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[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Jerry Ellig was a research professor at The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and served as chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission from 2017 to 2018. Tragically, he passed away Jan. 20, 2021. TOTM is honored to publish his contribution to this symposium.]

One significant aspect of Chairman Ajit Pai’s legacy is not a policy change, but an organizational one: establishment of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) in 2018.

Prior to OEA, most of the FCC’s economists were assigned to the various policy bureaus, such as Wireless, Wireline Competition, Public Safety, Media, and International. Each of these bureaus had its own chief economist, but the rank-and-file economists reported to the managers who ran the bureaus – usually attorneys who also developed policy and wrote regulations. In the words of former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett, the FCC had “no location anywhere in the organizational structure devoted primarily to economic analysis.”

Establishment of OEA involved four significant changes. First, most of the FCC’s economists (along with data strategists and auction specialists) are now grouped together into an organization separate from the policy bureaus, and they are managed by other economists. Second, the FCC rules establishing the new office tasked OEA with reviewing every rulemaking, reviewing every other item with economic content that comes before the commission for a vote, and preparing a full benefit-cost analysis for any regulation with $100 million or more in annual economic impact. Third, a joint memo from the FCC’s Office of General Counsel and OEA specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings. Fourth, the memo also indicates that FCC regulatory analysis should follow the principles articulated in Executive Order 12866 and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-4 (while specifying that the FCC, as an independent agency, is not bound by the executive order).

While this structure for managing economists was new for the FCC, it is hardly uncommon in federal regulatory agencies. Numerous independent agencies that deal with economic regulation house their economists in a separate bureau or office, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Trade Commission. The SEC displays even more parallels with the FCC. A guidance memo adopted in 2012 by the SEC’s Office of General Counsel and Division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation (the name of the division where economists and other analysts were located) specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings and articulates best analytical practices based on Executive Order 12866 and Circular A-4.

A separate economics office offers several advantages over the FCC’s prior approach. It gives the economists greater freedom to offer frank advice, enables them to conduct higher-quality analysis more consistent with the norms of their profession, and may ultimately make it easier to uphold FCC rules that are challenged in court.

Independence.  When I served as chief economist at the FCC in 2017-2018, I gathered from conversations that the most common practice in the past was for attorneys who wrote rules to turn to economists for supporting analysis after key decisions had already been made. This was not always the process, but it often occurred. The internal working group of senior FCC career staff who drafted the plan for OEA reached similar conclusions. After the establishment of OEA, an FCC economist I interviewed noted how his role had changed: “My job used to be to support the policy decisions made in the chairman’s office. Now I’m much freer to speak my own mind.”

Ensuring economists’ independence is not a problem unique to the FCC. In a 2017 study, Stuart Shapiro found that most of the high-level economists he interviewed who worked on regulatory impact analyses in federal agencies perceive that economists can be more objective if they are located outside the program office that develops the regulations they are analyzing. As one put it, “It’s very difficult to conduct a BCA [benefit-cost analysis] if our boss wrote what you are analyzing.” Interviews with senior economists and non-economists who work on regulation that I conducted for an Administrative Conference of the United States project in 2019 revealed similar conclusions across federal agencies. Economists located in organizations separate from the program office said that structure gave them greater independence and ability to develop better analytical methodologies. On the other hand, economists located in program offices said they experienced or knew of instances where they were pressured or told to produce an analysis with the results decision-makers wanted.

The FTC provides an informative case study. From 1955-1961, many of the FTC’s economists reported to the attorneys who conducted antitrust cases; in 1961, they were moved into a separate Bureau of Economics. Fritz Mueller, the FTC chief economist responsible for moving the antitrust economists back into the Bureau of Economics, noted that they were originally placed under the antitrust attorneys because the attorneys wanted more control over the economic analysis. A 2015 evaluation by the FTC’s Inspector General concluded that the Bureau of Economics’ existence as a separate organization improves its ability to offer “unbiased and sound economic analysis to support decision-making.”

Higher-quality analysis. An issue closely related to economists’ independence is the quality of the economic analysis. Executive branch regulatory economists interviewed by Richard Williams expressed concern that the economic analysis was more likely to be changed to support decisions when the economists are located in the program office that writes the regulations. More generally, a study that Catherine Konieczny and I conducted while we were at the FCC found that executive branch agencies are more likely to produce higher-quality regulatory impact analyses if the economists responsible for the analysis are in an independent economics office rather than the program office.

Upholding regulations in court. In Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable for agencies to refuse to consider regulatory costs if the authorizing statute does not prohibit them from doing so. This precedent will likely increase judicial expectations that agencies will consider economic issues when they issue regulations. The FCC’s OGC-OEA memo cites examples of cases where the quality of the FCC’s economic analysis either helped or harmed the commission’s ability to survive legal challenge under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. More systematically, a recent Regulatory Studies Center working paper finds that a higher-quality economic analysis accompanying a regulation reduces the likelihood that courts will strike down the regulation, provided that the agency explains how it used the analysis in decisions.

Two potential disadvantages of a separate economics office are that it may make the economists easier to ignore (what former FCC Chief Economist Tim Brennan calls the “Siberia effect”) and may lead the economists to produce research that is less relevant to the practical policy concerns of the policymaking bureaus. The FCC’s reorganization plan took these disadvantages seriously.

To ensure that the ultimate decision-makers—the commissioners—have access to the economists’ analysis and recommendations, the rules establishing the office give OEA explicit responsibility for reviewing all items with economic content that come before the commission. Each item is accompanied by a cover memo that indicates whether OEA believes there are any significant issues, and whether they have been dealt with adequately. To ensure that economists and policy bureaus work together from the outset of regulatory initiatives, the OGC-OEA memo instructs:

Bureaus and Offices should, to the extent practicable, coordinate with OEA in the early stages of all Commission-level and major Bureau-level proceedings that are likely to draw scrutiny due to their economic impact. Such coordination will help promote productive communication and avoid delays from the need to incorporate additional analysis or other content late in the drafting process. In the earliest stages of the rulemaking process, economists and related staff will work with programmatic staff to help frame key questions, which may include drafting options memos with the lead Bureau or Office.

While presiding over his final commission meeting on Jan. 13, Pai commented, “It’s second nature now for all of us to ask, ‘What do the economists think?’” The real test of this institutional innovation will be whether that practice continues under a new chair in the next administration.

On February 28, the Heritage Foundation issued a volume of essays by leading scholars on the law and economics of financial services regulatory reform entitled Prosperity Unleashed:  Smarter Financial Regulation.  This Report, which is well worth a read (in particular, by incoming Trump Administration officials and Members of Congress), is available online.

The Report’s 23 chapters, which deal with different aspects of financial markets, reflect 10 core principles:

  1. Private and competitive financial markets are essential for healthy economic growth.
  2. The government should not interfere with the financial choices of market participants, including consumers, investors, and uninsured financial firms. Regulators should focus on protecting individuals and firms from fraud and violations of contractual rights.
  3. Market discipline is a better regulator of financial risk than government regulation.
  4. Financial firms should be permitted to fail, just as other firms do. Government should not “save” participants from failure because doing so impedes the ability of markets to direct resources to their highest and best use.
  5. Speculation and risk-taking are what make markets operate. Interference by regulators attempting to mitigate risks hinders the effective operation of markets.
  6. Government should not make credit and capital allocation decisions.
  7. The cost of financial firm failures should be borne by managers, equity-holders, and creditors, not by taxpayers.
  8. Simple rules—such as straightforward equity capital requirements—are preferable to complex rules that permit regulators to micromanage markets.
  9. Public-private partnerships create financial instability because they create rent-seeking opportunities and misalign incentives.
  10. Government backing for financial activities, such as classifying certain firms or activities as “systemically important,” inevitably leads to government bailouts.

The chapters deal with these specific topics (the following summary draws upon the introduction to the Report):

Chapter 1, “Deposit Insurance, Bank Resolution, and Market Discipline,” explains how government-backed deposit insurance weakens market discipline, increases moral hazard, and leads to higher financial risk than the economy would have otherwise, thus weakening the banking system as a whole.

Chapter 2, “A Simple Proposal to Recapitalize the U.S. Banking System,” follows with a brief look at the failure of the Basel rules and a discussion of how banks’ historical capital ratios—a key measure of bank safety—have fallen as regulations have increased.  The author proposes a regulatory off-ramp, whereby banks could opt out of the current regulatory framework in return for meeting a minimum leverage ratio of at least 20 percent.

Chapter 3, “A Better Path for Mortgage Regulation,” provides a brief history of federal mortgage regulation.  This essay shows that, prior to Dodd–Frank, the preferred federal policy was to protect mortgage borrowers through mandatory disclosure as opposed to directly regulating the content of mortgage agreements.  The author argues that the vibrancy of the mortgage market has suffered because the basic disclosure approach has succumbed to regulation via content restrictions.

Chapter 4, “Money and Banking Provisions in the 2016 Financial CHOICE Act: A Major Step Toward Financial Security,” evaluates the reforms in the CHOICE Act, the first major piece of legislation written to replace large portions of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (a far-reaching statute whose provisions are at odds with its name). The author discusses the CHOICE Act’s regulatory off-ramp—and one potential alternative—because a similar approach could be used to implement a broad set of bank regulation reforms.

Chapter 5, “Securities Disclosure Reform,” delves into the law and economics of mandatory disclosure requirements, both in connection with new securities offerings and ongoing disclosure obligations.  The author explains that disclosure requirements have become so voluminous that they obfuscate rather than inform, making it more difficult for investors to find relevant information.

Chapter 6, “The Case for Federal Pre-Emption of State Blue Sky Laws,” recommends improving the efficiency and effectiveness of capital markets through federal pre-emption of state securities “blue sky” laws, which impose state registration requirements on companies seeking to issue securities.  Blue sky laws inefficiently retard the flow of capital from investors to businesses.

Chapter 7, “How to Reform Equity Market Structure: Eliminate ‘Reg NMS’ and Build Venture Exchanges,” tackles the seemingly opaque topic of U.S. equity market structure.  The essay argues that the increasingly fragmented structure of today’s equities markets has been shaped as much, if not more, by legislative and regulatory action than by the private sector.  The author calls on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to consider rescinding Reg NMS and replacing it with rules (and rigorous disclosure requirements) that allow free and competitive markets to dictate much of market structure.

Chapter 8, “Reforming FINRA,” explains that FINRA, the primary regulator of broker-dealers, is neither a true self-regulatory organization nor a government agency, and that FINRA is largely unaccountable to the industry or to the public.  The chapter broadly outlines alternative approaches that Congress and the regulators can take to fix these problems, and it recommends specific reforms to FINRA’s rule-making and arbitration process.

Chapter 9, “Reforming the Financial Regulators,” argues that financial regulation should establish a framework for financial institutions based on their ability to serve consumers, investors, and Main Street companies.  This view is starkly at odds with the current “macroprudential” trend in financial regulation, which places governmental regulators—with their purportedly greater understanding of the financial system—at the top of the decision-making chain.

Chapter 10, “The World After Chevron,” discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a case that has generated considerable controversy among policymakers over the past decade.  The Chevron decision effectively transferred final interpretive authority from the courts to the agencies in any case where Congress did not itself answer the precise dispute.  Reform-minded policymakers have long called on Congress to return that ultimate decision-making authority to the federal courts.

Chapter 11, “Transparency and Accountability at the SEC and at FINRA,” describes how these two regulatory bodies—the two mostly responsible for governing the U.S. securities sector—lack the structural safeguards necessary to ensure that they exercise their authority with the consent of the American public.  The chapter provides recommendations for fixing these deficiencies, such as giving respondents a choice of federal court or administrative proceedings with the SEC, and allowing FINRA to exist as a purely voluntary, private industry association.

Chapter 12, “The Massive Federal Credit Racket,” provides an extensive list of the more than 150 federal credit programs that provide some form of government backing.  These programs consist of direct loans and loan guarantees for housing, agriculture, energy, education, transportation, infrastructure, exporting, and small businesses, as well as insurance programs to cover bank and credit union deposits, pensions, flood damage, crop damage, and acts of terrorism.  Government financing programs are often sold to the public as economic imperatives, particularly during downturns, but they are instruments of redistributive policies that mainly benefit those with the most political influence rather than those with the greatest need.

Chapter 13, “Reforming Last-Resort Lending: The Flexible Open-Market Alternative,” proposes a plan to reform the Federal Reserve’s means for preserving liquidity for financial as well as nonfinancial firms, especially during financial emergencies, but also in normal times.  The essay proposes, among other things, to replace the existing Fed framework with a single standing (as opposed to temporary) facility to meet extraordinary as well as ordinary liquidity needs as they arise.  The goal is to eliminate the need for ad hoc changes in the rules governing the lending facility, or for special Fed, Treasury, or congressional action.

Chapter 14, “Simple, Sensible Reforms for Housing Finance,” advocates establishing a national title database to prevent the sort of clerical errors that plagued the foreclosure process during the housing crash of 2007 to 2009.  The author also recommends eliminating government support for all mortgages with low down payments, and for refinancing loans that increase the borrower’s mortgage debt.  Both types of loans encourage households to take on debt rather than accumulate wealth.

Chapter 15, “A Pathway to Shutting Down the Federal Housing Finance Enterprises,” provides an overview of all the federal housing finance enterprises and argues that Congress should end these failed experiments.  The federal housing finance enterprises, cobbled together over the last century, today cover more than $6 trillion (60 percent) of the outstanding single-family residential mortgage debt in the United States.  Over time, the policies implemented through these enterprises have inflated home prices, led to unsustainable levels of mortgage debt for millions of people, cost federal taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts, and undermined the resilience of the housing finance system.

Chapter 16, “Fixing the Regulatory Framework for Derivatives,” discusses government preferences for derivatives and repurchase agreements (repos)—an often ignored but integral part of the many policy problems that contributed to the 2008 crisis.  As the essay explains, the main problem with the pre-crisis regulatory structure for derivatives and repos was that the bankruptcy code included special exemptions (safe harbors) for these financial contracts.  The safe harbors were justified on the grounds that they would prevent systemic financial problems, a theory that proved false in 2008.  The chapter concluded that eliminating all safe harbors for repos and derivatives would affect the market because counterparties would have to account for more risk, a desirable outcome.

Chapter 17, “Designing an Efficient Securities-Fraud Deterrence Regime,” explains that the main flaws in the current approach to securities-fraud deterrence in the U.S., and recommends several reforms to fix these problems.  This essay recommends that the government should credibly threaten individuals who would commit fraud with criminal penalties, and pursue corporations only if their shareholders would otherwise have poor incentives to adopt internal control systems to deter fraud.

Chapter 18, “Financial Privacy in a Free Society,” stresses the importance of maintaining financial privacy—a key component of life in a free society—while policing markets for fraudulent (and other criminal) behavior.  The current U.S. financial regulatory framework has expanded so much that it now threatens this basic element of freedom.  For instance, individuals who engage in cash transactions of more than a small amount automatically trigger a general suspicion of criminal activity, and financial institutions of all kinds are forced into a quasi-law-enforcement role.  The chapter recommends seven reforms that would better protect individuals’ privacy rights and improve law enforcement’s ability to apprehend and prosecute criminals and terrorists.

Chapter 19, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” provides an overview of consumer financial protection law, and then provide several recommendations on how to modernize the consumer financial protection system.  The goal of these reforms is to fix the federal consumer financial protection framework so that it facilitates competition, consumer protection, and consumer choice.  The authors recommend transferring all federal consumer protection authority to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency with vast regulatory experience in consumer financial services markets.

I will have a bit more to say about my co-authored contribution, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” in my next post.

Chapter 20, “Reducing Banks’ Incentives for Risk-Taking via Extended Shareholder Liability,” examines changes in shareholder liability that could better align incentives and reduce the moral hazard problems that result in excessively risky financial institutions.  The authors describe how under extended liability, an arrangement common in banking history, shareholders of failed banks have an obligation to repay the remaining debts to creditors.

Chapter 21, “Improving Entrepreneurs’ Access to Capital: Vital for Economic Growth,” shows how existing rules and regulations hinder capital formation and entrepreneurship.  The essay explains that several groups usually support the current complex, expensive, and economically destructive system because excessive regulation helps keep their competitors at bay.  The author describes more than 25 policy reforms to reduce or eliminate state and federal regulatory barriers that hinder entrepreneurs’ access to capital.

Chapter 22, “Federalism and FinTech,” provides an in-depth look at how financial technology or “FinTech” companies are beginning to utilize advances in communications, data processing, and cryptography to compete with traditional financial services providers.  Some of the most powerful FinTech applications are removing geographic limitations on where companies can offer services and, in general, lowering barriers to entry for new firms.  As the essay explaints, this newly competitive landscape is exposing weaknesses, inefficiency, and inequity in the U.S. financial regulatory structure.

Chapter 23, “A New Federal Charter for Financial Institutions,” proposes a new banking charter under which a financial institution would be regulated more like banks were regulated before the modern era of bank bailouts and government guarantees.  Under the proposed charter, which is similar to a regulatory off-ramp approach, banks that choose to fund themselves with higher equity would be faced mostly with regulations that focus on punishing and deterring fraud, and fostering the disclosure of information that is material to investment decisions.  The charter explicitly includes a prohibition against receiving government funds from any source, and even excludes the financial institution from FDIC deposit insurance eligibility.

In conclusion, Prosperity Unleashed sets forth the elements of a legislative and regulatory reform agenda for the financial services sector, which has the potential for stimulating economic growth and innovation while benefiting consumers and businesses alike.  I will have a bit more to say about my co-authored contribution, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” in my next post.

In short, all of this hand-wringing over privacy is largely a tempest in a teapot — especially when one considers the extent to which the White House and other government bodies have studiously ignored the real threat: government misuse of data à la the NSA. It’s almost as if the White House is deliberately shifting the public’s gaze from the reality of extensive government spying by directing it toward a fantasy world of nefarious corporations abusing private information….

The White House’s proposed bill is emblematic of many government “fixes” to largely non-existent privacy issues, and it exhibits the same core defects that undermine both its claims and its proposed solutions. As a result, the proposed bill vastly overemphasizes regulation to the dangerous detriment of the innovative benefits of Big Data for consumers and society at large.

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On June 23 the Supreme Court regrettably declined the chance to stem the abuses of private fraud-based class action securities litigation.  In Halliburton v. EPJ Fund (June 23, 2014), a six-Justice Supreme Court majority (Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court, joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) reversed the Fifth Circuit and held that a class action certification in a securities fraud case should be denied if the defendants produce evidence rebutting the presumption that defendants’ misrepresentations had a price impact. EPJ Fund filed a class action against Halliburton and one of its executives, alleging that they made misrepresentations designed to inflate Halliburton’s stock price, in violation of Section 10(b)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 10b-5. In Basic v. Levinson (1988), the Supreme Court held that: (1) investors could satisfy the requirement that plaintiffs relied on defendants’ misrepresentations in buying stock by invoking a presumption that the price of stock traded reflects all public, material information, including material misrepresentations; but that (2) defendants could rebut this presumption by showing that the misrepresentations had no price impact.  Halliburton argued that class certification was inappropriate because the evidence it introduced to disprove loss causation also showed that its alleged misrepresentations had not affected its stock price, thereby rebutting the presumption. The district court rejected Halliburton’s argument and certified the class, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that Halliburton could use its evidence only at trial. Although the Court rejected Halliburton’s arguments for overturning Basic, it agreed with Halliburton that defendants must be afforded an opportunity to rebut the presumption of reliance before class certification, because the fact that a misrepresentation has a price impact is “Basic’s fundamental premise.”

Justice Thomas, joined by Scalia and Alito, concurred in the judgment, but argued that the “fraud on the market” (FOTM) theory embodied in Basic should be overruled, based on logic, economic realities (“market efficiency has . . . lost its luster”), and subsequent jurisprudence clarifying class certification requirements.  Significantly, the Thomas dissent points to a variety of well-recognized motives for the purchase of securities that have nothing to do with a presumption (key to the FOTM theory) that the market accurately reflects the value of a stock in light of all public information:  “Many investors in fact trade for the opposite reason—that is, because they think the market has under- or overvalued the stock, and they believe they can profit from that mispricing. . . .  Other investors trade for reasons entirely unrelated to price—for instance, to address changing liquidity needs, tax concerns, or portfolio balancing requirements. . . .  In short, Basic’s assumption that all investors rely in common on price integrity is simply wrong.”  [citation omitted]

Thomas, Scalia, and Alito are right – the Court’s majority missed a major opportunity to rein in class action opportunism by failing to consign Basic to the graveyard of economically flawed Supreme Court precedents, where it belongs.  Given the costs and difficulties inherent in rebutting the presumption of reliance at the class action stage, Halliburton at best appears likely to impose only a minor constraint on securities fraud class actions.

The FOTM presumption that has enabled a substantial rise in securities class action litigation over the last quarter century makes no economic sense, according to the scholarly consensus.  What’s more, it imposes a variety of social harms on the very groups that were supposed to benefit from this doctrine, as described in a recent study of the political economy of FOTM.  Specifically, longer-term shareholders end up bearing the cost of class action settlements that benefit plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, and to the extent paying and receiving shareholders are fully diversified, FOTM is a wash in terms of compensation that turns into a net loss when costs including attorneys’ fees are included.  Moreover, FOTM’s utility as a fraud deterrent is “much muted” because payments are made by the corporation and its insurer, not the individual culpable agents.  In short, “[w]hen the dust settles, FOTM not only fails to meet its stated goals, it does not even try.”

Not included in this litany of FOTM’s shortcomings is the serious issue of error costs, and in particular the harmful avoidance of novel but efficient behavior by corporate officials that fear it will incorrectly be deemed “fraudulent.”  This largely stems from the fact that “fraud” is not precisely defined in the securities law context, which has led to “at least three costs: public and private actions are not brought on behalf of clearly specified regulatory objectives; the line between civil and criminal liability has become unacceptably blurred; and the law has come to provide at best a weak means of resolving vital public questions about wrongdoing in financial markets.

In light of these problems, Congress should eliminate the eligibility of private securities fraud suits for class action certification.  Moreover, Congress should require a showing of specific reliance on fraudulent information as a prerequisite to any finding of liability in a private individual action.  What’s more, Congress ideally should require that the SEC define with greater specificity what categories of conduct it will deem actionable fraud, based on economic analysis, as a prerequisite for bringing enforcement actions in this area.

Public choice insights suggest this wish list will be difficult to obtain, of course (but not impossible, as passage of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 demonstrates).  Public support for reform might be sparked by drawing greater attention to the fact that class action securities litigation has actually tended to harm, rather than help, small investors.

What about even more far-reaching securities law reforms?  Asking Congress to consider decriminalizing insider trading undoubtedly is unrealistic at this juncture, but it is interesting to note that even mainstream journalists are starting to question the social utility of the SEC’s current crackdown on insider trading.  This focus may lead to a serious case of misplaced priorities.  Notably, as leading Federal District Court Judge (SDNY) and former Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Jed Rakoff has stressed, AUSAs avoid pursuing far more serious frauds arising out of the 2008 Financial Crisis in favor of bringing insider trading cases because the latter are easier to investigate and prosecute in a few years’ time, and, thus, best enhance the AUSAs’ marketability to law firms.  (Hat tip to my Heritage colleague Paul Larkin for the Rakoff reference.)

An occasional reader brought to our attention a bill that is fast making its way through the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. The Small Company Disclosure Simplification Act (H.R. 4167) would exempt emerging growth companies and companies with annual gross revenue less than $250 million from using the eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) structure data format currently required for SEC filings. This would effect roughly 60% of publicly listed companies in the U.S.

XBRL makes it possible to easily extract financial data from electronic SEC filings using automated computer programs. Opponents of the bill (most of whom seem to make their living using XBRL to sell information to investors or assisting filing companies comply with the XBRL requirement) argue the bill will create a caste system of filers, harm the small companies the bill is intended to help, and harm investors (for example, see here and here). On pretty much every count, the critics are wrong. Here’s a point-by-point explanation of why:

1) Small firms will be hurt because they will have reduced access to capital markets because their data will be less accessible. — FALSE
The bill doesn’t prohibit small firms from using XBRL, it merely gives them the option to use it or not. If in fact small companies believe they are (or would be) disadvantaged in the market, they can continue filing just as they have been for at least the last two years. For critics to turn around and argue that small companies may choose to not use XBRL simply points out the fallacy of their claim that companies would be disadvantaged. The bill would basically give business owners and management the freedom to decide whether it is in fact in the company’s best interest to use the XBRL format. Therefore, there’s no reason to believe small firms will be hurt as claimed.

Moreover, the information disclosed by firms is no different under the bill–only the format in which it exists. There is no less information available to investors, it just makes it little less convenient to extract–particularly for the information service companies whose computer systems rely on XBRL to gather they data they sell to investors. More on this momentarily.

2) The costs of the current requirement are not as large as the bill’s sponsors claims.–IRRELEVANT AT BEST
According to XBRL US, an XBRL industry trade group, the cost of compliance ranges from $2,000 for small firms up to $25,000–per filing (or $8K to $100K per year). XBRL US goes on to claim those costs are coming down. Regardless whether the actual costs are the “tens of thousands of dollars a year” that bill sponsor Rep. Robert Hurt (VA-5) claims, the point is there are costs that are not clearly justified by any benefits of the disclosure format.

Moreover, if costs are coming down as claimed, then small businesses will be more likely to voluntarily use XBRL. In fact, the ability of small companies to choose NOT to file using XBRL will put competitive pressure on filing compliance companies to reduce costs even further in order to attract business, rather than enjoying a captive market of companies that have no choice.

3) Investors will be harmed because they will lose access to small company data.–FALSE
As noted above,investors will have no less information under the bill–they simply won’t be able to use automated programs to extract the information from the filings. Moreover, even if there was less information available, information asymmetry has long been a part of financial markets and markets are quite capable of dealing with such information asymmetry effectively in how prices are determined by investors and market-makers.  Paul Healy and Krishna Palepu (2001) provide an overview of the literature that shows markets are not only capable, but have an established history, of dealing with differences in information disclosure among firms. If any investors stand to lose, it would be current investors in small companies whose stocks could conceivably decrease in value if the companies choose not to use XBRL. Could. Conceivably. But with no evidence to suggest they would, much less that the effects would be large. To the extent large block holders and institutional investors perceive a potential negative effect, those investors also have the ability to influence management’s decision on whether to take advantage of the proposed exemption or to keep filing with the XBRL format.

The other potential investor harm critics point to with alarm is the prospect that small companies would be more likely and better able to engage in fraudulent reporting because regulators will not be able to as easily monitor the reports. Just one problem: the bill specifically requires the SEC to assess “the benefits to the Commission in terms of improved ability to monitor securities markets” of having the XBRL requirement. That will require the SEC to actively engage in monitoring both XBRL and non-XBRL filings in order to make that determination. So the threat of rampant fraud seems a tad bit overblown…certainly not what one critic described as “a massive regulatory loophole that a fraudulent company could drive an Enron-sized truck through.”

In the end, the bill before Congress would do nothing to change the kind of information that is made available to investors. It would create a more competitive market for companies who do choose to file using the XBRL structured data format, likely reducing the costs of that information format not only for small companies, but also for the larger companies that would still be required to use XBRL. By allowing smaller companies the freedom to choose what technical format to use in disclosing their data, the cost of compliance for all companies can be reduced. And that’s good for investors, capital formation, and the global competitiveness of US-based stock exchanges.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, a case that could drastically alter the securities fraud landscape.  Here are a few thoughts on the issues at stake in the case and a cautious prediction about how the Court will rule.

First, some quick background for the uninitiated.  The broadest anti-fraud provision of the securities laws, Section 10(b) of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act, forbids the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance in contravention of such rules and regulations as the [Securities and Exchange] Commission may prescribe….”  The Commission’s Rule 10b-5, then, makes it illegal “to make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading.”

Although Section 10(b) doesn’t expressly entitle victims of securities fraud to sue for damages, the Supreme Court long ago inferred a private right of action to enforce the provision.  The elements of that judicially created private right of action are: (1) a material misrepresentation or omission by the defendant, (2) scienter (i.e., mental culpability worse than mere negligence) on the part of the defendant, (3) a connection between the misrepresentation or omission and the purchase or sale of a security, (4) the plaintiff’s reliance upon the misrepresentation or omission, (5) economic loss by the plaintiff, and (6) loss causation (i.e., the fraud, followed by revelation of the truth, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s investment loss).

For most individual investors, the economic loss resulting from any instance of securities fraud (and, thus, the potential recovery) is not enough to justify the costs of bringing a lawsuit.  Accordingly, 10b-5 suits seem like an appropriate context for class actions.  The elements of the judicially created cause of action, however, make class certification difficult.  That is because most securities fraud class actions would proceed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), which requires that common issues of law or fact in all the plaintiffs’ cases predominate over plaintiff-specific issues.  Because the degree to which any individual investor relied upon a misrepresentation (element 4) requires proof of lots of investor-specific facts (How did you learn of the misrepresentation?, How did it influence your investment decision?, etc.), the reliance element would seem to preclude Rule 10b-5 class actions.

In Basic v. Levinson, a 1988 Supreme Court decision from which three justices were recused, a four-justice majority endorsed a doctrine that has permitted Rule 10b-5 class actions to proceed, despite the reliance element.  The so-called “fraud on the market” doctrine creates a rebuttable presumption that an investor who traded in an efficient stock market following a fraudulent disclosure (but before the truth was revealed) “relied” on that disclosure, even if she didn’t see or hear about it.  The theoretical basis for the fraud on the market doctrine is the semi-strong version of the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis (ECMH), which posits that securities prices almost instantly incorporate all publicly available information about the underlying company, making it impossible to earn above-normal returns by engaging in “fundamental analysis” (i.e., study of publicly available information about a listed company).  The logic of the fraud on the market doctrine is that publicly available misinformation affects a security’s price, upon which an investor normally relies when she makes her investment decision.  Thus, any investor who makes her investment decision on the basis of the stock’s price “relies” on the “ingredients” of that price, including the misinformation at issue.

In light of this logic, the Basic Court reasoned that a defendant could rebut the presumption of reliance by severing either the link between the misinformation and the stock’s price or the link between the stock’s price and the investor’s decision.  To sever the former link, the defendant would need to show that key market makers were privy to the truth, so that the complained of lie could not have affected the market price of the stock (in other words, there was “truth on the market”…great name for a blog, no?).  To sever the latter link, the defendant would need to show that the plaintiff investor made her investment decision for some reason unrelated to the stock’s price—say, because she needed to divest herself of the stock for political reasons.

Basic thus set up a scheme in which the class plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the stock at issue traded in an efficient market.  If she does so, her (and similarly situated class members’) reliance on the misinformation at issue is presumed.  The defendant then bears the burden of rebutting the presumption by showing either that the misrepresentation did not give rise to a price distortion (probably because the truth was on the market) or that the individual investor would have traded even if she knew the statement was false (i.e., her decision was not based on the stock’s price).

The Halliburton appeal presents two questions.  First, should the Court overrule Basic and jettison the rebuttable presumption of reliance when the stock at issue is traded in an efficient market.  Second, at the class certification stage, should the defendant be permitted to prevent the reliance presumption from arising by presenting evidence that the alleged misrepresentation failed to distort the market price of the stock at issue.

With respect to the first question, the Court could go three ways.  First, it could maintain the status quo rule that 10b-5 plaintiffs, in order to obtain the reliance presumption, must establish only that the stock at issue was traded in an efficient market.  Second, it could overrule Basic wholesale and hold that a 10b-5 plaintiff must establish actual, individualized reliance (i.e., show that she knew of the misrepresentation and that it influenced her investment decision).  Third, the Court could tweak Basic by holding that plaintiffs may avail themselves of the presumption of reliance only if they establish, at the class certification stage, that the complained of
misrepresentation actually distorted the market price of the stock at issue.

My guess, which I held before oral argument and seems consistent with the justices’ questioning on Wednesday, is that the Court will take the third route.  There are serious problems with the status quo.  First, it rests squarely upon the semi-strong version of the ECMH, which has come under fire in recent years.  While no one doubts that securities prices generally incorporate publicly available information, and very quickly, a number of studies purporting to document the existence of arbitrage opportunities have challenged the empirical claim that every bit of publicly available information is immediately incorporated into the price of every security traded in an efficient market.  Indeed, the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics split on this very question.   I doubt this Supreme Court will want to be perceived as endorsing a controversial economic theory, especially when doing so isn’t necessary to maintain some sort of reliance presumption (given the third possible holding discussed above).

A second problem with the status quo is that it places an unreasonable burden on courts deciding whether to certify a class.  The threshold question for the fraud on the market presumption—is the security traded in an efficient market?—is just too difficult for non-specialist courts.  How does one identify an “efficient market”?  One court said the relevant factors are:  “(1) the stock’s average weekly trading volume; (2) the number of securities analysts that followed and reported on the stock; (3) the presence of market makers and arbitrageurs; (4) the company’s eligibility to file a Form S-3 Registration Statement; and (5) a cause-and-effect relationship, over time, between unexpected corporate events or financial releases and an immediate response in stock price.”  Others have supplemented these so-called “Cammer factors” with a few others: market capitalization, the bid/ask spread, float, and analyses of autocorrelation.  No one can say, though, how each factor should be assessed (e.g., How many securities analysts must follow the stock? How much autocorrelation is permissible?  How large may the bid-ask spread be?).  Nor is there guidance on how to balance factors when some weigh in favor of efficiency and others don’t.  It’s a crapshoot.

The status quo approach of presuming investor reliance if the plaintiff establishes an efficient market for the company’s stock is also troubling because the notion of a “market” for any single company’s stock is theoretically unsound.  An economic market consist of all products that are, from a buyer’s perspective, reasonably interchangeable.  For example, Evian bottled water (spring water from the Alps) is a very close substitute for Fiji water (spring water from the Fiji Islands) and is probably in the same product market.  From an investor’s perspective, there are scores of close substitutes for the stock of any particular company.  Such substitutes would include all other stocks that offer the same package of financial attributes (risk, expected return, etc.).  It makes little sense, then, to speak of a “market” consisting of a single company’s stock, and basing the presumption of reliance on establishment of an “efficient market” in one company’s stock is somewhat nonsensical.

With respect to the second possible route for the Halliburton Court—overturning Basic in its entirety and requiring individualized proof of actual reliance—proponents emphasize that the private right of action to enforce Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 is judicially created.  The Supreme Court now disfavors implied rights of action and, to avoid stepping on Congress’s turf, requires that they stick close to the statute at issue.  In particular, the Court has said that determining the elements of a private right of action requires “historical reconstruction.”  With respect to the Rule 10b-5 action, the Court tries “to infer how the 1934 Congress would have addressed the issue had the 10b-5 action been included as an express provision of the 1934 Act,” and to do that, it consults “the express causes of action” in the Act and borrows from the “most analogous” one.  In this case, that provision is Section 18(a), which is the only provision in the Exchange Act authorizing damages actions for misrepresentations affecting secondary, aftermarket trading (i.e., trading after a public offering of the stock at issue).  Section 18(a) requires a plaintiff to establish actual “eyeball” reliance—i.e., that she bought the security with knowledge of the false statement and relied upon it in making her investment decision.  There is thus a powerful legal argument in favor of a full-scale overturning of Basic.

As much as I’d like for the Court to take that route (because I believe Rule 10b-5 class actions create far greater social cost than benefit), I don’t think the Court will go there.  Overruling Basic to require eyeball reliance in Rule 10b-5 actions would be perceived as an activist, “pro-business” decision:  activist because Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing Rule 10b-5 actions and has left the fraud on the market doctrine untouched, and pro-business because it would insulate corporate managers from 10b-5 class actions.

Now, both of those characterizations are wrong.  The chief post-Basic legislation involving Rule 10b-5, the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, specifically stated (in Section 203) that “[n]othing in this Act shall be deemed to … ratify any implied private right of action.”  As Justices Alito and Scalia emphasized at oral argument, the PSLRA expressly declined to put a congressional imprimatur on the judicially created Rule 10b-5 cause of action, so a Court decision modifying Rule 10b-5’s elements would hardly be “activist.” Nor would the decision be “pro-business” and “anti-investor.”  The fact is, the vast majority of Rule 10b-5 class actions are settled on terms where the corporation pays the bulk of the settlement, which largely goes to class counsel.  The corporation, of course, is spending investors’ money.  All told, then, investors as a class pay a lot for, and get very little from, Rule 10b-5 class actions.  A ruling eviscerating such actions would better be characterized as pro-investor.

Sadly, our financially illiterate news media cannot be expected to understand all this and would, if Basic were overturned, fill the newsstands and airwaves with familiar stories of how the Roberts Court continues on its activist, pro-business rampage.  And even more sadly, at least one key justice whose vote would be needed for a Basic overruling, has proven himself to be exceedingly concerned with avoiding the appearance of “activism.”  A wholesale overruling of Basic, then, is unlikely.

That leaves the third route, modifying Basic to require that class plaintiffs first establish a price distortion resulting from the complained of misrepresentation.  I have long suspected that this is where the Court will go, and the justices’ questioning on Wednesday suggests this is how many (especially Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy) are leaning.  From the Court’s perspective, there are several benefits to this approach.

First, it would allow the Court to avoid passing judgment on the semi-strong ECMH.  The status quo approach—prove an efficient market and we’ll presume reliance because of an inevitable price effect—really seems to endorse the semi-strong ECMH.  An approach requiring proof of price distortion, by contrast, doesn’t.  It may implicitly assume that most pieces of public information are instantly incorporated into securities prices, but no one really doubts that.

Second, the third route would substitute a fairly manageable inquiry (Did the misrepresentation occasion a price effect?) for one that is both difficult and theoretically problematic (Is the market for the company’s stock efficient?).

Third, the approach would allow the Court to eliminate a number of the most meritless securities fraud class actions without appearing overly “activist” and “pro-business.”  If class plaintiffs can’t show a price effect from a complained of misrepresentation or omission, then their claim is really frivolous and ought to go away immediately.  The status quo would permit certification of the class, despite the absence of a price effect, as long as class counsel could demonstrate an efficient market using the amorphous and unreliable factors set forth above.  And once the class is certified, the plaintiffs have tons of settlement leverage, even when they don’t have much of a claim.  In short, the price distortion criterion is a far better screen than the market efficiency screen courts currently utilize.  For all these reasons, I suspect the Court will decide not to overrule Basic but to tweak it to require a threshold showing of price distortion.

If it does so, then the second question at issue in Halliburton—may the defendant, at the class certification stage, present evidence of an absence of price distortion?—goes away.  If the plaintiff must establish price distortion to attain class certification, then due process would require that the defendant be allowed to poke holes in the plaintiff’s certification case.

So that’s my prediction on Halliburton.  We shall see.  Whatever the outcome, we’ll have lots to discuss in June.

Last week, over Commissioner Wright’s dissent, the FTC approved amendments to its HSR rules (final text here) that, as Josh summarizes in his dissent,

establish, among other things, a procedure for the automatic withdrawal of an HSR filing upon the submission of a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announcing that the notified transaction has been terminated.

I discussed the proposed amendments and Josh’s concurring statement on their publication in February.

At the time, Josh pointed out that:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction. Indeed, it would be surprising to see firms incurring the costs and devoting the time and effort associated with antitrust review in the absence of a good faith intent to proceed with their transaction.

The proposed rules, if adopted, could increase the costs of corporate takeovers and thus distort the market for corporate control. Some companies that had complied with or were attempting to comply with a Second Request, for example, could be forced to restart their antitrust review, leading to significant delays and added expenses. The proposed rules could also create incentives for firms to structure their transactions less efficiently and discourage the use of tender offers. Finally, the proposed new rules will disproportionately burden U.S. public companies; the Federal Register notice acknowledges that the new rules will not apply to tender offers for many non-public and foreign companies.

Given these concerns, I hope that interested parties will avail themselves of the opportunity to submit public comments so that the Commission can make an informed decision at the conclusion of this process.

Apparently none of the other commissioners shared his concerns. But they remain valid. Most importantly, the amendments were adopted without a shred of evidence to suggest they were needed or would be helpful in any way. As Josh says in his dissent:

It has long been accepted as a principle of good governance that federal agencies should issue new regulations only if their benefits exceed their costs….However, I have not seen evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions that have been notified under the HSR Rules has resulted in the allocation of resources to a truly hypothetical transaction.

In the absence of evidence that the automatic withdrawal rule would remedy a problem that exists under the current HSR regime, and thus benefit the public, I believe we should refrain from creating new regulations.

For what it’s worth. the single comment received by the Commission on the proposed rule supported Josh’s views:

Although the rule may prevent such inefficiency in the future, it would also require companies to incur substantial costs in premerger negotiations and resource allocation while waiting for FTC approval during the HSR period. Currently, firms can avoid such costs by temporarily withdrawing offers or agreements until they are assured of FTC approval. Under the proposed rule, however, doing so would automatically withdraw a company’s HSR filing, subjecting it to another HSR filing and filing fee.

Presumably the absence of other comments means the business community isn’t too concerned about the amendments. But that doesn’t mean they should have been adopted without any evidence to support the claim that they were needed. I commend Josh for sticking to his principles and going down swinging.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently scored a significant win against a Maryland banker accused of naked short-selling. What may be good news for the SEC is bad news for the market, as the SEC will now be more likely to persecute other alleged offenders of naked short-selling restrictions.

“Naked” short selling is when a trader sells stocks the trader doesn’t actually own (and doesn’t borrow in a prescribed period of time) in the hopes of buying the stocks later (before they must be delivered) at a lower price. The trader is basically betting that the stock price will decline. If it doesn’t, the trader must purchase the stock at a higher price–or breach their original sale contract.Some critics argue that such short-selling leads to market distortions and potential market manipulation, and some even pointed to short-selling as a boogey-man in the 2008 financial crisis, hence the restrictions on short-selling giving rise to the SEC’s enforcement proceedings.

Just one problem, there’s a lot of evidence that shows restrictions on short-selling make markets less efficient, not more.

This isn’t exactly news. Thom argued against short-selling restrictions seven years ago (here) and our late colleague, Larry Ribstein, followed up a couple years ago (here).  The empirical evidence just continues to pile in. Beber and Pagano, in the Journal of Finance earlier this year examine not just US restrictions on short-selling, but global restrictions. Their abstract reads:

Most regulators around the world reacted to the 2007–09 crisis by imposing bans on short selling. These were imposed and lifted at different dates in different countries, often targeted different sets of stocks, and featured varying degrees of stringency. We exploit this variation in short-sales regimes to identify their effects on liquidity, price discovery, and stock prices. Using panel and matching techniques, we find that bans (i) were detrimental for liquidity, especially for stocks with small capitalization and no listed options; (ii) slowed price discovery, especially in bear markets, and (iii) failed to support prices, except possibly for U.S. financial stocks.

So while the SEC may celebrate their prosecution victory, investors may have reason to be less enthusiastic.

Although it probably flew under almost everyone’s radar, last week Josh issued his first Concurring Statement as an FTC Commissioner.  The statement came in response to a seemingly arcane Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to Hart-Scott-Rodino Premerger Notification Rules:

The proposed rules also establish a procedure for the automatic withdrawal of an HSR filing when filings are made with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announcing that a transaction has been terminated.

The proposed rulemaking itself isn’t enormously significant, but Josh’s statement lays down a marker that indicates (as anyone could have predicted) that he intends to do everything he can to improve the agency and its process.

The rule, as suggested above, would automatically withdraw an HSR filing whenever transacting parties filed certain notices with the SEC announcing the termination of a deal.  You may recall that the Hertz/Dollar Thrifty deal had been in the works for at least five years when it finally closed.  When Hertz withdrew its tender offer in October 2011, it did not withdraw its HSR filing.  As reported at the time, Hertz withdrew its bid over difficulty securing FTC approval, which had plagued other offers for Thrifty:

In a sign of frustration, Mr. Thompson said that the company had spent some $30 million over the last few years dealing with the barrage of takeover offers.

Obviously, given the difficulty of securing FTC approval and the costs imposed by the uncertainty it created, there was real benefit to Hertz (and perhaps Thrifty, for that matter) from receiving a decision from the FTC without meanwhile tying up the company’s resources, restraining its decision- and deal-making abilities, complicating negotiations and weakening its credit by maintaining a stalled-but-pending merger.  So the deal was withdrawn, but the HSR filing was not.

In August 2012 the parties re-initiated the merger following ongoing consultations by Hertz with the FTC, and, in November 2012 — a full year after the deal was withdrawn (and a year and a half after the HSR filing) — the FTC approved the deal.

But, understandably, FTC staff don’t want to be wasting resources reviewing hypothetical transactions, and so, following on the heels of the Hertz/Dollar Thrifty deal, wrote the proposed rule to ensure that it never happens again.

Except it didn’t happen in Hertz because, after all, the deal was eventually made. According to Josh, in fact, the situation intended to be avoided by the rule has never arisen:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction. Indeed, it would be surprising to see firms incurring the costs and devoting the time and effort associated with antitrust review in the absence of a good faith intent to proceed with their transaction.

This isn’t to say (and Josh doesn’t say) that the proposed rule is a bad idea, just that, given the apparently negligible benefits of the rule, the costs could easily outweigh the benefits.

Which is why Josh’s Statement is important. What Josh is asking for is not that the rule be scrapped, but simply that, before adopting the rule, the FTC weigh its costs and benefits. And as Josh points out, there could indeed be some costs:

The proposed rules, if adopted, could increase the costs of corporate takeovers and thus distort the market for corporate control. Some companies that had complied with or were attempting to comply with a Second Request, for example, could be forced to restart their antitrust review, leading to significant delays and added expenses. The proposed rules could also create incentives for firms to structure their transactions less efficiently and discourage the use of tender offers. Finally, the proposed new rules will disproportionately burden U.S. public companies; the Federal Register notice acknowledges that the new rules will not apply to tender offers for many non-public and foreign companies.

Given these concerns, I hope that interested parties will avail themselves of the opportunity to submit public comments so that the Commission can make an informed decision at the conclusion of this process.

What is surprising is not that Josh suggested that there might be unanticipated costs to such a rule, nor that cost-benefit analysis be applied. Rather, what’s surprising is that the rest of the Commission didn’t sign on. Why is that surprising? Well, because cost-benefit analysis is not only sensible, it’s consistent with the Obama Administration’s stated regulatory approach. Executive Order 13563 requires that:

Each agency must, among other things:  (1) propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs (recognizing that some benefits and costs are difficult to quantify) . . . In applying these principles, each agency is directed to use the best available techniques to quantify anticipated present and future benefits and costs as accurately as possible.

Unfortunately, as Berin Szoka has pointed out,

The FCC, FTC and many other regulatory agencies aren’t required to do cost-benefit analysis at all.  Because these are “independent agencies”—creatures of Congress rather than part of the Executive Branch (like the Department of Justice)—only Congress can impose cost-benefit analysis on agencies.  A bipartisan bill, the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act (S. 3486), would have allowed the President to impose the same kind of cost-benefit analysis on independent regulatory agencies as on Executive Branch agencies, including review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for “significant” rulemakings (those with $100 million or more in economic impact, that adversely affect sectors of the economy in a material way, or that create “serious inconsistency” with other agencies’ actions). . . . yet the bill has apparently died . . . .

Legislation or not, it is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that the rules it enacts will actually be beneficial (it is a consumer protection agency, after all). The staff, presumably, did a perfectly fine job writing the rule they were asked to write. Josh’s point is simply that it isn’t clear the rule should be adopted because it isn’t clear that the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs.

It may have happened before, but I can’t recall an FTC Commissioner laying down the cost-benefit-analysis gauntlet and publicly calling for consistent cost-benefit review at the Commission, even of seemingly innocuous (but often not actually innocuous), technical rules.

This is exactly the sort of thing that those of us who extolled Josh’s appointment hoped for, and I’m delighted to see him pushing this kind of approach right out of the gate.  No doubt he rocked some boats and took some heat for it. Good. That means he’s on the right track.

TOTM friend Stephen Bainbridge is editing a new book on insider trading.  He kindly invited me to contribute a chapter, which I’ve now posted to SSRN (download here).  In the chapter, I consider whether a disclosure-based approach might be the best way to regulate insider trading.

As law and economics scholars have long recognized, informed stock trading may create both harms and benefits to society With respect to harms, defenders of insider trading restrictions have maintained that informed stock trading is “unfair” to uninformed traders and causes social welfare losses by (1) encouraging deliberate mismanagement or disclosure delays aimed at generating trading profits; (2) infringing corporations’ informational property rights, thereby discouraging the production of valuable information; and (3) reducing trading efficiency by increasing the “bid-ask” spread demanded by stock specialists, who systematically lose on trades with insiders.

Proponents of insider trading liberalization have downplayed these harms.  With respect to the fairness argument, they contend that insider trading cannot be “unfair” to investors who know in advance that it might occur and nonetheless choose to trade.  And the purported efficiency losses occasioned by insider trading, liberalization proponents say, are overblown.  There is little actual evidence that insider trading reduces liquidity by discouraging individuals from investing in the stock market, and it might actually increase such liquidity by providing benefits to investors in equities.  With respect to the claim that insider trading creates incentives for delayed disclosures and value-reducing management decisions, advocates of deregulation claim that such mismanagement is unlikely for several reasons.  First, managers face reputational constraints that will discourage such misbehavior.  In addition, managers, who generally work in teams, cannot engage in value-destroying mismanagement without persuading their colleagues to go along with the strategy, which implies that any particular employee’s ability to engage in mismanagement will be constrained by her colleagues’ attempts to maximize firm value or to gain personally by exposing proposed mismanagement.  With respect to the property rights concern, deregulation proponents contend that, even if material nonpublic information is worthy of property protection, the property right need not be a non-transferable interest granted to the corporation; efficiency considerations may call for the right to be transferable and/or initially allocated to a different party (e.g., to insiders).  Finally, legalization proponents observe that there is little empirical evidence to support the concern that insider trading increases bid-ask spreads.

Turning to their affirmative case, proponents of insider trading legalization (beginning with Geoff’s dad, Henry Manne) have primarily emphasized two potential benefits of the practice.  First, they observe that insider trading increases stock market efficiency (i.e., the degree to which stock prices reflect true value), which in turn facilitates efficient resource allocation among capital providers and enhances managerial decision-making by reducing agency costs resulting from overvalued equity.  In addition, the right to engage in insider trading may constitute an efficient form of managerial compensation.

Not surprisingly, proponents of insider trading restrictions have taken issue with both of these purported benefits. With respect to the argument that insider trading leads to more efficient securities prices, ban proponents retort that trading by insiders conveys information only to the extent it is revealed, and even then the message it conveys is “noisy” or ambiguous, given that insiders may trade for a variety of reasons, many of which are unrelated to their possession of inside information.  Defenders of restrictions further maintain that insider trading is an inefficient, clumsy, and possibly perverse compensation mechanism.

The one thing that is clear in all this is that insider trading is a “mixed bag”  Sometimes such trading threatens to harm social welfare, as in SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur, where informed trading threatened to prevent a corporation from usurping a valuable opportunity.  But sometimes such trading creates net social benefits, as in Dirks v. SEC, where the trading revealed massive corporate fraud.

As regular TOTM readers will know, optimal regulation of “mixed bag” business practices (which are all over the place in the antitrust world) requires consideration of the costs of underdeterring “bad” conduct and of overdeterring “good” conduct.  Collectively, these constitute a rule’s “error costs.”  Policy makers should also consider the cost of administering the rule at issue; as they increase the complexity of the rule to reduce error costs, they may unwittingly drive up “decision costs” for adjudicators and business planners.  The goal of the policy maker addressing a mixed bag practice, then, should be to craft a rule that minimizes the sum of error and decision costs.

Adjudged under that criterion, the currently prevailing “fraud-based” rules on insider trading fail.  They are difficult to administer, and they occasion significant error cost by deterring many instances of socially desirable insider trading.  The more restrictive “equality of information-based” approach apparently favored by regulators fares even worse.  A contractarian, laissez-faire approach favored by many law and economics scholars would represent an improvement over the status quo, but that approach, too, may be suboptimal, for it does nothing to bolster the benefits or reduce the harms associated with insider trading.

My new book chapter proposes a disclosure-based approach that would help reduce the sum of error and decision costs resulting from insider trading and its regulation.  Under the proposed approach, authorized informed trading would be permitted as long as the trader first disclosed to a centralized, searchable database her insider status, the fact that she was trading on the basis of material, nonpublic in­formation, and the nature of her trade.  Such an approach would (1) enhance the market efficiency benefits of insider trading by facilitating “trade decod­ing,” while (2) reducing potential costs stemming from deliberate misman­agement, disclosure delays, and infringement of informational property rights.  By “accentuating the positive” and “eliminating the negative” conse­quences of informed trading, the proposed approach would perform better than the legal status quo and the leading proposed regulatory alternatives at minimizing the sum of error and decision costs resulting from insider trading restrictions.

Please download the paper and send me any thoughts.

Regular readers will know that several of us TOTM bloggers are fans of the “decision-theoretic” approach to antitrust law.  Such an approach, which Josh and Geoff often call an “error cost” approach, recognizes that antitrust liability rules may misfire in two directions:  they may wrongly acquit harmful practices, and they may wrongly convict beneficial (or benign) behavior.  Accordingly, liability rules should be structured to minimize total error costs (welfare losses from condemning good stuff and acquitting bad stuff), while keeping in check the costs of administering the rules (e.g., the costs courts and business planners incur in applying the rules).  The goal, in other words, should be to minimize the sum of decision and error costs.  As I have elsewhere demonstrated, the Roberts Court’s antitrust jurisprudence seems to embrace this sort of approach.

One of my long-term projects (once I jettison some administrative responsibilities, like co-chairing my school’s dean search committee!) will be to apply the decision-theoretic approach to regulation generally.  I hope to build upon some classic regulatory scholarship, like Alfred Kahn’s Economics of Regulation (1970) and Justice Breyer’s Regulation and Its Reform (1984), to craft a systematic regulatory model that both avoids “regulatory mismatch” (applying the wrong regulatory fix to a particular type of market failure) and incorporates the decision-theoretic perspective. 

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about insider trading regulation.  Our friend Professor Bainbridge recently invited me to contribute to a volume he’s editing on insider trading.  I’m planning to conduct a decision-theoretic analysis of actual and proposed insider trading regulation.

Such regulation is a terrific candidate for decision-theoretic analysis because stock trading on the basis of material, nonpublic information itself is a “mixed bag” practice:  Some instances of insider trading are, on net, socially beneficial; others create net welfare losses.  Contrast, for example, two famous insider trading cases:

  • In SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur, mining company insiders who knew of an unannounced ore discovery purchased stock in their company, knowing that the stock price would rise when the discovery was announced.  Their trading activity caused the stock price to rise over time.  Such price movement might have tipped off landowners in the vicinity of the deposit and caused them not to sell their property to the company (or to do so only at a high price), in which case the traders’ activity would have thwarted a valuable corporate opportunity.  If corporations cannot exploit their discoveries of hidden value (because of insider trading), they’ll be less likely to seek out hidden value in the first place, and social welfare will be reduced.  TGS thus represents “bad” insider trading.  
  • Dirks v. SEC, by contrast, illustrates “good” insider trading.  In that case, an insider tipped a securities analyst that a company was grossly overvalued because of rampant fraud.  The analyst recommended that his clients sell (or buy puts on) the stock of the fraud-ridden corporation.  That trading helped expose the fraud, creating social value in the form of more accurate stock prices.

These are just two examples of how insider trading may reduce or enhance social welfare.  In general, instances of insider trading may reduce social welfare by preventing firms from exploiting and thus creating valuable information (as in TGS), by creating incentives for deliberate mismanagement (because insiders can benefit from “bad news” and might therefore be encouraged to “create” it), and perhaps by limiting stock market liquidity or reducing market efficiency by increasing bid-ask spreads.  On the other hand, instances of insider trading may enhance social welfare by making stock markets more efficient (so that prices better reflect firms’ expected profitability and capital is more appropriately channeled), by reducing firms’ compensation costs (as the right to engage in insider trading replaces managers’ cash compensation—on this point, see the excellent work by our former blog colleague, Todd Henderson), and by reducing the corporate mismanagement and subsequent wealth destruction that comes from stock mispricing (mainly overvaluation of equity—see work by Michael Jensen and yours truly).

Because insider trading is sometimes good and sometimes bad, rules restricting it may err in two directions:  they may acquit/encourage bad instances, or they may condemn/prevent good instances.  In either case, social welfare suffers.  Accordingly, the optimal regulatory regime would seek to minimize the sum of losses from improper condemnations and improper acquittals (total error costs), while keeping administrative costs in check.

My contribution to Prof. Bainbridge’s insider trading book will employ decision theory to evaluate three actual or proposed approaches to regulating insider trading:  (1) the “level playing field” paradigm, apparently favored by many prosecutors and securities regulators, which would condemn any stock trading on the basis of material, nonpublic information; (2) the legal status quo, which deems “fraudulent” any insider trading where the trader owes either a fiduciary duty to his trading partner or a duty of trust or confidence to the source of his nonpublic information; and (3) a laissez-faire, “contractarian” approach, which would permit corporations and sources of nonpublic information to posit their own rules about when insiders and informed outsiders may trade on the basis of material, nonpublic information.  I’ll then propose a fourth disclosure-based alternative aimed at maximizing social welfare by enhancing the social benefits and reducing the social costs of insider trading, while keeping decision costs in check. 

Stay tuned…I’ll be trying out a few of the paper’s ideas on TOTM.  I look forward to hearing our informed readers’ thoughts.

As in, “If the SEC doesn’t pull up its socks and do a serious cost-benefit analysis, it may discover that Business Roundtable has become a verb. As in, the court Business Roundtabled yet another SEC rule.”

Here.