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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?

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There is another critical aspect to the current Reign of Terror over Wall Street. Freedom of speech, and the right of privacy, particularly cherished possessions of man, have disappeared. Wall Streeters are literally afraid to talk to one another, because muttering over a martini that "Hey, Jim, it looks like XYZ will merge," or even, "Arbus is coming out soon with a hot new product," might well mean indictment, heavy fines, and jail terms. And where are the intrepid guardians of the First Amendment in all this?

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But of course, it is literally impossible to stamp out insider trading, or Wall Streeters talking to another, just as even the Soviet Union, with all its awesome powers of enforcement, has been unable to stamp out dissent or "black (free) market" currency trading. But what the outlawry of insider trading (or of "currency smuggling," the latest investment banker offense to be indicted) does is to give the federal government a hunting license to go after any person or firm who may be out of power in the financial-political struggles among our power elites. (Just as outlawing food would give a hunting license to get after people out of power who are caught eating.) It is surely no accident that the indictments have been centered in groups of investment bankers who are now out of power.

To drive home just how arbitrary and non-criminal "insider trading" really is, consider this scenario: Suppose someone had been planning on buying shares of Acme, but just before doing so, he caught wind of a bad earnings report. In light of the new information (which was not yet public), the person refrained from his intended purchase. Should this person be prosecuted for insider non-trading?

Conclusion

Raj Rajaratnam and (even more likely) some of his collaborators may indeed have violated genuine contractual obligations and fiduciary duties to their clients. To the extent that is true, some of their activity might have been illegal even in a truly free-market society.

In general, however, the practice of "insider trading" would not be a criminal offense, because it is impossible to define the concept in a way that wouldn't bar legitimate speculative research and trading. In practice, these laws give the government a very blunt club with which to knock down any profitable firm it wishes.

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