Column: Overhauling insider trading laws

Dec 19 2013, 02:37 IST
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SummaryPunishing fraud and focusing less on “unfairness” should be at the heart of laws against insider-trading

The advisory committee for the review of the Sebi (Prohibition of Insider Trading) Regulations, 1992, constituted under the chairmanship of Justice NK Sodhi has submitted its report to Sebi and is in the public domain for comments. The report, along with draft regulations, would form the foundation for a new law governing insider trading laws in India. The draft regulations proposed under the report seek to infuse clarity and predictability into the regulatory mechanism.

While I am rarely an advocate of the complete re-writing of a law, I believe the prohibition of insider trading is one of those few areas which actually needs an overhaul. The reason I am usually against re-writing a law is because the decades long jurisprudence which has formed around the legal provision as interpreted by courts is lost. The beauty of the common law system is that statutory provisions provide the broad skeleton to the law while the flesh and ligaments to the body are provided by case law. This provides a human form to the rather inert written-law and also gives flexibility to the law to grow and adapt. Unfortunately, the case law on insider trading till now has created an amoeba rather than an agile human being. The case law till now is both amorphous and unclear. For instance, despite the name of the regulations, trading based on outside information has been prohibited. A classic example is a hostile acquirer whose acquisition plan of a target company will increase the price of such target. This is by no stretch of imagination inside information. Yet more than one case has held it to be. While courts can stretch the definition at times, it is almost perverse to use the antonym of the word used in the title of the regulation to pass a penal

order, i.e., ‘insider’. The law is against insider trading with its origins in fraud, not outsider trading based on some perception of unfairness.

Before we can get into the recommendations, it would be useful to peep into the soul of the prohibition against insider trading. The origins and soul of insider trading lie in the general rule against fraud in securities markets. In fact, one securities appellate tribunal case explicitly connects the two despite the regulations not requiring fraudulent conduct as an element of insider trading. Since an insider, say a director, has a fiduciary duty to the company/shareholder, such insider is

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