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!

April 29, 2022 in Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Elon Musk is a Blessing and a Curse

I'm doing what may seem crazy to some- teaching Business Associations to 1Ls. I have a group of 65 motivated students who have an interest in business and voluntarily chose to take the hardest possible elective with one of the hardest possible professors. But wait, there's more. I'm cramming a 4-credit class into 3 credits. These students, some of whom are  learning the rule against perpetuities in Property and the battle of the forms in Contracts while learning the business judgment rule, are clearly masochists. 

If you're a professor or a student, you're coming close to the end of the semester and you're trying to cram everything in. Enter Elon Musk. 

I told them to just skim Basic v. Levenson and instead we used Rasella v. Musk, the case brought by investors claiming fraud on the market. Coincidentally, my students were already reading In Re Tesla Motors, Inc. Stockholder Litigation because it was in their textbook to illustrate the concept of a controlling shareholder. Elon's pursuit of Twitter allowed me to use that company's 2022 proxy statement and ask them why Twitter would choose to be "for" a proposal to declassify its board, given all that's going on. Perhaps that vote will be moot by the time the shareholder's meeting happens at the end of May. The Twitter 8-K provides a great illustration of the real-time filings that need to take place under the securities laws, in this case due to the implementation of a poison pill. Elon's Love Me Tender tweet provides a fun way to take about tender offers. How will the Twitter board fulfill it's Revlon duties? So much to discuss and so little time. But the shenanigans have made teaching and learning about these issues more fun. And who knew so many of my students held Twitter and Tesla stock?

I've used the Musk saga for my business and human rights class too. I had attended the Emerge Americas conference earlier in the week and Alex Ohanian, billionaire founder of Reddit, venture capitalist, and Serena Williams' husband, had to walk a fine line when answering questions about Musk from the CNBC reporter. The line that stuck out to me was his admonition that running a social media company is like being a head of state with the level of responsibility. I decided to bring this up on the last day of my business and human rights class because I was doing an overview of what we had learned during the semester. As I turned to my slide about the role of tech companies in society, we ended up in a 30 minute debate in class about what Musk's potential ownership of Twitter could mean for democracy and human rights around the world. Interestingly, the class seemed almost evenly split in their views. While my business associations students are looking at the issue in a more straightforward manner as a vehicle to learn about key concepts (with some asking for investment advice as well, which I refused), my business and human rights students had a much more visceral reaction. 

Elon is a gift that keeps on giving for professors. He's a blessing because he's bringing concepts to life at a time in the semester where we are all mentally and physically exhausted. Depending on who you talk to in my BHR class and in some quarters of the media, he's also a curse.

All I know is that I don't know how I'll top this semester for real-world, just-in-time application.

Thanks, Elon.

Signed,

A tired but newly energized professor who plans to assign Ann Lipton's excellent Musk tweets as homework. 

 

 

 

 

 

April 23, 2022 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Is the SEC Proposing a "Loaded Question" Climate Disclosure Regime?

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?

April 15, 2022 in Corporate Governance, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Federalization of Corporate Governance - Heminway on Karmel

Last May, I posted on a wonderful two-day event--a symposium hosted over Zoom by Brooklyn Law School celebrating the career of Professor Roberta Karmel.  As I noted then, I was honored to be invited to speak at the event. It was so inspiring.

I have just posted the essay that I presented at the symposium, "Federalized Corporate Governance: The Dream of William O. Douglas as Sarbanes-Oxley Turns 20" (recently published by the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial & Commercial Law), on SSRN.  It can be found here

The roadmap paragraph from the essay's introduction offers a brief description of the essay's contents.

This essay focuses on the federalization of U.S. corporate governance since Sarbanes-Oxley—and, more specifically, since Roberta’s article was published in 2005 [Realizing the Dream of William O. Douglas — The Securities and Exchange Commission Takes Charge of Corporate Governance, 30 DEL. J. CORP. L. 79 (2005)]—pulling forward key aspects of Roberta’s work in Realizing the Dream. To accomplish this purpose, the essay first briefly reviews the contours of Roberta’s article. It then offers observations on corporate governance in the wake of (among other things) the public offering reforms adopted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2005, the SEC’s 2010 adoption of Rule 14a-11, the 2010 enactment of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank), the 2012 enactment of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act), and recent adoptions of corporate charter and bylaw provisions that constrain aspects of shareholder-initiated federal securities and derivative litigation. Finally, before briefly concluding, the essay provides brief insights on the overall implications for future corporate governance regulation of these and other occurrences since the publication of Realizing the Dream.

I found it great fun to build on the architecture of Roberta's earlier work in writing this piece.  Work on the essay allowed me to appreciate in new ways the many linkages between corporate governance and corporate finance--an appreciation that will no doubt continue to infuse my teaching with new ideas over time.  I hope some of you will take time out to read the essay and that you gain some insight from it.   Comments are, of course, always welcomed.

April 11, 2022 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Joan Heminway, Legislation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The SEC’s Climate Disclosure Proposal: Critiquing the Critics

The following post comes to us from George Georgiev at Emory Law.  It follows quite nicely on Ann's post yesterday on Climate Change and Wahed Invest.  I know a bunch of us will be commenting over time on the SEC's climate change release, and we are grateful that George has offered his ideas here.  Please note that more of the post is below the fold and can be accessed by clicking on the "continue reading" jump link.

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The SEC’s Climate Disclosure Proposal: Critiquing the Critics
George S. Georgiev

The SEC released its long-awaited Climate Disclosure Proposal a few days ago, on March 21, 2022. The Proposal is expansive, the stakes are high, and, predictably, the critical arguments that started appearing soon after the SEC kicked off this project a year ago are being raised ever more forcefully in preparation for a potential court challenge. A close review of the Proposal, however, suggests that it is firmly grounded within the traditional SEC disclosure framework that has been in place for close to nine decades. The Proposal is certainly ambitious (and overdue), but it is by no means extraordinary. This, in turn, suggests that challenges to the Proposal’s legitimacy ought to fail, even if certain aspects of the Proposal could stand to be improved as part of the ongoing rulemaking process.

This view is not universally held. In voting against the Proposal, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce admonished that it “turns the disclosure regime on its head” and erects “a hulking green structure” that will “trumpet” a “revised mission” for the SEC: “‘protection of stakeholders, facilitating the growth of the climate-industrial complex, and fostering unfair, disorderly, and inefficient markets.’” This certainly sounds problematic—and, indeed, quite dramatic. But once we set aside the entertaining rhetorical flourishes, we see that many of the arguments against the Proposal misstate the applicable legal constraints and mischaracterize important aspects of the Proposal. Moreover, even though Commissioner Peirce goes out of her way to praise “the existing regulatory framework that for many decades has undergirded consistent, comparable, and reliable company disclosures,” her lengthy dissenting statement reveals that she actually opposes many important and established elements of the very framework she says she wants to conserve.

I will make the case that the SEC’s Climate Disclosure Proposal is in keeping with longstanding regulatory practice by examining several features of the traditional disclosure regime and the new Proposal. I will focus my analysis on arguments I’ve developed in prior research, certain other less-known arguments, and the particular aspects of the new Proposal. This piece is not intended to be comprehensive, and I want to note that the broader issue of ESG disclosure has generated extensive debate and much insightful analysis. As always, I welcome comments and amendments via email.

Shareholders, Stakeholders, and Expert Groups

The SEC’s Climate Disclosure Proposal immediately prompts the well-worn question: Is this disclosure intended for shareholders or for stakeholders? But posing this as a binary choice automatically shifts the terms of the debate in favor of opponents of climate-related disclosure, regardless of the actual content of the Proposal. Since climate change has society-wide implications, information about it will inevitably resonate beyond the boundaries of the disclosing firm and the capital markets, even when the focus is on financially-material disclosure relying on investor- and issuer-generated disclosure frameworks (as is the case here). The social resonance of climate-related disclosure can drown out its clear-cut financial relevance, render any proposed disclosure rule suspect, and lead to a situation that, when we stop and think about it, is quite illogical: A subject matter’s relevance to one audience (stakeholders) is used as an argument to cancel out the well-established relevance of that same subject matter to another audience (investors). This is a general vulnerability that applies not just to climate-related disclosure, but to other ESG disclosure as well. It is important to understand it and de-bias policymaking accordingly.

Commissioner Peirce’s dissenting statement deftly zeroes in on this vulnerability by asserting that the Proposal “tells corporate managers how regulators, doing the bidding of an array of non-investor stakeholders, expect them to run their companies” and “forces investors to view companies through the eyes of a vocal set of stakeholders, for whom a company’s climate reputation is of equal or greater importance than a company’s financial performance.” Reading this, one would think that the Proposal was written by the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council—or by a D.C. bureaucrat, who, in Peirce’s telling, is both clueless and corruptible. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. 

The SEC’s Proposal draws on technical frameworks for financially-material disclosure developed by expert groups such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Take the TCFD, for example: Its members include representatives of mainstream investors (including BlackRock and UBS Asset Management), banks (JP Morgan, Citibanamex), insurance companies (Aviva, Swiss Re, Axa), giant industrial firms (BHP, Eni, Tata Steel, Unilever), rating agencies (Moody’s, S&P), accounting firms (Deloitte, E&Y), and others. Its secretariat is headed by a leader in the financial industry and capital markets, Mary Schapiro, who holds the unique distinction of having served as Chair of the SEC, Chair of the CFTC, and CEO of FINRA. And, for better or worse, no environmental NGOs or stakeholder organizations are represented on the TCFD. As its name suggests, the TCFD’s focus is on financial disclosures of the kind that investors require and use. The TCFD has generated an impressive roster of supporters and official adopters in just over six years, and, importantly, each of the “big three” (BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard) has endorsed the TCFD framework.

Commissioner Peirce rightly points out that the SEC does not have the depth of expertise on climate-related matters that other, specialized regulators have. Such expertise, however, is not necessary here since the SEC is not setting GHG emission limits, calculating carbon trading prices, drawing up climate transition plans, or setting climate resilience standards for businesses. The SEC’s Proposal is limited to disclosure—and only disclosure—on a technical topic, and the SEC has decades-long experience handling disclosures on technical topics. For example, the SEC is not an energy regulator, but it drew up a specialized disclosure framework for oil and gas extraction activities in the 1970s (with help from expert groups, much like it has done here), and it has administered this framework successfully since then. As the composition of the economy has changed, the SEC has had to develop some expertise in cybersecurity disclosure, tech disclosure, and in other specialized areas. The Climate Disclosure Proposal does not veer away from this time-tested approach; the only difference is that it concerns a hot-button topic.

Statutory Authority and Regulatory Practice: Recalling Schedule A of the Securities Act

A central challenge to the Proposal is that it goes beyond the authority given to the SEC by Congress because the rules are too prescriptive, not rooted in “materiality” (more on which later), and because Congress has not directed the SEC to pursue rulemaking on this particular topic. A fair amount of debate has focused on what it means for the SEC to act as “necessary or appropriate in the public interest or for the protection of investors”—language that has been part of the securities laws since they were passed in the 1930s but that has not been tested in court.

Continue reading

March 27, 2022 in Ann Lipton, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Guttentag's Response to My Post Concerning His Article on Insider Trading as Wasteful Competition

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.

March 22, 2022 in Corporations, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 18, 2022

Guttentag on Wasteful Competition and Insider Trading Reform

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.

March 18, 2022 in Corporations, Ethics, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 4, 2022

Corporate & Securities Litigation Workshop: Call for Papers

The University of Illinois College of Law, in partnership with UCLA School of Law, University of Richmond School of Law, and Vanderbilt Law School, invites submissions for the Ninth Annual Workshop for Corporate & Securities Litigation. This workshop will be held on Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Overview

This annual workshop brings together scholars focused on corporate and securities litigation to present their scholarly works. Papers addressing any aspect of corporate and securities litigation or enforcement are eligible, including securities class actions, fiduciary duty litigation, and SEC enforcement actions. We welcome scholars working in a variety of methodologies, as well as both completed papers and works-in-progress.

Authors whose papers are selected will be invited to present their work at a workshop hosted by the University of Illinois College of Law. Participants will pay for their own travel, lodging, and other expenses.

Submissions

If you are interested in participating, please send the paper you would like to present or an abstract of the paper to corpandsecworkshop@gmail.com by Friday, May 13, 2022. Please include your name, current position, and contact information in the e-mail accompanying the submission. Authors of accepted papers will be notified in June.

Questions

Any questions concerning the workshop should be directed to the organizers: Verity Winship (vwinship@illinois.edu), Jessica Erickson (jerickso@richmond.edu), Jim Park (James.park@law.ucla.edu), and Amanda Rose (amanda.rose@vanderbilt.edu).

March 4, 2022 in Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 28, 2022

2022 Online Symposium – Mainstreet vs. Wallstreet: The Democratization of Investing Friday, March 4 12:30-3:30

2022 Online Symposium – Mainstreet vs. Wallstreet: The Democratization of Investing

I'm thrilled to moderate two panels this Friday and one features our rock star BLPB editor, Ben Edwards. 

                                                                     REGISTER HERE

The University of Miami Business Law Review is hosting its 2022 online symposium on Friday, March 4, 2022. The symposium will run from 12:30 PM to 3:30 PM. The symposium will be conducted via Zoom. Attendees can apply to receive CLE credits for attending this event—3.5 CLE credits have been approved by the Florida Bar. 

The symposium will host two sessions with expert panelists discussing the gamification of trading platforms and the growing popularity of aligning investments with personal values.

The panels will be moderated by Professor Marcia Narine Weldon, who is the director of the Transactional Skills Program, Faculty Coordinator of the Business Compliance & Sustainability Concentration, and a Lecturer in Law at the University of Miami School of Law.

Panel 1: Gamification of Trading 

This panel will focus on the role of social media and “gamification” of trading apps/platforms in democratizing investing, and the risks that such technology may influence investor behavior (i.e., increase in trading, higher risk trading strategies like options and margin use, etc.).

Gerri Walsh:

Gerri Walsh is Senior Vice President of Investor Education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). In this capacity, she is responsible for the development and operations of FINRA’s investor education program. She is also President of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, where she manages the Foundation’s strategic initiatives to educate and protect investors and to benchmark and foster financial capability for all Americans, especially underserved audiences. Ms. Walsh was the founding executive sponsor of FINRA’s Military Community Employee Resource Group. She serves on the Advisory Council to the Stanford Center on Longevity and represents FINRA on IOSCO’s standing policy committee on retail investor education, the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, NASAA’s Senior Investor Advisory Council and the Wharton Pension Research Council.

Prior to joining FINRA in May 2006, Ms. Walsh was Deputy Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Investor Education and Assistance (OIEA) and, before that, Special Counsel to the Director of OIEA. She also served as a senior attorney in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, investigating and prosecuting violators of the federal securities laws. Before that, she practiced law as an associate with Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C.

Ari Bargil:

Ari Bargil is an attorney with the Institute for Justice. He joined IJ’s Miami Office in September of 2012, and litigates constitutional cases protecting economic liberty, property rights, school choice, and free speech in both federal and state courts.

In 2019, Ari successfully defended two of Florida’s most popular school choice programs, the McKay Program for Students with Disabilities and the Florida Tax Credit Program, before the Florida Supreme Court. As a direct result of the victory, over 120,000 students in Florida have access to scholarships that empower them to attend the schools of their choice.

Ari also regularly defends property owners battling aggressive zoning regulations and excessive fines in state and federal court nationwide and litigates on behalf of entrepreneurs in cutting-edge First Amendment cases. He was co-counsel in a federal appellate court victory vindicating the right of a Florida dairy creamery to tell the truth on its labels, and he is currently litigating in federal appellate court to secure a holistic health coach’s right to share advice about nutrition with her clients. In 2017, Ari was honored by the Daily Business Review as one of South Florida’s “Most Effective Lawyers.”

In addition to litigation, Ari regularly testifies before state and local legislative bodies and committees on issues ranging from occupational licensing to property rights regulation. Ari has also spearheaded several successful legislative campaigns in Florida, including the effort to legalize the sale of 64-ounce “growlers” by craft breweries and the Florida Legislature’s passage of the Right to Garden Act—a reform which made it unlawful for local governments to ban residential vegetable gardens throughout the state.

Ari’s work has been featured by USA Today, NPR, Fox News, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News and other national and local publications.

Christine Lazaro:

Christine Lazaro is Director of the Securities Arbitration Clinic at St. John’s University School of Law. She joined the faculty at St. John’s in 2007 as the Clinic’s Supervising Attorney. She is also a faculty advisor for the Corporate and Securities Law Society.

Prior to joining the Securities Arbitration Clinic, Professor Lazaro was an associate at the boutique law firm of Davidson & Grannum, LLP.  At the firm, she represented broker-dealers and individual brokers in disputes with clients in both arbitration and mediation.  She also handled employment law cases and debt collection cases.  Professor Lazaro was the primary attorney in the firm’s area of practice that dealt with advising broker-dealers regarding investment contracts they had with various municipalities and government entities.  Professor Lazaro is also of Counsel to the Law Offices of Brent A. Burns, LLC, where she consults on securities arbitration and regulatory matters.

Professor Lazaro is a member of the New York State and the American Bar Associations, and the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (PIABA). Professor Lazaro is a past President of PIABA and is a member of the Board of Directors.  She is also a co-chair of PIABA’S Fiduciary Standards Committee, and is a member of the Executive, Legislation, Securities Law Seminar, and SRO Committees. Additionally, Professor Lazaro is the co-chair of the Securities Disputes Committee in the Dispute Resolution Section of the New York State Bar Association and serves on the FINRA Investor Issues Advisory Committee. 

Panel 2: ESG Investing

The second panel will address the growing popularity of ESG funds among investors that want to align their investments with their personal values, and the questions/concerns that arise with ESG funds, including: 1) explaining what they are; 2) discussing the varying definitions and disclosure issues; 3) exploring if investors really give up better market performance if they invest in funds that align with their values; and 4) asking if the increased interest in ESG funds affect corporate change? 

Thomas Riesenberg:

Mr. Riesenberg is Senior Regulatory Advisor to Ceres, working on climate change issues. He previously worked as an advisor to EY Global’s Office of Public Policy on ESG regulatory issues. Before that he worked as the Director of Legal and Regulatory Policy at The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board pursuant to a secondment from EY. At SASB he worked on a range of US and non-US policy matters for nearly seven years. He served for more than 20 years as counsel to EY, including as the Deputy General Counsel responsible for regulatory matters, primarily involving the SEC and the PCAOB. Previously he served for seven years as an Assistant General Counsel at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission where he handled court of appeals and Supreme Court cases involving issues such as insider trading, broker-dealer regulation, and financial fraud. While at the SEC he received the Manuel Cohen Outstanding Younger Lawyer Award for his work on significant enforcement cases. He also worked as a law clerk for a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., as a litigator on environmental matters at the U.S. Department of Justice, and as an associate at a major Washington, D.C. law firm.

Mr. Riesenberg graduated from the New York University School of Law, where he was a member of the Law Review and a Root-Tilden Scholar (full-tuition scholarship). He received a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, where he graduated with honors and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He is a former chair of the Law and Accounting Committee of the American Bar Association, former president of the Association of SEC Alumni, former treasurer of the SEC Historical Society, and a current member of the Advisory Board of the BNA Securities Regulation and Law Report. For seven years he was an adjunct professor of securities law at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is an elected member of the American Law Institute. He serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the D.C. Jewish Community Relations Council and the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation. He is the author of numerous articles on securities law and ESG disclosure issues.

Benjamin Edwards:

Benjamin Edwards joined the faculty of the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2017. In addition to being the Director of the Public Policy Clinic, he researches and writes about business and securities law, corporate governance, arbitration, and consumer protection. Prior to teaching, Professor Edwards practiced as a securities litigator in the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. At Skadden, he represented clients in complex civil litigation, including securities class actions arising out of the Madoff Ponzi scheme and litigation arising out of the 2008 financial crisis.

Max Schatzow:

Max Schatzow is a co-founder and partner of RIA Lawyers LLC—a boutique law firm that focuses almost exclusively on representing investment advisers with legal and regulatory issues. Prior to RIA Lawyers, Max worked at Morgan Lewis representing some of the largest financial institutions in the United States and at another law firm where he represented investment advisers and broker-dealers. Max is a business-minded regulatory lawyer that always tries to put himself in the client’s position. He assists clients in all aspects of forming, registering, owning, and operating an investment adviser. He prides himself in preparing clients and their compliance programs to avert regulatory issues, but also assists clients through examinations and enforcement issues. In addition, Max assists advisers that manage private investment funds. In his little spare time, Max enjoys the Peloton (both stationary and road), golf, craft beer, and spending time with his wife and two children.

February 28, 2022 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Time for a Broad Prophylactic Against Congressional Insider Trading

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.

February 18, 2022 in Ethics, John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 4, 2022

Public Servants or Parasites? Why a Broad Prophylactic against Congressional Insider Trading Makes Sense

In 2011, Peter Schweizer published a book, Throw Them All Out, in which he exposed some questionable means by which (according to one study) politicians manage to increase their personal wealth 50% faster than the average American.

According to Schweizer, trading on material nonpublic information appears to be a popular method among congresspersons for achieving outsized returns on their investments. He cites one study finding:

  • The average American investor underperforms the market.
  • The average corporate insider, trading his own company’s stock, beats the market by 7% a year.
  • The average senator beats the market by 12% a year.

Schweitzer’s book was followed by a feature story on the CBS News show, 60 Minutes, highlighting some dubious stock trades by leaders of both political parties. These stories got the public’s attention and spurred Congress to act—adopting the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act in April of 2012.

The STOCK Act made explicit what many already understood as implicit—that congressional trading based on material nonpublic information acquired by virtue of their position as a public servant was a breach of their fiduciary duties and would therefore violate Section 10b of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Act also expanded disclosure requirements for members of Congress, the executive branch, and their staff members.

But no sooner had the STOCK Act passed than it was quietly overhauled to weaken certain of its key provisions, and, in any event, the Act has not been consistently enforced since its adoption. As a result, public cynicism concerning congressional insider trading has once again snowballed. For example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's stock trades are monitored by popular Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit accounts with handles like "@NancyTracker," and the search “Pelosi stock trades” hit a record high on Google in January 2022.

Of course, Pelosi is not the only congressperson the public suspects of insider trading. For example, a number of U.S. Senators were scrutinized over suspicious stock trades as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020.

So what is to be done? Just as they did in 2011, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are rushing to get out in front of the issue. A number of congressional insider trading reform bills have garnered bipartisan support. Many of these bills propose the broad prophylactic of proscribing members of congress from trading in individual stocks. Some bills would go so far as proscribing trades by spouses and dependent children as well.

There is precedent for broad prophylactics against insider trading. Consider, for example, Exchange Act Rule 14e-3, which permits civil and criminal liability for trading based on material nonpublic information concerning tender offers, even if there is no accompanying proof of fraud.

Though I have argued for reducing the scope of insider trading liability in some contexts (e.g., where such trading is licensed by the issuer of the stock being traded), I have consistently recognized misappropriation trading (such as when a congressperson misappropriates material nonpublic government information to trade for personal gain) as morally wrong, and as warranting civil and criminal sanctions. And I think extending the scope of liability for congressional insider trading with a broad prophylactic (e.g., proscribing all individual stock trades) is warranted for the following reasons (among others):

  • Congress’s influence over the SEC and DOJ makes aggressive enforcement by those agencies more challenging—and when actions are brought, there will always be the specter of political motivation. The broad prophylactic would simplify enforcement, and thereby mitigate these worries.
  • Given the above concerns, even legitimate stock trades by members of Congress will be the subject of continued public suspicion and cynicism. Such suspicion undermines public confidence in the integrity of the legislative branch--and the markets.
  • Protestations that a broad proscription of individual stock trading would be Un-American because "We're a free-market economy" and “[Members of Congress] should be able to participate in that” are totally unavailing. People voluntarily assume roles that deprive them of rights they would otherwise enjoy all the time (e.g., by joining the military), and public service has always been understood as just such a role.
  • Members of congress should not be (significantly) financially disadvantaged by a rule precluding trades in individual stocks. Given the efficient market hypothesis (roughly, that an individual stock’s price always reflects all currently available public information about that stock), members of congress should not expect their individual stock trades to outperform a similar trade in, say, a mutual fund in any event….unless, that is, they have information that is NOT publicly available.... Diversification is typically the best long-term investment strategy.

The most recent ReacClearPolitics Poll Average shows that Congress currently enjoys the approval of 21% of Americans. If Congress would like to begin improving those numbers, I suggest it adopt one of the proposed insider trading bills proscribing individual stock trading by its members. This might go a long way toward restoring the perception that members of Congress are public servants, as opposed to the current perception shared by many Americans (justified or not) that they are public parasites.

February 4, 2022 in Ethics, John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 7, 2022

AALS Annual Meeting 2022 Discussion Group on "A Very Online Economy"

We just wrapped up a fascinating discussion group titled "A Very Online Economy: Meme Trading, Bitcoin, and the Crisis of Trust and Value(s)--How Should the Law Respond?" as part of the AALS 2022 Annual Meeting. I co-moderated the group with Professor Martin Edwards (Belmont University School of Law). Here's the description:

Emergent forces emanating from social and financial technologies are challenging many underlying assumptions about the workings of markets, the nature of firms, and our social relationship with our economic institutions. Blockchain technologies challenge our assumptions about the need for centralization, trust, and financial institutions. Meme trading puts pressure on our assumptions about economic value and market processes. Environmental and social governance initiatives raise important questions about the relationship between economic institutions and social values. These issues will certainly drive policy debates about social and economic good in the coming years.

The group gathered some amazing presenters and commentators for the discussion, including:

The discussion was lively and informative, and I look forward to seeing the final versions of these projects in print! 

January 7, 2022 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Financial Markets, John Anderson, Securities Regulation, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 10, 2021

New Challenges for Insider Trading Compliance (SEALS 2022)

It is an exciting time for insider trading law. BLPB coblogger Joan MacLeod Heminway and I will be moderating a discussion group, New Challenges for Insider Trading Compliance,  at the upcoming Southeastern Law Schools (SEALS) Annual Conference (July 27-August 3, 2022). The conference is scheduled to be held in person in Sandestin, Florida. Here's the description for our discussion group:

Insider trading law in the United States is in a state of flux and uncertainty. In May of 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Insider Trading Prohibition Act. If this bill becomes law, it will impose an entirely new statutory regime for civil and criminal enforcement. Moreover, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Gary Gensler recently directed the staff to present recommendations to "freshen up" and tighten the operative provisions in Rule 10b5-1 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended. In response, in August of 2021, the SEC's Investor Advisory Committee proposed extensive new restrictions on the use of 10b5-1(c) trading plans as an affirmative defense for insider trading. Meanwhile, prosecutors and regulators continue to employ novel theories of liability in insider trading enforcement actions. Criminal enforcement actions under 18 U.S.C. § 1348 and civil enforcement under the novel "shadow trading" theory of liability are just two examples. How will these and other impending changes affect compliance departments at public companies and in the financial industry? How should the lawyers in these and other organizations prepare? Should market participants welcome these potential changes to our insider trading laws, or are there grounds for concern? This discussion group is designed to address these and other related questions.

There may still be room for additional participants. If you are a law (or business law) professor who is interested in joining the discussion in sunny Florida, don't hesitate to reach out to me at jpanders@mc.edu.

December 10, 2021 in John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 26, 2021

Presenting at the 16th Annual Meeting of the American College of Business Court Judges

I was recently honored to be invited to join a panel at the 16th Annual Meeting of the American College of Business Court Judges (ABCBJ), which was held in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 27-29. The meeting was hosted by Chancellor Denise Owens (the current president of the ACBCJ) in association with the Law & Economics Center (LEC) at George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law.

Chancellor Owens kicked off the event and introduced the keynote speaker, Haley Barbour (former Governor of Mississippi). Governor Barbour gave an excellent talk about the ways in which Mississippi's musical traditions have helped to improve race relations over the past century.

The meeting panels covered a broad array of topics, including:

  • Ownership, Transfer and Trading of Intellecual Property Rights.
  • The Cost of Truth, Can You Afford It?
  • Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Algorithms: Studies in Law, Economics, and Racial Bias
  • Thriving Post Pandemic - Private Practice and Expanding Regulatory Authority After COVID-19.

I joined Professors Todd Zywicki and Donald Kochan on a panel moderated by Judge Elihu Berle (Los Angeles Superior Court). The panel was entitled, Shareholder Wealth Maximization versus ESG and the Business Roundtable: The Growing Debate Over Corporate Purpose. I presented on the Securities and Exchange Commission's plans for a new mandatory climate-change-related disclosure regime. The prsentation drew from portions of a recent essay I coauthored with Professor George Mocsary, An Economic Climate Change?

The conference concluded with the tour of our new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. It was a wonderful meeting, and I look forward to participating in future ABCBJ events!

November 26, 2021 in Business Associations, Conferences, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 22, 2021

JP Morgan Sued Elon Musk’s Tesla For Breach Of Contract: How Did I Predict It? - Lécia Vicente (Guest Post)

Friend-of-the-BLPB Lécia Vicente sent along the following post, which I thought our readers might find interesting, especially in light of the blog's prior posts on Elon Musk and his conduct (including those from Ann and me, like this one--citing to many others--and that one).  Enjoy!  Comment, as desired.  I have my own comments, which I will share in due course.

And (in this week of giving thanks) I offer gratitude to Lécia for bringing this post to us!  (You may remember that she guest blogged with us last December--almost a year ago.  Where did the time go?)

+++++

On November 6th 2021, Elon Musk polled his Twitter followers to determine if he should sell 10% of his stake in his company, Tesla. He wrote, “[m]uch is made lately of unrealized gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock. Do you support this?”

On November 8th 2021, two days after Musk’s tweet, I tweeted the following question, "[c]an Musk actually be sued if he doesn’t follow through on his pledge to sell?” Initially, I was more concerned about securities law. Based on Musk’s tweets, shareholders might be misled to sell, meaning that Musk could be sued for misrepresentation. Similar scenarios of securities fraud involving Tesla and Elon Musk have happened before. In addition, Musk’s tweets could trigger claims of breach of contractual duties. A week after my tweet, on November 15th 2021, JP Morgan filed a complaint against Tesla for breach of contractual duties. I guess I predicted it.

Specifically, in JP Morgan Chase Bank, National Association, London Branch v. Tesla, Inc, JP Morgan is suing for the Tesla CEO’s tweet on August 7th 2018 when he stated “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” This statement came from the chair of Tesla’s board of directors and controlling shareholder. While the tone and seriousness of the announcement is debatable, JP Morgan took it seriously. Seriously enough to sue.

On February 27th 2014 and March 28th 2014, JP Morgan entered a series of agreements with Tesla in which JP Morgan would buy Tesla stock warrants at a specified “strike price.” Additionally, the warrants maintained an adjustment clause in case of an announcement of a significant corporate transaction involving Tesla, such as an acquisition. The purpose of the adjustment clause was to protect the parties from adverse economic effects. The 2021 Warrants expired between June and July 2021.

As explained in the complaint, in a Form 8-K filed on November 5th 2013, Tesla identified Elon Musk’s personal Twitter account “as a source of material public information about the company” and encouraged investors to review that account. The complaint also stated that:

Because the tweet violated NASDAQ rules requiring at least 10 minutes’ advance notice before a listed corporation publicly disclosed a going-private transaction, NASDAQ temporarily halted trading in Tesla’s stock following Mr. Musk’s tweet, evidencing that the exchange considered the tweet to constitute an announcement by the company itself.

After Mr. Musk’s tweet, Tesla’s Chief Financial Officer, its head of communications, and its General Counsel drafted an email—attributed to Mr. Musk—detailing the going-private plan. The email was sent to Tesla employees and published the same day on both Mr. Musk’s Twitter account and Tesla’s blog (which Tesla had also designated as a source of material public information about the company). In the email, and in a series of tweets responding to his Twitter followers, Mr. Musk elaborated on his plans to take Tesla private. He concluded in a tweet that “Investor support is confirmed. Only reason why this is not certain is that it’s contingent on a shareholder vote.”

That same day, in response to various inquiries from research analysts, Tesla’s head of investor relations confirmed that Mr. Musk’s tweet signified a “firm offer” to take Tesla private that was “as firm as it gets.” Specifically, she wrote in response to press inquiries about the tweet:

  • “I can only say that the first Tweet clearly stated that ‘financing is secured.’ Yes, there is a firm offer.”
  • “[A]part from what has been tweeted and what was written in a blog post, we can’t add anything else. I only wanted to stress that Elon’s first tweet, which mentioned ‘financing secured’ is correct.”
  • “The very first tweet simply mentioned ‘Funding secured’ which means there is a firm offer. Elon did not disclose details of who the buyer is . . . .  I actually don’t know [whether there is a commitment letter or a verbal agreement], but I would assume that given we went full-on public with this, the offer is as firm as it gets.”

It turns out that Elon Musk’s announcement of an acquisition was false. However, JP Morgan and all the banks that had entered similar contracts with Tesla, namely Goldman Sachs, did not know that at the time of the announcement. Still, JP Morgan adjusted the terms of the 2021 Warrants as a result of Tesla’s announcement of acquisition and, later, its abandonment of the transaction on August 24th 2018. JP Morgan considered that such adjustments were contractually required. Tesla refused to settle and pay in full what JP Morgan claimed Tesla owed as a result of the adjustments. JP Morgan ended up suing Tesla for $162,216,628.81, to be precise, for breach of contractual duties.

So, did Elon Musk’s tweet on August 7th 2018 constitute an announcement of an acquisition? Was it a “firm offer” to enter into a contract?”

Interestingly, JP Morgan’s complaint resonates with Johnson v. Capital City Ford, a case decided by the Louisiana Court of Appeal, in 1955. In Johnson v. Capital City Ford Co., the Court had to determine whether a unilateral declaration of will like an advertisement constituted a firm offer. Capital City Ford found itself with a surplus of 1954 Fords. To get rid of them, the company placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, the gist of which was “[c]ome in, buy a 1954 Ford and, when the new models come in, we will let you trade in the 1954 model for a 1955 model at no extra charge.”

In response to the announcement, Johnson went to Capital City’s lot, picked out a 1954 model, and bought it. When the new models arrived a short time later, Johnson returned to the Capital City lot and demanded a trade. Capital City refused, claiming that the advertisements “were not intended as offers, but merely as invitations to come in and bargain.”

The Court advanced the following major premises: (1) A newspaper advertisement may constitute an offer, acceptance of which will consummate a contract and create an obligation in the offeror to perform according to the terms of the published offer. (2) An offer to be effective, need not be addressed to determinate offerees; it can, instead, be addressed to the public at large. (3) Whether a particular advertisement is an offer, rather than an invitation to make an offer or enter negotiations, depends on “the legal intention of the parties and the surrounding circumstances.” (4) If the meaning of a declaration of will is doubtful or uncertain due to “want of explanation” that the declarer should have given or from “any other negligence of fault of his,” then “the construction most favorable to the other party shall be adopted.”

The Court held the advertisement was an offer. To a reader, the wording of the advertisement denoted a bona fide offer, and it was certain and definite enough to constitute a legal offer. If Capital City Ford really intended the advertisement not as an offer but as an invitation to make an offer, it should have said something to that effect. The advertisement created a risk of uncertainty through its ambiguous statements. Therefore, the onus was on Capital City Ford to clear up the ambiguity. Since the company did not do so, the Court construed the advertisement against Capital City.

In Johnson v. Capital City Ford, the Court applied another case R. E. Crummer & Co v. Nuveen et al. (1945). In Crummer & Co v. Nuveen, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had to decide if a notice published in a regular paper circulated among municipal bond dealers was a mere solicitation for offers to sell the bonds or an offer to purchase them. The notice reads as follows:

For the convenience of bondholders who may wish to surrender their bonds, the Board […] has arranged to provide funds for the purchase of the above described bonds at par and interest to December 1, 1941. Holders may send their bonds to the Manufacturers Trust Company for surrender pursuant to such terms.

The plaintiff was the owner and holder of $458,829 principal amount of the bonds, dated June 1st 1940 and due June 1st 1970. The defendants arranged with the Manufacturers Bank of New York (“Bank”) to deposit funds necessary to cover all such bonds presented for payment pursuant to the terms of the notice. The plaintiff, in reliance on the notice, delivered its bonds to the Bank on December 11th 1941. However, the Bank refused to pay the principal amount as provided by the notice. The plaintiff attempted to sell the bonds to other parties at par, but the bid for them was substantially less than par resulting in damages of $35,000. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the notice was merely a solicitation for offers to sell the bonds and not an offer to purchase them.

The US Court of Appeals maintained:

We cannot believe that the ordinary business man could be expected to read the advertisement as an invitation to send bonds from wherever he might be to New York on the chance that when they got there the advertiser would accept his offer to enter into negotiations for the purchase of the bonds. Rather, we think the wording of the advertisement is such as to show "an intent to assume legal liability thereby." [emphasis added].

In other words, the US Court of Appeals considered the notice as an offer to purchase bonds and not a mere solicitation for offers to negotiate the sale of bonds.

The agreements JP Morgan entered with Tesla included an announcement event protection clause. An “announcement event” is contractually defined in the agreements as follows:

(i)        The public announcement of any Merger Event or Tender Offer or the announcement by the Issuer of any intention to enter into a Merger Event or Tender Offer,

(ii)       the public announcement by Issuer of an intention to solicit or enter into, or to explore strategic alternatives or other similar undertaking that may include, a Merger Event or Tender Offer or

(iii)      any subsequent public announcement of a change to a transaction or intention that is the subject of an announcement of the type described in clause (i) or (ii) of this sentence (including, without limitation, a new announcement relating to such a transaction or intention or the announcement of a withdrawal from, or the abandonment or discontinuation of, such a transaction or intention) (in each case, whether such announcement is made by Issuer or a third party);

provided that, for the avoidance of doubt, the occurrence of an Announcement Event with respect to any transaction or intention shall not preclude the occurrence of a later Announcement Event with respect to such transaction or intention. 

Did Tesla’s CEO manifest a plain and clear intention to make a firm offer to sell his stock? Were his tweets mere invitations to negotiate rather than firm offers? Was there consideration or any sort of reward if the potential offerees satisfied specified requirements? Was his August 7th 2018 tweet a promise to enter contracts to sell stock?

Potentially, Musk's tweet could be seen as an offer to sell his stock to his Twitter followers if it gave the public the right to acquire Tesla’s stock when Tesla sold them. In this scenario, if those who accepted the offer paid for the stock when it was sold, then a contract would have been formed. In addition, Musk’s tweet could be seen as a promise to sell stock. In this case, offerees have a right to demand that Musk sell the stock. If this is a promise Musk did not intend to keep, then the SEC can understandably view it as a false statement.

More important than Elon Musk’s behavior is the actions as a result from his tweet on August 7th 2018. Why did he do it? It is doubtful that the tweet was originally intended as an offer to sell stock. It is not clear if Tesla’s CEO’s intention was to have his Twitter followers contact him with an acceptance and form a contract. That investors feel strongly about Elon Musk’s tweets is not surprising. As Jeremy Grantham said in a 2019 interview to CNBC news channel, Tesla “is an extreme demonstration of growth.”

The bottom line is that there is space to explore what substantiates an offer-via-tweet in the context of corporate transactions such as initial public offerings, takeovers, mergers and acquisitions. Even if one concludes Musk did not provide a firm offer, the contractual terms of JP Morgan and Tesla’s 2021 Warrants help expand this interesting area of contract law.

*           *           *

Thank you to Nathan B. Oman, Rollins Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Markets at William and Mary Law for comments and fruitful interaction on this issue via Twitter.

November 22, 2021 in Ann Lipton, Contracts, Joan Heminway, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 12, 2021

Weighing the Costs, Benefits, and Authority for Mandatory SEC Climate-Related Disclosure Rules

According to SEC Chair, Gary Gensler, “[w]hen it comes to climate risk disclosures, investors are raising their hands and asking for more.” He has therefore asked his staff to prepare recommendations on new mandatory climate-change-related disclosure rules.

There appear to be two principal policy goals behind this proposed mandatory climate-related disclosure regime. First, to advise current and prospective investors of previously undisclosed physical and transitional climate-related risks through reliable, consistent, and comparable disclosures. Second, to structure the disclosure requirements to highlight “bad actors” and incentivize changes in the climate-related behavior of publicly traded companies.

Not everyone is, however, convinced that new, mandatory climate disclosures are necessary or even wise. For example, two of the five current SEC Commissioners have questioned the wisdom and/or need for new climate disclosure rules. In addition, Professor Stephen Bainbridge and Professors Paul and Julia Mahoney have expressed concern over the costs of a new climate-disclosure regime, as well as skepticism over the claim that climate disclosures are important to the average investor.

In our recent essay, An Economic Climate Change?, my coauthor George Mocsary and I weigh into the debate over the wisdom of new mandatory climate-change disclosure rules for issuers by asking: (1) Are the goals behind the proposed reforms worthy and appropriate for an SEC disclosure regime (the mission of which is to maintain efficient markets and facilitate capital formation)? (2) Can these goals be accomplished under the existing regime? (3) What would a new disclosure requirement cost, both directly and indirectly? (4) Would any benefits from increased disclosure outweigh those costs?

We conclude that, with respect to disclosure of transitional climate-related risks (risks to issuers from current or prospective regulatory demands and broader market trends toward a carbon-neutral world), new disclosure rules would be either redundant or outside the scope the SEC’s statutory authority.

Concerning mandatory disclosure of physical risk (a company’s risk to physical assets, markets, and supply chain due to climate-related extreme weather events), we express concern that the unreliability of the nascent discipline of “event attribution science” (which strives to identify causal links from human-influenced climate change to extreme weather events) would force issuers into rampant speculation that would be of little use to investors. It is not consistent with the SEC’s mission (and is likely outside its current statutory authority) to mandate disclosures that would be of little or no use to investors.

Finally, we conclude by highlighting the potential for some unintended consequences of mandatory disclosures in this area. For example, the burden of such disclosures may force some currently public companies to go private. This would have the result of further reducing the already decreasing number of investment opportunities for Main Street investors. Moreover, capital may shift abroad to markets that do not require climate-related disclosures, making U.S. markets less competitive. And perhaps most concerning, new climate disclosure rules may force larger, more eco-friendly companies to reduce their carbon footprint by selling off fossil-fuel-based assets and business lines. These assets may be purchased by private or foreign companies that are less concerned about the environment. This may actually result in a net increase in carbon emissions.

November 12, 2021 in John Anderson, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 15, 2021

Meme Stocks, Hypermateriality, and Insider Trading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2021 in John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 1, 2021

Douglas on "Creepy" Concepts and Insider Trading Reform

Insider trading reform has been a consistent theme in my last few posts (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). In keeping with this theme, I’d like to highlight a new article, How Creepy Concepts Undermine Effective Insider Trading Reform, which was posted just yesterday by Professor Kevin R. Douglas (Michigan State College of Law). Professor Douglas is an important new voice in the areas of securities regulation, corporate finance, and business law more generally. Here’s the abstract:

Lawmakers are building momentum towards codifying our insider trading laws to clarify which kind of trading is illegal. In May 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the Insider Trading Prohibition Act for the second time in two years. In January 2020, a Securities and Exchange Commission sponsored task force on insider trading released a report containing proposed legislation. Both the House Bill and the task force proposal would prohibit trading while in possession of “wrongfully obtained” information and prohibit trades that involve a “wrongful use” of information. This article explains why the concept of “wrongful” trading is too ambiguous to improve insider trading law and explores the requirements of effective legislative reform.

For decades, scholars have described insider trading doctrine as mystifying and called for reform. Many explain the confusion by pointing to the stark difference in how enforcement officials and federal courts apply insider trading law. Others argue that the confusion is caused by policymakers failing to choose between fostering efficient markets and fostering fair or equitable markets. This article argues that the conflict between courts and enforcement officials is a symptom of two deeper conceptual problems—one at the doctrinal level and one at the policy level. The doctrinal confusion is more precisely caused by the attempt to simultaneously invoke two conflicting concepts of “fairness.” Fairness meaning consensual transactions, versus fairness meaning transactions in which all parties enjoy equal access to all material information and other economic values. Attempting to simultaneously apply these mutually exclusive notions of fairness has caused a slow and inconsistent conceptual creep, resulting in an incoherent doctrine.

The policy confusion is caused by officials relying on economic models that use misidentified theories of “economic efficiency.” Officials describe the policy goal of our insider trading regime as encouraging capital formation in US securities markets and economic growth in general. These goals imply an exclusive commitment to promoting “allocational efficiency”—or maximizing wealth. However, scholars usually rely on the concept of “market efficiency” when evaluating the law and practice of insider trading. The definition of market efficiency relies on assumptions that embody an unacknowledged focus on economic distribution—equalizing wealth. This includes the assumptions that all investors (1) trade at the same price (the correct price) and (2) have equal access to all available information. Conflating these forms of efficiency causes officials to unintentionally oscillate between promoting opaque distribution goals and promoting economic growth.

This article recommends clarifying insider trading law by prioritizing one of the two conflicting fairness doctrines and a compatible policy goal. Clarity requires specifying whether consent is a defense against insider trading liability. Enforcing only one fairness doctrine gives everyone the option of attempting to privately adhere to both principles while successfully applying one of the principles through law.

October 1, 2021 in John Anderson, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Ten Ethical Traps for Business Lawyers

I'm so excited to present later this morning at the University of Tennessee College of Law Connecting the Threads Conference today at 10:45 EST. Here's the abstract from my presentation. In future posts, I will dive more deeply into some of these issues. These aren't the only ethical traps, of course, but there's only so many things you can talk about in a 45-minute slot. 

All lawyers strive to be ethical, but they don’t always know what they don’t know, and this ignorance can lead to ethical lapses or violations. This presentation will discuss ethical pitfalls related to conflicts of interest with individual and organizational clients; investing with clients; dealing with unsophisticated clients and opposing counsel; competence and new technologies; the ever-changing social media landscape; confidentiality; privilege issues for in-house counsel; and cross-border issues. Although any of the topics listed above could constitute an entire CLE session, this program will provide a high-level overview and review of the ethical issues that business lawyers face.

Specifically, this interactive session will discuss issues related to ABA Model Rules 1.5 (fees), 1.6 (confidentiality), 1.7 (conflicts of interest), 1.8 (prohibited transactions with a client), 1.10 (imputed conflicts of interest), 1.13 (organizational clients), 4.3 (dealing with an unrepresented person), 7.1 (communications about a lawyer’s services), 8.3 (reporting professional misconduct); and 8.4 (dishonesty, fraud, deceit).  

Discussion topics will include:

  1. Do lawyers have an ethical duty to take care of their wellbeing? Can a person with a substance use disorder or major mental health issue ethically represent their client? When can and should an impaired lawyer withdraw? When should a lawyer report a colleague?
  2. What ethical obligations arise when serving on a nonprofit board of directors? Can a board member draft organizational documents or advise the organization? What potential conflicts of interest can occur?
  3. What level of technology competence does an attorney need? What level of competence do attorneys need to advise on technology or emerging legal issues such as SPACs and cryptocurrencies? Is attending a CLE or law school course enough?
  4. What duties do lawyers have to educate themselves and advise clients on controversial issues such as business and human rights or ESG? Is every business lawyer now an ESG lawyer?
  5. What ethical rules apply when an in-house lawyer plays both a legal role and a business role in the same matter or organization? When can a lawyer representing a company provide legal advice to an employee?
  6. With remote investigations, due diligence, hearings, and mediations here to stay, how have professional duties changed in the virtual world? What guidance can we get from ABA Formal Opinion 498 issued in March 2021? How do you protect confidential information and also supervise others remotely?
  7. What social media practices run afoul of ethical rules and why? How have things changed with the explosion of lawyers on Instagram and TikTok?
  8. What can and should a lawyer do when dealing with a businessperson on the other side of the deal who is not represented by counsel or who is represented by unsophisticated counsel?
  9. When should lawyers barter with or take an equity stake in a client? How does a lawyer properly disclose potential conflicts?
  10. What are potential gaps in attorney-client privilege protection when dealing with cross-border issues? 

If you need some ethics CLE, please join in me and my co-bloggers, who will be discussing their scholarship. In case Joan Heminway's post from yesterday wasn't enough to entice you...

Professor Anderson’s topic is “Insider Trading in Response to Expressive Trading”, based upon his upcoming article for Transactions. He will also address the need for business lawyers to understand the rise in social-media-driven trading (SMD trading) and options available to issuers and their insiders when their stock is targeted by expressive traders.

Professor Baker’s topic is “Paying for Energy Peaks: Learning from Texas' February 2021 Power Crisis.” Professor Baker will provide an overview of the regulation of Texas’ electric power system and the severe outages in February 2021, explaining why Texas is on the forefront of challenges that will grow more prominent as the world transitions to cleaner energy. Next, it explains competing electric power business models and their regulation, including why many had long viewed Texas’ approach as commendable, and why the revealed problems will only grow more pressing. It concludes by suggesting benefits and challenges of these competing approaches and their accompanying regulation.

Professor Heminway’s topic is “Choice of Entity: The Fiscal Sponsorship Alternative to Nonprofit Incorporation.” Professor Heminway will discuss how for many small business projects that qualify for federal income tax treatment under Section 501(a) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, the time and expense of organizing, qualifying, and maintaining a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation may be daunting (or even prohibitive). Yet there would be advantages to entity formation and federal tax qualification that are not available (or not easily available) to unincorporated business projects. Professor Heminway addresses this conundrum by positing a third option—fiscal sponsorship—and articulating its contextual advantages.

Professor Moll’s topic is “An Empirical Analysis of Shareholder Oppression Disputes.” This panel will discuss how the doctrine of shareholder oppression protects minority shareholders in closely held corporations from the improper exercise of majority control, what factors motivate a court to find oppression liability, and what factors motivate a court to reject an oppression claim. Professor Moll will also examine how “oppression” has evolved from a statutory ground for involuntary dissolution to a statutory ground for a wide variety of relief.

Professor Murray’s topic is “Enforcing Benefit Corporation Reporting.” Professor Murray will begin his discussion by focusing on the increasing number of states that have included express punishments in their benefit corporation statutes for reporting failures. Part I summarizes and compares the statutory provisions adopted by various states regarding benefit reporting enforcement. Part II shares original compliance data for states with enforcement provisions and compares their rates to the states in the previous benefit reporting studies. Finally, Part III discusses the substance of the benefit reports and provides law and governance suggestions for improving social benefit.

All of this and more from the comfort of your own home. Hope to see you on Zoom today and next year in person at the beautiful UT campus.

September 24, 2021 in Colleen Baker, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, International Business, Joan Heminway, John Anderson, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 17, 2021

The SEC Can't Have Its Cake and Eat It Too: Some Concerns for Proposed Trading Plan Reforms

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Chairman, Gary Gensler, recently directed the staff to present recommendations to "freshen up" and tighten some provisions in Exchange Act Rule 10b5-1. In response, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee proposed new restrictions on the use of 10b5-1(c) trading plans as an affirmative defense against insider trading liability. The proposed changes are designed to address concerns that "some plans are used to engage in opportunistic trading behavior that contravenes the intent behind the rule," and they are consistent with recommendations outlined in the  Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act that passed the House of Representatives in April 2021.

But any proposed restrictions to trading plans must be considered in light of the broader context of Rule 10b5-1, and the motivation behind the affirmative defense’s adoption.

The courts have interpreted Section 10b of the Exchange Act as prohibiting insiders from trading in their own company’s shares only if they do so “on the basis” of material nonpublic information. This element of intent for insider trading liability can be difficult for regulators and prosecutors to satisfy because insiders who possess material nonpublic information at the time of their trade can often claim that they did not use the information to trade. They may claim, for example, that they only sold stock to pay their child’s college tuition bill, and the material nonpublic information had nothing to do with the trade.

Prior to 2000, the SEC and prosecutors sought to defeat this defense strategy by taking the position that knowing possession of material nonpublic information while trading satisfies the “on the basis of” element of insider trading liability. But when pressed, this strategy met with only mixed results in the courts. In an attempt to settle a circuit split over this “use-versus-possession” issue, the SEC adopted Rule 10b5-1, which defines trading “on the basis of” material nonpublic information for purposes of insider trading liability as trading while “aware” of such information.

The SEC anticipated two problems for its new awareness test: (1) It anticipated concern from the courts that imposing liability on a person who is merely aware of material nonpublic information while trading (without a causal relation between the information and the trade) would exceed the commission’s statutory authority by failing to satisfy the requirement of scienter under the general antifraud provisions of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act. (2) There was also a concern that the broad awareness test may chill legitimate trading by insiders (e.g., for portfolio diversification), which would negatively impact the value of firm shares as a form of compensation. The 10b5-1 trading plan as an affirmative defense to insider trading liability was designed to mitigate these concerns.

Now, the SEC is considering significant new restrictions on the use of trading plans that include (a) a “cooling off” period of at least four months between plan adoption and trading or modification; (b) a prohibition on overlapping plans; and (c) new disclosure requirements.

In two recent articles, Anticipating a Sea Change for Insider Trading Law: From Trading Plan Crisis to Rational Reform and Undoing a Deal with the Devil: Some Challenges for Congress's Proposed Reform of Insider Trading Plans, I argue that additional restrictions on trading plan use like those being proposed by the SEC risk defeating the very purposes for which the affirmative defense was adopted. For example, new restrictions on 10b5-1(c) trading plans may force courts to conclude that the SEC exceeded its authority with the adoption of its broad 10b5-1(b) awareness test. Moreover, since new restrictions on trading plans will make it more difficult for employees to sell shares issued to them as equity compensation, those shares will be less valuable to employees. Firms will therefore have to offer more shares to employees to achieve the same remunerative effect. This will impose new costs on shareholders. Will the anticipated benefits of the new restrictions offset these costs?

My hope is that the SEC will take these considerations (and others I have raised) into account as it mulls the question of 10b5-1(c) trading plan reform. After all, the Commission cannot have its cake and eat it too!

September 17, 2021 in Ethics, John Anderson, Law and Economics, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)