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The Circle Bastiat

Is insider trading really a crime?

Insider trading is in the spotlight again, following Raj Rajaratnam's conviction last week. Is the government crackdown on insider trading an interference with beneficial economic activity?

By Robert P. MurphyGuest blogger / May 16, 2011

Raj Rajaratnam, center, billionaire co- founder of Galleon Group, is surrounded by photographers as he leaves Manhattan federal court, with his attorney Terence Lynan, left, Wednesday, May 11, 2011 in New York. The former Wall Street titan was convicted on 14 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy as part of a crackdown on insider trading.

Mary Altaffer / AP

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A major piece of financial news last week was billionaire Raj Rajaratnam's conviction on 14 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy. Rajaratnam, founder of the hedge fund Galleon Group, was worth an estimated $1.8 billion in 2009. His conviction has pleased those who want the feds to crack down on "insider trading" and show the fat cats on Wall Street that they aren't above the rules.

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Although the public generally loves the fall of a ruthless and greedy financial titan — this, of course, is what made Oliver Stone's original Wall Street such a hit — economists have argued for decades that the practice of "insider trading" can actually be beneficial. In practice, the government can use the amorphous "crime" to go after any successful trader it wants. In a free society, there would be no such thing as laws against so-called insider trading.

The Facts of the Case

To argue that "insider trading" is a bogus offense, and that laws against it only give the government the power to interfere with economically beneficial activity, is not to suggest that Rajaratnam was an innocent babe in the woods. Indeed, some of the episodes being used to shock the general public would probably also be criminal in a genuinely free market.

For example, in 2008, Rajat Gupta, a board member at Goldman Sachs, apparently told Rajaratnam that Warren Buffet was about to invest $5 billion in Goldman. Rajaratnam bought millions of dollars worth of the stock before the market closed, and then he profited handsomely when the news broke and the stock jumped the next day. Later in the year, after a board meeting, Gupta apparently told Rajaratnam that Goldman would report earnings well below expectations. Rajaratnam dumped the stock, getting out before the earnings news became public and pushed down Goldman's share price.

Now this type of activity — let alone the breaking and entering that Charlie Sheen's character performed for Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street — would probably be criminal even in a purely laissez-faire world. Specifically, when the shareholders of a corporation appointed board members, they would presumably have standard confidentiality clauses in the contracts prohibiting this type of behavior. The same thing would hold for a law firm; it's not good business if clients know that their lawyers can phone tips to their buddies on Wall Street while working on a sensitive case, and so a major law firm would insist that its employees sign contracts prohibiting such things.