Sunday, October 25, 2009

Learning to Love Insider Trading

By Donald J. Boudreaux

Time to stop telling horror stories. Federal agents are wasting their time slapping handcuffs on hedge fund traders like Raj Rajaratnam, the financier charged last week with trading on nonpublic information involving IBM, Google and other big companies. The reassuring truth: Insider trading is impossible to police and helpful to markets and investors. Parsing the difference between legal and illegal insider trading is futile—and a disservice to all investors. Far from being so injurious to the economy that its practice must be criminalized, insiders buying and selling stocks based on their knowledge play a critical role in keeping asset prices honest—in keeping prices from lying to the public about corporate realities.

Prohibitions on insider trading prevent the market from adjusting as quickly as possible to changes in the demand for, and supply of, corporate assets. The result is prices that lie.

And when prices lie, market participants are misled into behaving in ways that harm not only themselves but also the economy writ large.

Remember the 1970s-era price ceiling on gasoline? By causing prices at the pump to lie about the scarcity of oil, that price ceiling led Americans to waste untold hours waiting in lines to fuel their cars. Similar wastes occur when corporate assets are mispriced

Suppose that unscrupulous management drives Acme Inc. to the verge of bankruptcy. Being unscrupulous, Acme's managers succeed for a time in hiding its perilous financial condition from the public. During this lying time, Acme's share price will be too high. Investors will buy Acme shares at prices that conceal the company's imminent doom. Creditors will extend financing to Acme on terms that do not compensate those creditors for the true risks that they are unknowingly undertaking. Perhaps some of Acme's employees will turn down good job offers at other firms in order to remain at what they are misled to believe is a financially solid Acme Inc.

Eventually, of course, those misled investors, creditors and workers will suffer financial losses. But the economy as a whole loses, too. Capital that would otherwise have been invested in firms more productive than Acme Inc. never gets to those firms. So compared with what would have happened had people not been misled by Acme's deceitfully high share price, those better-run firms don't enhance their efficiencies as much. They don't expand their operations as much. They don't create as many good jobs. Consumers don't enjoy the increased outputs, improved product qualities and lower prices that would otherwise have resulted.

In short, overall economic efficiency is reduced.

It's in the public interest, therefore, that prices adjust as quickly and as completely as possible to underlying economic realities—that prices adjust to convey to market participants as clearly as possible the true state of those realities.

As argued forcefully by Henry Manne in his 1966 book "Insider Trading and the Stock Market," prohibitions on insider trading prevent asset prices from adjusting in this way. Mr. Manne, dean emeritus at George Mason University School of Law, pointed out that when insiders trade on their nonpublic, nonproprietary information, they cause asset prices to reflect that information sooner than otherwise and therefore prompt other market participants to make better decisions.

According to Mr. Manne, corporate scandals such as Enron and Global Crossing would occur much less frequently and impose fewer costs if the government didn't prohibit insider trading. As Mr. Manne said a few years ago in a radio interview, "I don't think the scandals would ever have erupted if we had allowed insider trading because there would be plenty of people in those companies who would know exactly what was going on, and who couldn't resist the temptation to get rich by trading on the information, and the stock market would have reflected those problems months and months earlier than they did under this cockamamie regulatory system we have."

Read the full article here.

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