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?
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This is the institutional blog of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and many of its affiliated writers and scholars commenting on economic affairs of the day.
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To understand the social benefits of insider trading, we have to first realize that stock prices mean something. They reflect real facts about the world, such as the assets and liabilities of a particular corporation and how effectively its current management is using resources to satisfy customers.
If a computer glitch suddenly swapped the prices randomly on all corporate stocks, the result would be disastrous, and it would affect "Main Street" as much as Wall Street. For an exaggerated example, if the share price of Microsoft fell from its current level of around $25 down to $1, a "corporate raider" might find it very profitable to borrow money, buy a controlling share in the company, and sell off all company assets to the highest bidders. The high price of $25 per share fends off such efforts to break up the successful company. The assets currently owned by the Microsoft Corporation are best deployed by Microsoft, rather than being integrated into different organizations around the world.
In general, speculators perform a useful social service when they are profitable. By buying low and selling high (or by short-selling high and covering low), stock speculators actually speed up price adjustments and make stock prices less volatile than they otherwise would be.
In this context, we can see the absurdity of the general view of "insider trading." There is a whole literature on the economic analysis of the subject, and economist Alex Padilla's 2003 dissertation defended the practice from a specifically Austrian angle. In a nutshell, insider trading is beneficial because it moves market prices closer to where they ought to be. Those profiting from "inside knowledge" actually share that knowledge with the rest of the world through their buying and selling.
Insider Trading: Who Is the Victim?
Above, we acknowledged the fact that obtaining information in illegal ways obviously had actual victims. But the mystique behind "insider trading" suggests that somehow if a person financially profits from special knowledge, that he or she is bilking the general public.
In general, this analysis doesn't hold up, as Murray Rothbard has pointed out. For example, suppose a Wall Street trader is at the bar and overhears an executive on his cell phone discussing some good news for the Acme Corporation. The trader then rushes to buy 1,000 shares of the stock, which is currently selling for $10. When the news becomes public, the stock jumps to $15, and the trader closes out his position for a handsome gain of $5,000. Who is the supposed victim in all of this? From whom was this $5,000 profit taken?