Democrats and Republicans are busy “lobbying” the SEC these days. Republicans want the SEC to nix Nasdaq’s proposal for new listing rules regarding board diversity and disclosure. Democrats want the SEC to beef up its insider trading rules in connection with Rule 10b5-1 plans. Will either find a receptive audience?
In this paper, Gaming the System: Three ‘Red Flags’ of Potential 10b5-1 Abuse, from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford, the authors examined data from over 20,000 Rule 10b5-1 plans to investigate the extent of insider trading abuse. The study found that some executives did use 10b5-1 plans to conduct “opportunistic, large-scale selling that appears to undermine the purpose of Rule 10b5-1” and highlighted three “red flags” that could be used to detect potentially improper exploitation of Rule 10b5-1. Although the authors acknowledge that they could not determine for certain whether any insiders that avoided losses or otherwise achieved “market-beating returns” actually traded on the basis of material nonpublic information, they contended that average trading returns of the magnitude they found in the study “are highly suspect and, as such, these red flags are suggestive of potential abuse.”
A couple of weeks ago, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Oil, in connection with stock repurchases, authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, the company’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Oil to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. Of course, a 10b5-1 plan typically doesn’t work to protect against insider trading charges if you have material inside information when you establish the plan, and the SEC’s order highlights facts that, from the SEC’s perspective, make the information appear material—at least in hindsight. But wait—this isn’t even an insider trading case. No, it’s a case about inadequate internal controls—at least, that’s how it ended up. Instead of attempting to make a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point by focusing on the failure to maintain effective internal control procedures and comply with them. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to emphasize, in the words of SEC Chair Jay Clayton, the practice of “good corporate hygiene.”
As noted in thecorporatecounsel.net blog, the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, has introduced H.R. 624, the “Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act,” which could require some significant tweaks to Rule 10b5-1 plans and disclosure about them. Co-sponsored by the Ranking Republican Member on the Committee, Patrick McHenry, the legislation would require the SEC to conduct a study of whether specified amendments to the rules governing 10b5-1 plans should be adopted, report back within a year and then adopt rule amendments consistent with the findings of the study. The high-level bipartisan sponsorship of the legislation suggests that there is a reasonable chance that it could move forward, but certainly does not guarantee that it will survive in the Senate. You might recall that the JOBS and Investor Confidence Act of 2018 (the erstwhile JOBS Act 3.0), which included similar provisions regarding Rule 10b5-1, passed the House by a vote of 406 to 4, but made no progress in the Senate. (See this PubCo post.) The new leadership must think that the chances for enactment are better with a standalone bill.