In October 2000, the SEC promulgated Rule 10b5-1 to provide company insiders with a way to trade their shares in company stock without incurring securities law liability, through the pre-trading adoption of a written trading plan. Despite the Rule’s protective purpose, concerns have arisen more recently about Rule 10b5-1 plan abuses, as I noted in prior posts (here and here).
Indeed, concerns about Angelo Mozilo’s possible Rule 10b5-1 plan misuse were an important part of the court’s recent refusal to dismiss the Countrywide subprime-related derivative lawsuit. (My prior post about the Countrywide dismissal denial can be found here. A more detailed analysis of the Countrywide court’s discussion of Rule 10b5-1 plan issues can be found on The Corporate Counsel.net blog, here.)
A May 27, 2008 paper by University of Chicago Law Professor Todd Henderson, Stanford Business School Professor Alan Jagolinzer, and Penn State Business Professor Karl Muller entitled “Scienter Disclosure” (here) looks at Rule 10b5-1 plans from a different perspective, asking what can be inferred from a company’s disclosure of its officials’ plans. The authors’ surprising conclusion is that the more detailed a company’s plan disclosure, the more likely are the subsequent trades to capture abnormal trading returns.
The starting point of the authors’ analysis is that, although Rule 10b5-1 itself does not require the plans to be disclosed, “disclosure can enhance the legal protection by increasing the likelihood of early dismissal of class action lawsuits.” This “litigation benefit” arises due to the fact a Rule 10b5-1 plan trading defense will only be available at to dismissal stage if the plan is identified and described in the company’s SEC filings (which a court may consider at the initial pleading stage). If the company fully discloses the plan details, “a court may better ascertain that the allegedly fraudulent trades fall within the Rule’s affirmative defense, thereby increasing the possibility of a low-cost dismissal.”
From this, the authors infer that companies perceiving a greater litigation risk are “more apt to disclose the existence and details of Rule 10b5-1 plans.” But there are costs associated with disclosing the plans, particularly “if investors infer a price relevant signal from disclosure or if disclosure enhances investors’ monitoring of insiders’ trade plan commitment.” The “signal” might encourage investor “front running” which could deprive the insider of anticipated trading profits. The monitoring “reduces the value of early termination options” the insider might have if a planned trade no longer appears desirable.
The authors hypothesized that insiders will nonetheless prefer Rule 10b5-1 plan disclosure if the “scienter disclosure” provides incremental litigation benefit – which is likely to be greatest precisely where the ability to trade provides the greatest opportunity to profit. That is, “pre-disclosure of trade may be strategic in the face of high legal risk if it mitigates legal risk and does not fully reveal privately held information.”
The authors examined company disclosures for hundreds of companies during the period between October 2000 and December 2006, and grouped the companies according to whether the companies had low, moderate or detailed Rule 10b5-1 plan disclosure. The authors then correlated the companies’ disclosure and “subsequent firm returns and earning performance.” The authors found that “more specific 10b5-1 plan disclosures are associated with more negative post-trade abnormal returns” and that “the association between sales transactions and subsequent negative performance is increasing in disclosure specificity, after controlling for other factors that are associated with firm returns.”
As a group, executives at those companies with the most detailed disclosure avoided an average of 12% loss in the companies’ trades relative to the broader market in the six months following their sales. The authors conclude that “voluntary Rule 10b5-1 plan disclosure is associated with the higher level firm legal risk and a proxy for insider’s potential strategic trade.”
In other words, the more detailed disclosure manifests insiders’ perception that subsequent trades are more likely to be advantageous – and therefore legal protection is more likely to be important, justifying the detailed disclosure.
These data suggest, and the authors hypothesize, that “investors should respond negatively to specific disclosures regarding 10b5-1 participation, if they infer that insiders have high strategic trade potential for which they seek high litigation protection.” However, the authors found that there is no observable negative investor response to Rule 10b5-1 disclosure.
The authors’ conclusions have a number of important implications. Obviously, investors may be missing an important signal related to 10b5-1 disclosure. Another important implication relates to the protection that the Rule affords; the authors’ conclusion that the companies with the most detailed disclosure are also the ones with the most fortunate timing suggests that, at least in some companies, transparency may be facilitating aggressive stock sales. The Rule was designed to provide company officials with a way to trade safely, but the authors’ study suggests that at least some company officials may be using the Rule as a shield to unload stock at an opportune time.
While I confess that initially I found the authors’ conclusions troubling, after further reflection I am less concerned. The problem here is not that insiders are using Rule 10b5-1 plans and plan disclosure strategically – after all, the whole idea of the Rule was to facilitate trading, and there is certainly no suggestion that trades made pursuant to the Rule cannot be advantageous. The problem is that at least so far, investors have missed the negative signal that Rule 10b5-1 plan disclosure implies.
The authors themselves speculate that the absence of negative investor reaction “may indicate that there are frictions to implementing strategies based on 10b5-1 disclosure signals or that investors do not understand 10b5-1 disclosure implications, which is possible if our same period reflects the transition period regarding 10b5-1 use.” To the extent, however, that the signal is better understood, the more the marketplace itself will discipline the process.
The greater likelihood that the mere announcement of a 10b5-1 plan could undermine a company’s share price could provide a missing disciplinary constraint on strategic trading and reduce company officials’ ability to capture abnormal returns. In other words, the whole mechanism will function better if investors appreciate the significance of 10b5-1 disclosure – an appreciation that the authors’ research clearly should facilitate.
Very special thanks to Professor Henderson for alerting me to the article and for providing me with a link.
Another Options Backdating-Related Class Action Settlement: In its May 8, 2008 filing (here), Kratos Defense & Security Solutions (formerly known as Wireless Facilities) announced that in March 2008, it had reached a tentative agreement to settle the options backdating-related securities class action lawsuit pending against the company and certain of its directors and officers. The amount of the settlement is $4.5 million, of which $1.7 million will come from the company and the balance of which will come from the company’s D&O insurer.
I have added this settlement to my table of options backdating-related lawsuit settlements and dismissals, which can be accessed here.
Hat tip to Adam Savett of the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here) for providing the heads’ up about the Wireless Facilities settlement
Not Just Immune, But Infallible: If you were immensely rich and powerful, you too might well, as did the Sultan of Brunei in 2004, amend the constitution to “declare himself infallible and immune from any obligation to appear in court …and to subject anyone who criticizes him to criminal punishment.”
Those curious to know how a court might actually apply a provision like this and related legal issues will want to refer to Francis Pileggi’s Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog (here), in which Pileggi reviews a May 23, 2008 Delaware Chancery Court decisions involving the Sultan and his brother. Among other things, Pileggi notes that in the course of reaching its decision, the Court “recites the background facts of royal family battles that could be part of a movie script.”