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Does Silicon Valley Have an Insider Trading Problem?

Friday, 1 Apr 2011 | 1:10 PM ET
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Don’t be surprised if people connected with some of the hottest new tech companies find themselves hauled into court on insider trading charges.

Many in Silicon Valley apparently believe that insider trading rules don’t apply to buying or selling stakes in non-public companies like Twitter and Facebook.

Recently, in an article about a Facebook employee who allegedly bought shares in his the company in advance of an investment by Goldman Sachs, Sarah Lacy and Michael Arrington of TechCrunch wrote: “In a public company this would almost certainly violate a number of federal laws. However, say sources, the fact that Facebook is not (technically) a publicly traded company means those laws don’t apply.”

Henry Blodget of Business Insider recently voiced a similar thought in an article about the venture capitalist John Doeer.

"Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr is said to have once described his investment philosophy as 'no conflict, no interest.'

In other words, when Doerr and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins aren't privileged enough to enjoy a potential conflict of interest with respect to a potential investment, they have no interest in making the investment.

In the public markets, some investors might describe this as having 'an edge.' Others might describe it as investing with the benefit of influence and information that other investors don't have. Others might say, at least in some cases, that it might be investing with inside information—a.k.a., insider trading.

But in private markets there are no clear rules about insider trading."

Based on discussions I’ve had with other folks in the tech start-up scene, this interpretation is very common.

“It’s very widespread,” Silicon Alley Insider reporter Nick Carlson told me.

Wrong

It’s also wrong. Insider trading rules aren’t limited to stocks traded on public stock markets—they apply to every kind of security interest or option to buy shares.

But armed with this mistaken interpretation, it seems likely that people in the tech sector are probably buying or selling stakes in companies while in possession of material non-public information.

Companies like SecondMarket put investors together with shareholders of non-public companies. This allows people — mostly early stage venture capital investors or employees who were compensated in shares — to monetize their stakes without waiting for an IPO or a buyout.

It’s easy to see how insider trading can develop in such illiquid and non-transparent markets. If, for instance, you are a Facebook employee who has been privy to internal discussions about a possible acquisition of the social-media start-up Foursquare, you might decide to invest in Foursquare ahead of the acquisition.

Or maybe you’re a venture capitalist who has chatted with Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley about a not yet publicly announced new feature that you think will really improve user experiences. Based on the chat, you buy up some shares on Second Market.

In either case, you’d be engaging in illegal insider trading that could land you in court facing the Securities and Exchange Commission or even criminal charges.

Insider trading is barred under Section 10(b) of theExchange Act of 1934and Rule 10b-5, a regulation that the SEC made to implement that provision of the Exchange Act. They bar anyone from using “any deceptive device” in connection with the purchase or sale of securities.

The SEC long ago persuaded the courts that using “material non-public information” to make trades was a form of fraud that was barred under the act—giving birth to the rule against insider trading.

While it’s true that most insider trading cases involve the purchase or sale of stocks that are traded on public exchanges, there’s nothing in the rule or the case law that limits enforcement to public stocks. Buying or selling any security—including privately held shares of non-public companies — while possessing material non-public information is potentially insider trading punishable under the law, regardless of where the sales take place.

The SEC is now on notice that the tech sector seems to have adopted the mistaken belief that buying stakes in private companies while possessing inside information is not illegal. _________________________________________

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