Insider Trading and Pension Funds

In a May 23 meeting, open to the public as a byproduct of the Government in the Sunshine Act, the SEC will address a host of issues, not the least of which is a possible relaxation of the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Long awaited relief could help companies with what many cite as "burdensome" and costly compliance requirements. Financial Times reporter Jeremy Grant writes that "Wednesday’s likely approval of a set of guidelines originally proposed in December will provide executives with a clearer idea of how the SEC intends corporate America – and foreign companies listed in the US - to implement Section 404 of Sarbox." (See "SEC set to approve guidance on Sarbox," Financial Times, May 23, 2007.)

Ironically, at a time when regulatory muscle may be giving way to paunch, questions abound regarding transparency. In "Side Deals in a Gray Area," New York Times reporter Jenny Anderson describes a practice known as “big-boy letters” as "typically used when an investor has confidential information about a stock or bond and wants to sell those securities. By signing the letter, the buyer effectively recognizes that the seller has better information but promises not to sue the seller, much like a homebuyer who agrees to buy a house in 'as is' condition."

In "Big Boy Letters: Playing It Safe After O’Hagan," attorneys Wendell H. Adair Jr. and Brett Lawrence write that "big boy letters are designed to limit an insider’s liability under both securities laws and common law" and that a "trader in a company’s debt typically does not assume any fiduciary duty to the company or other security holders, assuming the person is not a member of an official committee or the board of directors and does not hold a similar insider position" unless he or she has signed a non-disclosure agreement.. Click here to read their analysis of U.S. v. O’Hagan, a "seminal case" that implied that a trader in possession of material, nonpublic information could avoid liability under misappropriation theory by disclosing his intention to trade to the information provider without actually disclosing to the trading counterparty the nonpublic information."

While attorneys seem to disagree on the legal exposure attached to big boy letters, the issue may soon be resolved in court. In the aforementioned New York Times article, Anderson describes "a lawsuit set to go to trial next month" in which "a Texas hedge fund contends that it was on the losing end of such a letter in 2001, when Salomon Smith Barney, now Smith Barney, sold more than $20 million worth of World Access bonds to the Jefferies Group, the investment bank, using a big-boy letter."

Not being an attorney (and so relying on the legal expertise of others), institutional investors like pension funds may want to add big-boy letters to the laundry list of "must know" items when evaluating trading practice risk as part of their selection of outside professionals. It is no stretch to see that challenges to statutory requirements all around (SOX, 13F, FASB, to name a few) could impede the flow of information to investors. (A discussion of regulation and information economics is outside the scope of this post.) This in turn could make it more difficult for pension fiduciaries to carry out their duties as informed decision-makers. Of course, mandatory rules can be replaced with industry self-regulation (something most free market economists advocate, including myself). Money managers who volunteer details about their trading practices to existing and prospective pension fund clients should win brownie points for candor.

Until then, one wonders - Are we opening the window to let in more sunshine or introducing darkness?
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