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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Investment Bank Dinners with Corporate Executives and Hedge Fund Managers: The General Public Not Admitted

The Case Study:

“One day in early March [2011], the phone lines of hedge-fund traders around London and New York suddenly lit up. A stock that many of them had placed hefty bets on—Pride International Inc., an energy company in the process of being sold to a rival—was falling. The traders had no idea why. They soon figured it out: J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. had hosted a meeting that day between a handful of hedge-fund traders and executives from a company that was considered a prime candidate to start a bidding war for Pride. One of those executives had indicated they weren't likely to make a bid.”

“The prospect of a bidding war had lifted Pride's shares above where they likely would have traded in the absence of a potential interloper. . . . At the March 8 lunch, though, as the traders munched on scallops and fish, Seadrill vice president and board member Tor Olav Trøim splashed cold water on the idea of a bid. He recalls telling traders that the company's Feb. 24 statement was ‘not normally what you would say if you were interested in bidding yourself. His intended message, according to one person familiar with the matter, is that Seadrill was "very unlikely’ to launch a competing offer for Pride. The information was market-moving, traders say. In the hours after the lunch, some traders wagered that the odds of a bidding war had declined. Seadrill's shares rose more than 1% as it was viewed as less likely to pursue a costly acquisition. Pride's shares fell by about 0.5% in the minutes before markets closed.”


“The moves may seem small, but they were significant for ‘merger arbitrage’ traders, who make short-term bets on deal stocks. In the case of the Ensco-Pride deal, the movements translated into a sudden 64% spike in the deal's ‘spread.’ That arcane measure reflects the difference between a target company's stock price and the per-share value of the acquirer's offer. The spread is closely watched by hedge funds that focus on merger arbitrage, which stand to gain or lose large sums based on the spread's movement. As the shares moved, anxious investors bombarded Seadrill's investor-relations office with phone calls, trying to figure out whether the company had issued new guidance about its appetite for bidding on Pride, according to a person familiar with the matter. Company officials responded that they hadn't released any new information. . . . Trøim says Seadrill executives regularly meet with large and small investors and that it is appropriate to help them understand the company's strategy. ‘We cannot see that we in any way have crossed any lines for giving privileged information,’ he says.”

The Issues:

“Hedge funds are a big business for banks. U.S. and European hedge funds last year shelled out a total of about $3.7 billion in brokerage commissions to banks for equity trades, according to research firm Greenwich Associates. . . . Investment banks vie for business from elite hedge funds by offering traders at those funds special access to senior deal makers and corporate executives at dinners and other gatherings. The traders sometimes pick up valuable nuggets of information that aren't available to other investors, according to people who have attended such gatherings.”

“Representatives of the banks say their investment bankers aren't permitted to discuss material nonpublic information, and that the meetings serve a legitimate business purpose. In addition to helping the banks win trading business, the get-togethers allow the bankers and corporate executives to cultivate relationships with the hedge funds, the banks say. The funds often are major shareholders in multiple companies and frequently help determine the outcome of key corporate events that are subject to shareholder approval, such as mergers and acquisitions.”

“Amid intensified scrutiny of insider trading, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently warned some banks that they need to be careful that such meetings don't result in the improper exchange of privileged information, according to people familiar with the matter.”

“Under insider-trading laws, it is generally illegal to buy or sell securities based on ‘material,’ or significant, information that isn't publicly available. Securities lawyers say the appropriateness of the meetings banks set up with hedge-fund traders depends on whether such information changes hands and is subsequently traded upon.”

“It is unclear how often useful trading information is disseminated in the meetings. The meetings appear to have made some banks nervous. . . . ‘It made me congenitally nervous,’ said a banker who until recently worked at a top Wall Street investment bank. ‘It certainly should be on [regulators'] radar.’ . . . Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s compliance department [in 2010] barred its brokers from arranging dinner meetings between Goldman's bankers and outside hedge-fund traders, say people familiar with the matter. Bank of America's investment-banking arm, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, [in 2011] cut down on the gatherings after the SEC expressed concern, although it still allows them in some circumstances, according to people familiar with the matter. Many banks nevertheless continue to hold closed-door meetings with hedge funds on a regular basis, according to traders, bankers and other industry officials. Banks try to differentiate themselves from rivals by dangling access to key players—coveted by hedge funds, for which incremental bits of information can be extremely valuable. The banks also set up lunches and other ‘corporate access’ meetings that give the traders the chance to grill top corporate executives about pending deals and other matters. Such opportunities are rarely available to individuals and other small investors.”

Analysis:

To keep participants within the world of business from speaking with each other in closer terms than are available to the general public strikes me as utterly fanciful and doomed to failure—especially if a profit relationship is involved. Intimating a company’s strategy alone can proffer hints of information not available to the public and yet useful for trading. Are the courts to become embroiled in interpreting every nuance at every meeting in which investment bankers bring together corporations and hedge funds so they may behave as though in public? Policing such meetings is at best an uphill battle, and more realistically like trying to keep the rising tide back from one’s sand castles. It is the castles that are artificial, not the water presumably to be held back by them.

In terms of prohibiting insider-trading more generally, what is really being reputiated or denied is the concentric nature of the respective circles of family, friendships and finally the general public identified by Cicero in his theory of justice wherein caritas naturalis (natural love) is limited to the circle of amicitia (friendship). It is just by nature that friends share a love that does not hold in the wider public. This theory of justice is more restricted than the caritas universalis (universal love)—extending even to strangers—preached by Augustine. That loving strangers is difficult while loving one's friends is easy attests to the qualitiative differences between the concentric circles that inform Cicero's theory of justice, which insider-trading laws contravene.

In any social context, friends are not going to behave as though all they know of each other is what the general public knows. Just as it is natural that people closer will exchange more information than people in the wider public, it is also natural for the latter to envy those who are closer except when they themselves are in close relation with their own friends and colleagues. Enforcing publically-available information on business practitioners having mutual dealings is to conflate the widest circle with narrower circles. It is to pretend that caritas naturalis seu amicitia simply does not exist—that everything is universal rather than natural love being of friendship.

Fueling resentment of insider-trading may be our natural distaste for exclusion. As a student at Yale, I felt exclusion when my political party in the Yale Political Union invited me and the other new members to a Friday night party in a room in the clock tower. The chairman told me that we would all be initiated into the party’s secret society because the party owned it; we were members of the party, after all. In actuality, only a few members—those who had new leadership positions in the party—were tapped by the older leadership; the rest of us were invited so there would be an excluded element heightening the feeling of inclusion. My resentment was a function of my illusion (facilitated by the chairman) that an inner circle would treat a wider circle as equivalent.

As much as I detest the “insider/outsider” diremption, I must admit that it is a part of the human social condition. As social animals, we naturally find ourselves in relations wherein some people are closer to us than others. We fool ourselves if we presume that people who are closer will somehow open their relations up to a wider circle as if there were no narrower circle. Some of us, however, relish exacerbating the natural distances by excluding others solely for the pleasure of being cruel. For example, I grew up in a family that broke up into two camps, both of which relished excluding a family member. Even though the betrayal in such exclusion was unnatural, I must admit that narrower and wider circles naturally develop as human beings interact.

To pretend that there is only a general public is to deny the human condition in its social setting. Insider-trading law may be predicated by a denial of relationships that go beyond the general public.
Furthermore, the “harm” from insider trading is largely one of opportunity cost, as the benefits obtained by insiders are not shared by the general public. In contrast, the harm from fraud is felt by the victims, who are outsiders. In a wider sense, the systemic risk of the failure of a financial system is shared by the general public. Legislation and enforcement ought to take into account the difference between an opportunity cost and direct harm.

Therefore, for the SEC to put resources into insider-trading at the expense of going after banks and other companies that evince systemic risk is something more than misplaced priorities. In terms of punishment, to treat a business practitioner who benefits financially from information overheard from a CEO as though he or she committed fraud by lying to investors or murdered someone is to conflate categories of different degrees of harm.

Lastly, human behavior is such that it cannot be totally regulated. Nor can human nature itself manifested socially be remade as though there were just a general public without caritas naturalis seu amicitia. Business practitioners cannot be held back from exchanging information that is not available to the general public. Like jelly in a hand, the harder you squeeze it the less of it you will have within your grip. The illusion of micro-managing regulation to every facet of business ignores this principle, which is based in human nature rather than artifice.


Source:

David Enrich and Dana Cimilluca, “Banks Woo Funds with Private Peeks,” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2011.