Ethics of Insider Trading
“Insider trading” is one of those phrases that most adults have heard (at least on the nightly news), but that relatively few understand. (Perhaps the most famous case: Martha Stewart was originally charged with insider trading in the ImClone case.) I imagine few people even know what it really refers to. Well, it refers to situations in which corporate “insiders” (executives, directors, etc.) buy or sell their company’s stock on the basis of significant corporate information that is not available to the investing public more generally. (For more details, see the Wikipedia page on insider trading.)
But even if we don’t all know just what insider trading is, we all know insider trading is bad, and must be stopped. Right? But it’s hard to stop something that’s hard to define. In that regard, see this nice piece by Steve Maich, Editor of Canadian Business: “Chasing our tails while we chase insider trading.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, we are in the midst of a crackdown. Or rather, another crackdown. The crime du jour is an old favourite: insider trading….
There are obvious benefits to these shows of regulatory force. Seeing hedge fund managers and lawyers in handcuffs not only produces a nice dopamine rush, it’s also meant to demonstrate the integrity of the capital markets. But the costs are frequently overlooked. Like most crackdowns, this one seems likely to deepen cynicism, erode confidence and lob more grenades at shell-shocked markets….
Maich is undertandably cynical about these enforcement efforts:
Despite the periodic efforts of regulators to stamp it out, insider trading runs as rampant as ever, and that isn’t going to change. This is in part because it’s notoriously difficult to prove, but also because we have never definitely solved the fundamental puzzles at the heart of this supposed crime….
It’s worth adding that there is genuine disagreement over just why insider trading is unethical. (Some people even think it’s not unethical at all, because the executive who trades on “inside” information ends up indirectly bringing that information to the market, rendering the latter more efficient.) And if we’re not entirely sure why it’s unethical, it makes it that much harder to figure out in which cases it’s unethical.
The only scholarly article I’ve read on the ethics of insider trading is by Jennifer Moore, and is called “What Is Really Unethical About Insider Trading?”* Moore looks at a number of arguments against insider trading — arguments rooted in fairness, in property rights, and in the risk of harm to investors — and finds most of them lacking. Moore ends up arguing — plausibly, in my view — that the real reason insider trading is unethical is that it jeopardizes the fiduciary relationships that are central to business. If insider trading were permitted, that would put corporate insiders in a conflict of interest. Basically, the interests of corporate insiders would stop being well-aligned with the interests of the shareholders they are supposed to serve. And if the interests of corporate insiders aren’t aligned with the interests of shareholders, then people are much less likely to be willing to buy shares (i.e., to invest) in companies. And that wouldn’t be good for the firm, for its shareholders, or for society in general.
*Jennifer Moore, “What Is Really Unethical About Insider Trading?” Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 9, Number 3, 171-182.