The basic idea of insider trading law is that if you work for a company, and you get important secret information about that company in the course of your work, you can’t steal that information and use it for your own benefit. If you are the chief executive officer of the company, and you know that earnings will be disastrous, you can’t sell your stock. If you are an investment banker working for the company, and you know it is going to be acquired at a big premium, you can’t buy its stock. That information belongs to the company and its shareholders, and you have a duty to them, and you would violate that duty if you traded on it for your own benefit.1
This isn’t particularly about trading. It’s about misusing the company’s information for your own profit, violating your duty to act in the shareholders’ interest. And so you don’t have to trade to be guilty of insider trading.2 Otherwise it would be too easy to get around the law. You could just sell the information to someone else, and he could trade on it, and pay you out of his profits. From the point of view of insider trading law, that’s just as bad as if you had traded yourself: Either way, you are violating your duties to the company and its shareholders by misusing their information for your own financial benefit. You’ve just changed how you get that benefit. So you are still guilty of insider trading. (And so is he, as part of your plot to violate your duties by trading on corporate information.)
Similarly, if you just give the inside information to your spouse, or your child, and they trade on it, that’s pretty much the same thing as you trading on it. You’re keeping it in the family; misusing the shareholders’ information for your spouse’s benefit is no less corrupt than misusing it for your own benefit. And if you give the information to your cousin, or brother-in-law, or best friend from college, and they trade on it (without kicking any profits back to you) … I mean, that’s not quite the same thing. Your best friend’s money isn’t interchangeable with yours. But it’s pretty close. Using your corporate information to benefit your buddy has the same aura of corruption as using it to benefit yourself. And so, again, you and he are guilty of insider trading.
What if you just randomly give the information to a stranger, and he trades on it? This is a hypothetical beloved by lawyers and judges, but it is dumb. No one would do that, so don’t worry about it.3
Instead, worry about the actual reason that insiders sometimes give information to people who trade on it, and who don’t pay them a kickback for the information, and who are not their friends or family members. Mostly, the way that happens is that someone calls up an insider and says, “Hey, I am an investor in your fine company, and I would like to ask you some questions about it.” And the insider says, “Sure, go ahead, what would you like to know?” Because the insider works for the shareholders, who own the company, and if the shareholders have questions then it is only polite for the company to try to answer them. It is also good for the company: Companies tend to like it when their share price goes up – insiders might even think that they have a fiduciary duty to make the share price go up — and helping investors understand the company is a good way to get them to buy more shares and make the stock go up.
Now, it’s not as simple as that paragraph makes it sound. There are many rules and pitfalls involved when insiders talk to investors, and most companies don’t let most insiders do it at all, because it is a tricky process best left to specialists. (The specialists are called “investor relations” employees, though CEOs and chief financial officers typically also do a lot of investor-relating.) And there are rules – Regulation FD – that prohibit companies from disclosing “material nonpublic information” to one shareholder without disclosing it to everyone. So if you called up a company’s head of corporate development and asked, “Hey, got any mergers coming,” she’d almost certainly decline to answer.
But those complications shouldn’t obscure the awkward but unavoidable fact that shareholders talk to companies all the time, and the companies tell them stuff, and the shareholders trade. Bill Ackman once called the CEO of a company whose shares he owns to ask, “Mike, is there any fraud going on at the company?” Large-cap U.S. public companies had an average of 88 one-on-one meetings – each! — with investors in 2015. Perhaps they are just meeting for fun? But “investors pay $1.4 billion a year for face time with executives,” in the form of commissions to investment banks whose research analysts help arrange some of the meetings. Perhaps they are paying all that money just to socialize? But “investors who meet privately with management make more informed trading decisions in periods when they meet, increasing their position before periods of high returns and decreasing their positions before periods of low returns.” The simple story, that investors talk with management because they want to learn stuff about the companies, and that they do learn stuff, and that it informs their trading, really does seem to be the right one.
And that’s okay! I mean, the company might get in a little bit of trouble for violating Regulation FD, if it too blatantly discloses secrets to favored shareholders, but you don’t see a ton of that.4 As for insider trading, the rough rule is:
- If an insider trades on inside information himself: bad.
- If he sells it to someone else to trade on: bad.
- If he gives it to a close friend or relative to trade on: bad.
- If he gives it to an investor as part of his job, and the investor trades on it: kind of fine.5
All of this has been the rule since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Dirks v. SEC in 1983. Dirks gave us the “personal benefit” test: The Supreme Court held that an insider is guilty if he discloses information to someone who trades, and he “receives a direct or indirect personal benefit from the disclosure.” (Category 2.) The court added: “The elements of fiduciary duty and exploitation of nonpublic information also exist when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” (Category 3.) But you need to fit one of those categories (or trade yourself) to be guilty; just giving the information away with no personal benefit and no close relationship isn’t insider trading. It’s just … sort of … investor relations.
Today the Supreme Court decided another case, Salman v. United States, in which an investment banker gave inside information to his brother, who then traded on it. Under the existing law, this was obviously insider trading. And so the Supreme Court said: This was obviously insider trading. The decision is brief,6 unanimous, uneventful and barely worth discussing; the court seemed incredulous that the case even made it this far. “We adhere to Dirks,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito, “which easily resolves the narrow issue presented here”:
Our discussion of gift giving resolves this case. Maher, the tipper, provided inside information to a close relative, his brother Michael. Dirks makes clear that a tipper breaches a fiduciary duty by making a gift of confidential information to “a trading relative,” and that rule is sufficient to resolve the case at hand. As Salman’s counsel acknowledged at oral argument, Maher would have breached his duty had he personally traded on the information here himself then given the proceeds as a gift to his brother. It is obvious that Maher would personally benefit in that situation. But Maher effectively achieved the same result by disclosing the information to Michael, and allowing him to trade on it. Dirks appropriately prohibits that approach, as well.7
Yeah, I mean it really is that easy. Why are we even talking about this?