhy discussion I look forward to continuing--and I hope others will engage in the comments below. Now, here is Professor Guttentag's response:
As always, I am honored and impressed by the seriousness and respect with which Professor Anderson approaches my work. I would, however, take exception to the reasons he offers for rejecting my conclusions.
The debate about insider trading over the past five decades has suffered from limited evidence of either benefits or harms. Those who have objected to a strict insider trading prohibition have reasonably asked: what evidence is there that the harms of insider trading justify a broad prohibition?
In my article I believe I have answered that challenge. First, I explain why there is a significant mismatch between private gains and social gains when trading on inside information. This mismatch arises both because of how inside information is produced (largely as a byproduct of other activities) and how trading on this information generates profits (at the expense of others). I next show how this mismatch between private gains and social gains (perhaps the defining economic feature of insider trading) leads to an unusual problem: the problem of too much or wasteful competition. This is not just a theoretical concern. I offer concrete estimates of the magnitude of the costs of this wasteful competition problem. One very conservative estimate puts the costs of wasteful competition in United States equity markets in the range of tens of billions of dollars a year. The logic is compelling, and the amounts involved substantial: insider trading is a socially wasteful activity that should be outlawed.
The time has now come for those who would do less than outlaw all trading when in possession of inside information to provide either equally compelling evidence of the benefits of an alternative regime or an explanation as to why my calculations are flawed. I do not believe that Anderson’s critiques meet either of these challenges.
I will go through Anderson’s critiques one by one. The first concern Anderson raises is that he believes my argument hinges on the claim that all inside information is produced as a byproduct of other activities. Anderson has read my argument as relying on a stronger claim than I think it needs to rely on. I do not aim to refute the vast body of work by the likes of Henry Manne and many, many others on the various costs and benefits of insider trading. These lists of the potential costs and benefits established over the past decades are largely correct. However, there are two problems with these lists. First, these lists have consistently failed to realize the magnitude and importance of the wasteful competition problem created by insider trading (I have addressed the reasons for this oversight elsewhere, Law and Surplus: Opportunities Missed). Second, once the costs of wasteful competition are included in the calculus the appropriate starting point shifts. Given how significant the wasteful competition problem is, we need more than just a list of plausible but hard-to-quantify costs and benefits to rebut the presumption that all trading when in possession of inside information should be outlawed. That is the extent of my claim.
The second point that Anderson raises in his comments is that he does not think I have carried out an adequate “comparative institutional approach to market failure.” In fact, I think I do a fair job in the article of addressing this question, and show, for example, why private ordering is not an effective alternative to legal intervention as a way to address the wasteful competition problem created by insider trading. Moreover, the correct comparison should be between the cost of our muddled and confused current regime and the simple proposal I offer, a proposal, by the way, that is similar to the insider trading prohibition already in place in Europe (albeit with less enforcement capability in Europe). I do not see what institution Anderson thinks could do a better job addressing the problem I have identified than the federal government. As a side note, if we want to minimize the kind of rent-seeking by government officials that Anderson also mentions, then a bright-line such as the one I propose might well be preferable to the murky waters that now surround the insider trading prohibition.
The third point Anderson raises is that he finds my consideration of internal compliance costs lacking. My response to this observation is: internal compliance costs as compared to what baseline? The current system is a quagmire, whereas the one I propose would be more straightforward to implement. It seems to me that when it comes to minimizing internal compliance costs my proposal is preferable to the status quo. But even if I am incorrect about the relative costs of internal compliance under different regulatory regimes the larger point remains: discussions of these kinds of second order, difficult-to-quantify cost simply do not offer enough evidence to justify accepting the costs of wasteful competition that a very conservative estimate puts in the range of tens of billions of dollars a year in only one marketplace.
The fourth point Anderson raises is yet another potential cost of my proposal as compared to the status quo. Anderson correctly points out that my rule may be over-inclusive and prevent some individuals from gathering and trading on information for which social gains are equal to or greater than private gains. This is true. However, again, where is the concrete evidence that these costs of over-inclusivity are anything near the magnitude of the quantifiable costs that result from wasteful competition. The evidence in support of a sweeping prohibition remains.
Finally, Anderson raises the specter of criminal punishment. I did not hope, as Anderson suggests, to fully “detach my model from the debate over the morality of insider trading.” I only rejected current efforts to base an insider trading prohibition on fairness concerns. In terms of advancing my own arguments, I felt that as a practical matter the topic of links between solutions to a wasteful competition problem and criminality was too vast to fit in an already long article. For those who are interested, I have begun to further explore these connections elsewhere in work on the relationships between evolutionary psychology and the use of law as a tool to share resources.
The one point I did make in the article relevant to the question of criminal liability for insider trading was to observe that engaging wasteful competition can trigger moral outrage in some circumstances. Such feelings can be observed, for example, when others react to people cutting in line. We have normative reactions to people who pursue their naked self-interest in situations where payoffs through cooperation are greater than those that can be realized through competition by, for example, refusing to honor a queue. Anderson investigates this analogy by asking about someone who has permission to cut in line. Presumably, he means to draw a parallel to issuer-sanctioned insider trading wherein firms allow employees to trade on material nonpublic information. The question of whether or how permission to cut in line might be granted is quite complex and is a topic for another day. I only hoped in this article to suggest why there might be a link between my conclusion that avoiding wasteful competition justifies an insider trading prohibition and the choice to criminalize insider trading.
Again, I truly appreciate Anderson’s honest engagement with my work. However, I think he fails to provide a compelling rebuttal. What we need now in the United States is a prohibition on all trading when in possession of inside information.
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.
Friday, March 4, 2022
The Law and Economics Center at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of law is hosting a Research Roundtable on Capitalism and the Rule of Law this week in Destin, Florida. My co-author, Professor Jeremy Kidd (Drake University School of Law) and I are honored to present a draft of our current work-in-progress, "Market Failure and Censorship in the Marketplace of Ideas," at tomorrow's (March 5, 2022) session. We look forward to receiving feedback from all the brilliant scholars in attendance. Here's an abstract of the current draft. We look forward to sharing a link to the full draft soon:
As one author notes, the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has “permeate[d] the Supreme Court’s first amendment jurisprudence.” If the test for efficiency in the marketplace for goods is wealth maximization, the test for efficiency in the marketplace of ideas has historically been understood in terms of its ability to reliably arrive at truth, or at least the most socially beneficial ideas within the grasp of a community of discourse. And consistent with economic free-market advocates, the received expectation in Western liberal democracies has been that “a process of robust debate, if uninhibited by government [or other] interference, will” best achieve this end. In other words, the assumption is that the market of ideas is most efficient when it is free. As Thomas Jefferson famously claimed, “Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from conflict, unless by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Similarly, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes later noted, “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is “a market characteristic that prevents the market from maximizing consumer welfare.” The exercise of monopoly power, for example, is a common source of market failure. Most economists agree that government or other regulatory interference with market freedom may be justified to correct a market failure.
The last few years have witnessed increased calls (from both government officials and the private sector) for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of venues (e.g., social media, the classroom, internet searches, corporations, and even persons’ private bookshelves). The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.
Do these increasing calls for censorship respond to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas? For example, could a majority race so dominate the terms of conditions of public and private discourse that minority voices are effectively barred from entry? If so, calls for censorship of expressly or implicitly racially biased voices may be an appropriate response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. If not, however, pervasive success at censorship (whether public or private) may itself create inefficiencies equivalent to market failure.
In this Article, the authors draw upon familiar economic principles to explore the possibility of market failure in the marketplace of ideas. The authors then rely on philosophical arguments articulated by liberal thinkers from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty to argue (in response to classical and post-modern critiques) that the spread of false or misleading information does not on its own reflect a market failure warranting censorship as a corrective. Instead, it is argued recent successful efforts at silencing and deplatforming dissenting voices (particularly in the context of social media, but also in academia and the workplace) reflects the real market failure in need of correction.
The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II explores the idea of the marketplace of ideas as an economic concept, defines its components, considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical arguments for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary post-modern critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in today’s marketplace of ideas. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded itself reflects a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.
Friday, February 18, 2022
With a recent poll showing that 76 percent of voters think members of Congress have an "unfair advantage" in stock trades, I argued in my last post that Congress should adopt a broad rule against trading in individual stocks by sitting cogresspersons (and perhaps their spouses, children, and staff). I argued that such a move would go a long way toward restoring the perception that members of Congress are public servants, as opposed to the current perception shared by many voters that they are public parasites. In addition to restoring public confidence in the legislative branch, I argued adopting such a prophylactic against insider trading would also help improve public confidence in the integrity of our securities markets—a goal Congress has touted repeatedly for almost a century.
I have since posted a short paper on SSRN, Time for a Broad Prophylactic against Congressional Insider Trading, that develops these arguments. Part I offers a brief summary of the current state of insider trading laws, with a special focus on their application to Congress. Part II surveys some of the proposed insider trading reform bills under consideration. Part III argues that, given congresspersons’ unique role vis-à-vis securities markets, a broad prophylactic against congressional trading is both justified and needed.