Inside information & avoiding illegal trading

Pillory woodcut2In medieval times, morality plays taught people through dramatic performance the difference between good and evil. A related phenomenon was the public punishment of malefactors by locking them in “the stocks.” The prisoner was immobilized in a wooden device, usually in the town marketplace, making his or her crime very public and subjecting the individual to ridicule and abuse as an example to all.

Today, we pillory people through online news and social media.

I thought of the stocks – the medieval kind – as I read how former KPMG senior partner Scott London pleaded guilty to providing inside information obtained through his auditing job for use in illegal trades. Fourteen times, Mr. London gave confidential info on KMPG clients like Herbalife and Skechers to a “friend” to make trades that ostensibly would rescue the man from a financial pinch. The friend, by the way, raked in $1.3 million and gave Mr. London a Rolex, some jewelry and about $50,000 in cash.

“I didn’t do it for money,” London said in a hallway outside [the] courtroom. “I did it to help out someone whose business was struggling. It was a bad, bad mistake.”

It’s not a mistake that will generate much sympathy – especially from professionals entrusted daily with nonpublic information. Now the 50-year-old Mr. London is held captive in the public square, recoiling from scorn and a possible prison term, wondering at what he has lost:

“It was probably the worst day of my life,” London said moments after entering the guilty plea. “Imagine what you do, you do it for 30 years, you go to school for it, and in a matter of weeks it’s all gone. It’s my fault.”

Yes, it was his fault: 14 illegal transactions amounted to 14 betrayals of trust. Each leak of earnings or M&A news corrupted the market.

I don’t share share this to throw more rotten vegetables at the guy in the stocks – but to say that investor relations people have a role to play in protecting ourselves and those around us. Illegal trading didn’t begin or end with Scott London. The SEC makes 50 to 60 cases a year nailing people for misuse of inside information as traders or tipsters. IR people are not immune to this conduct that brings scandal.

Trading on inside information can be a professional, organized crime involving stock-market sharks, such as the Galleon hedge fund guys. But it can also be a temptation for fairly ordinary people: a secretary, an accountant, a doctor helping in a clinical trial … and, yes, an IRO.

My feeling is that people in IR should not trade in our own stocks, or those of other companies about which we have nonpublic information. The NIRI Code of Ethics includes a pledge to “Not use confidential information acquired in the course of my work for my personal advantage nor for the advantage of related parties.” That seems to allow investing in one’s company or client as long as you’re not using confidential information. But for my personal investing, I’d rather not worry about when I know something or don’t. Apart from receiving (and holding) my employer’s stock as compensation when I was on the corporate side, my position is simply not to trade in companies I work with. Maybe that’s extreme, but I prefer to avoid being pilloried.

Also, investor relations professionals should seek clear policies to prevent trading on nonpublic information by everyone in our organizations – and periodic reminders to keep people well-warned.

What’s your take on IR people trading, and on cautioning co-workers?

© 2013 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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