We now turn to insider trading. As mentioned above, the main rule is again 10b-5, but the questions are rather different than those in standard securities fraud cases. Doctrinally, the main question is how to fit the idea of insider trading (use of inside information) under an anti-fraud rule (answer: by inventing a duty to disclose, such that insiders commit fraud by omission if they don’t disclose). The main policy question is how far insider trading liability should reach. There must be some informed trading if prices are supposed to be “efficient,” i.e., correct. The three cases we will read are about that.
Practically speaking, the biggest issue of insider trading law is enforcement. In the words of Judge Rakoff at the sentencing of Rajat Gupta (the retired chief executive of McKinsey and board member of Goldman Sachs who passed confidential information from Goldman’s board meeting to a hedge fund as soon as he left the meeting):
Insider trading is an easy crime to commit but a difficult crime to catch. Others similarly situated to the defendant must therefore be made to understand that when you get caught, you will go to jail.
These enforcement difficulties are one reason why insider trading is policed primarily through criminal and administrative enforcement, not private litigation. Many insider trading cases come to light only through criminal law enforcement tools such as wire-tapping. The exchanges also have monitoring systems and report unusual trading activity to the SEC.
Another reason why private litigation plays a minor role is the lack of incentives for plaintiff law firms. The courts and SEA§20A(b)(1), adopted in 1988, have capped insider trading damages at the gain derived by the defendant. In any event, the individual defendants are usually judgment proof beyond some comparatively small amount of personal wealth (compared, that is, to the hundreds of millions the plaintiff law firms can win from corporations).
Perhaps in recognition of these enforcement difficulties, §16 of the Exchange Act provides two rules that do not directly target insider trading but may catch or expose most of it.
Subsection (a) provides that corporate directors, officers, and principal stockholders must within two business days disclose each and every transaction in the corporation’s equity securities, including derivatives written on those securities. The Act defines principal stockholders as those who own at least 10% of the corporation’s stock. The SEC provides further definitions of the subsection’s terms in rules 16a-1 and 16a-2. Rule 16a-3(a) stipulates that filings are to be made on the so-called “form 4.”
Naturally, not all trades by corporate insiders disclosed on form 4 are illegal. If the insider does not possess any material non-public information at the time of trade, the trade is permissible. But once disclosed on form 4, the insiders’ trades can be scrutinized by private and public investigators.
Subsection (b) of §16 grants the corporation a right of action to recover any so-called short swing trading profits from its officers, directors, and principal stockholders. (The provision explicitly contemplates a shareholder derivative action if the corporation does not bring suit within 60 days of a request.) The provision is explicitly targeting insider trading in a prophylactic manner. It reads, in its core part:
“For the purpose of preventing the unfair use of information which may have been obtained by such beneficial owner, director, or officer by reason of his relationship to the issuer, any profit realized by him from any purchase and sale, or any sale and purchase, of any equity security of such issuer . . . within any period of less than six months . . . shall inure to and be recoverable by the issuer.”
Clearly, not all trades occurring within six months of one another use insider information. Nor are all trades that do use insider information unwound within six months. The provision is thus both over- and under-inclusive as a weapon against insider trading. It is, however, very easy to administer, especially given the information provided on forms 4.
The main rule that directly targets the impermissible use of insider information is 10b-5.
As already mentioned, the issues arising under 10b-5 in insider trading cases are quite different from the main issues in standard securities fraud litigation. Many of the issues occupying private securities fraud litigators are simply irrelevant in criminal insider trading cases. Criminal liability requires only a misrepresentation of a material fact committed with scienter. The other, victim-centric elements of private fraud claims, namely reliance, injury, and loss causation, are irrelevant. Moreover, prosecutors tend to shy away from cases where materiality is not self-evident.
The main doctrinal question in insider trading cases is whether there was a misrepresentation. To cast the mere use of inside information in impersonal security markets as a misrepresentation towards an anonymous counterparty required considerable doctrinal work by the courts. Before rule 10b-5, most courts had refused to subsume insider trading under common law fraud. The SEC, the federal courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court brought insider trading under the 10b-5 anti-fraud rule by stipulating a “duty to abstain [from trading] or disclose.” In reading the cases, you might wonder where exactly that duty comes from. In any event, Congress explicitly endorsed this jurisprudence post hoc.
In comparative perspective, the Supreme Court’s wrestling with the notion of a “duty to disclose or abstain” is an anomaly. Other jurisdictions, such as the UK, have insider trading rules distinct from general anti-fraud rules. The doctrinal issue of a “duty to disclose” does not arise there. Of course, all jurisdictions have to grapple with the legal and policy question of what exactly does and should constitute illegal insider trading.
Other federal rules
There are other, more specialized insider trading rules. In particular, after losing Chiarella below, the SEC adopted rule 14e-3 against insider trading in the context of tender offers. As discussed in O’Hagan below, this rule is not directly based on the fraud concept and therefore broader.
Many other SEC rules deal with details of insider trading, in particular under rule 10b-5. Again, the irony is that the SEC never passed an explicit rule against insider trading under SEA §10, even though it did pass rules interpreting the court decisions interpreting rule 10b-5 with respect to insider trading.
For example, the SEC adopted a safe harbor provision for “trading plans” under which executives pre-commit to buy or sell their corporation’s securities at certain future points in time (rule 10b5-1). This rule is important because a large part of executive compensation is stock or options. Executives could hardly ever monetize these awards before retirement if they did not have this safe harbor.
Rule 10b5-2 purports to define the “duty of trust” whose breach can give rise to insider trading liability under the misappropriation theory (see O’Hagan below). Of note, paragraph (b)(3) of the rule presumes such a duty between family members.
Insider trading may also raise a claim under state law. The Delaware Supreme Court recently reaffirmed this rule in Kahn v. Kolberg Kravis Roberts (2011). Relying on Guth, the Court held that such a “Brophy” claim (after a 1949 decision) is not limited to damages sustained by the corporation or even to the loss of a corporate opportunity (to trade). Instead, the Court predicated insider-trading liability on “unjust enrichment based on the misuse of confidential corporate information.” Again, however, such private claims are rarely brought, presumably because of the enforcement difficulties outlined above.
While insider trading is criminal today, it used to be considered a normal executive perk in the not too distant past. Moreover, serious policy analysts have argued that insider trading ought to be permissible. Their main argument is that insider trades reveal information to the market. To wit, if insiders buy, the market can infer good news, and the stock price will go up. Inversely, if insiders sell, the market can infer bad news, and the stock price will go down. In either case, the insider trades move the prices closer to the “fundamental value” of the stock. Insider trading thus makes the price more “informationally efficient,” i.e., correct.
The standard objection is that like any trading gain, the inside trader’s gain is another trader’s loss. Insider trading thus systematically shifts value from outside investors and speculators to insiders. As a result, such outside investment and speculation may be deterred.
The standard objection is seriously incomplete because losing against a better informed trader is a normal part of trading. For an uninformed trader, it is irrelevant if he or she loses to an insider or to hedge funds who compiled the information from public sources. A more subtle objection is that hedge funds might not enter the market if they had to compete against better informed insiders. The net effect of insider trading could thus be less information in stock prices. As long as the information content is at least not less, however, having the insiders do the trading is actually preferable: it saves the resources (personnel, computing power, spy satellites, etc.) that the hedge funds would have directed at figuring out information that the insiders already possess.
There is a much bigger problem with the contrarian view favoring insider trading. It assumes that all other insider behavior would be unchanged if insider trading were allowed. Realistically, insiders would probably be much more reluctant to disclose information if keeping it secret increased their trading profits. Thus, allowing insider trading might reduce, rather than increase, the information available to the public and ultimately the informational efficiency of stock prices. Worse, insiders might intentionally increase the riskiness of the corporation’s business if they could use inside information about risk realizations for profitable trading. That is, the ability to trade would divert insiders’ attention and warp their incentives in choosing projects. They could attempt to profit from, and expend resources on, trading (a social zero-sum game), rather than focusing on producing good products, etc. (a social welfare improvement). Prohibiting insider trading thus helps align insiders’ incentives with social welfare.