What Is Insider Trading?

Definition & Examples of Insider Trading

Businesswoman whispering secrets into a businessman's ear

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Insider trading is the purchase or sale of stocks or other securities based on information that is not available to the general public. It involves a direct breach of fiduciary duty or other violation of trust in which the trader uses insider knowledge to benefit financially.

Despite many high-profile incidents involving insider trading, many investors are still unsure about what it is, how it works, and why it's such a big deal. Essentially, insider trading violates key rules and regulations that are designed to keep the market fair for all investors.

What Is Insider Trading?

Insider trading happens when someone makes an investment trade based on "material" information that's not publicly available. In market terms, material information is any detail that could affect a company's stock price. This information gives the individual an edge that few others have.

The trader must typically be someone who has a fiduciary duty to another person, institution, corporation, partnership, firm, or entity. You can get into trouble if you make an investment decision based upon information that's related to that fiduciary duty if that information isn't available to everyone else.

A fiduciary duty exists when one individual or entity has an obligation to act in another's best interest. Fiduciaries have duties of care, loyalty, good faith, confidentiality, prudence, and disclosure.

How Insider Trading Works

Insider trading can also arise in cases where no fiduciary duty is present but another crime has been committed, such as corporate espionage. For example, an organized crime ring that infiltrated certain financial or legal institutions to systematically gain access to and exploit and use private information might be found guilty of such trading, among other charges for the related crimes.

Insider information allows a person to profit in some cases and to avoid loss in others. In either case, it's an abuse of someone's knowledge or position of power. It's illegal because it gives an unfair advantage to people "in the know."

Those who have been prosecuted for insider trading include corporate officers, employees, government officials, and those who have tipped them off with insider information.

Not all insider trading is actually illegal. Many factors must be considered before the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will prosecute someone for insider trading. The main issues the SEC must generally prove are that the defendant had a fiduciary duty to the company and/or they intended to personally gain from buying or selling shares based upon the insider information.

What Are the Penalties for Insider Trading?

Insider trading penalties generally consist of a monetary penalty and jail time, depending on the severity of the case. The SEC has moved to ban trading violators from serving as executives at publicly traded companies.

The History Behind Insider Trading

Insider trading wasn't considered illegal at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, a Supreme Court ruling once referred to it as a “perk” of being an executive. It was banned—with serious penalties being imposed on those who engaged in the practice—after the excesses of the 1920s.

The SEC became involved after the Securities Exchange Act was passed in 1934, but the Act didn't actually prohibit such trading. Nor did it even really define it, so the SEC was limited when it came to taking enforcement actions.

That's changed significantly in the millennium. In recent years, the SEC reports that it has filed insider trading complaints against hundreds of financial professionals, attorneys, corporate insiders, and hedge fund managers.

Notable Happenings

There have been a number of high-profile insider trading cases over the past few decades.

SEC vs. Switzer

Barry Switzer, Oklahoma's football coach in 1981, was prosecuted that year by the SEC after he and his friends purchased shares in Phoenix Resources, an oil company.

Switzer was at a track meet when he overheard a conversation between executives concerning the liquidation of the business. He purchased the stock at around $42 per share and later sold it at $59 per share, earning about $98,000 in the process.

The charges against him were later dismissed by a federal judge due to a lack of evidence. Switzer probably would have been fined and served jail time if one of his players was the son or daughter of the executives and if they mentioned the tip to him off-handedly. The Supreme Court found that the tipper had not breached their fiduciary duty for personal gain.

U.S. vs. O'Hagan

James O'Hagan was a lawyer with the firm of Dorsey & Whitney in 1988. The firm began representing Grand Metropolitan PLC, which planned to launch a tender offer for Pillsbury. O'Hagan subsequently acquired a large number of options in the company, knowing that the options would soar following the announcement of the tender offer.

O'Hagan eventually sold his options and realized a $4.3 million gain. He chose to acquire the options based on information that wasn't available to other investors and did so without informing his firm. He was found guilty on 57 charges, but his conviction was overturned on appeal.

The case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court where the conviction was reinstated in a 6-3 decision. The Court found that O'Hagan was guilty of "employing a deceptive device...in connection with the purchase of a security."

Recent High-Profile Cases

Insider trading made major headlines in 2003 as a result of the Martha Stewart ImClone scandal that ultimately sent the domestic diva to federal prison. It was front-page news again in 2011 when hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced to a record 11 years in prison for trading stocks based on the receipt of confidential information. 

Safeguards Against Insider Trading

Section 16 of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 requires that when an "insider"—defined as all officers, directors, and 10% owners—buys the corporation's stock and sells it within six months, all of the profits must go to the company. The theory is that much of the temptation of this type of trading is removed when it's impossible for insiders to personally gain from small moves.

Company insiders are also required to disclose changes in the ownership of their positions, including all purchases and dispositions of shares.

Key Takeaways

  • Insider trading involves purchasing or selling stocks or other securities based on private information through a breach of fiduciary duty or other violation of trust.
  • The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission can charge those who received information and those who provided it with insider trading.
  • If convicted, penalties can include heavy fines and jail time.