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Monday, May 06, 2024

Concerns about recent developments on SEBI's regulation-making on market rumours and insider trading

by Bhavin Patel and Renuka Sane.

Insider trading is one of the areas of financial regulation where the order of complexity required of state capability is relatively high, and the gains to society from successful implementation are relatively low. The Indian environment on SEBI enforcement against insider trading has accumulated many difficulties. In recent months, we have seen the next step forward in SEBI's journey, with a novel legal idea around rumours swirling in the market. In this article, we summarise the recent developments, and show two substantive problems with the direction taken by SEBI. These substantive problems are ultimately grounded in failures of process. There are signs that the process adopted in recent months for these developments on rumours, has more deficiencies than usual.

Recent developments on how SEBI thinks about rumours

Over the past year, SEBI has been concerned about the impact of market rumours on security prices. It proposed that certain listed entities be required to verify "market rumours" related to their firm. Amendments to this effect (the June 2023 Amendments) were made in the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (the LODR Regulations), though the amendments are yet to be enforced. On December 28, 2023, it published a Consultation Paper on Amendments to SEBI Regulations with Respect to Verification of Market Rumour (the Current Consultation Paper) suggesting that listed entities should verify market rumours only if they are material. 'Materiality' meant that such rumours should lead to price movement in the security. It also proposed that if a listed entity classifies certain information as Unpublished Price Sensitive Information (UPSI) but does not verify a market rumour related to such information, it should continue to be treated as UPSI under the SEBI (Prohibition of Insider Trading) Regulations, 2015, (the PIT Regulations). In its Board Meeting held on March 15, 2024, SEBI approved this proposal, confirming that if a rumour related to UPSI is not verified, it will continue to be treated as UPSI. In other words, if a speculative story appears in the public domain, pertaining to UPSI about a firm, it will still be treated as UPSI until the listed entity verifies the story.

These steps contain difficulties that are generic to the working of SEBI. Firms are already mandated to release certain information (through listing obligations), and not release some (through prohibition on insider trading). SEBI's proposals on verification of market rumours have not yet explained the market failure proposed to be solved and how the selected intervention is the least costly way of doing so. In this particular case, the legal effects of the new law can be particularly damaging. The decision in the March 15 Board meeting, to continue to treat Generally Available Information (verified or not) as Unpublished Price Sensitive Information (till the company verifies it), goes against the grain of how price discovery works in the public market. A greater process discipline will help improve the thinking, and the democratic legitimacy, of insider trading regulation.

Substantive problem #1: The impact on the OTC market

Consider the following illustration:

  • Assume a listed entity classifies "defaulting on a large supplier contract" as UPSI.

  • Since the information is classified as UPSI, insiders would be prohibited from trading based on such information under the PIT Regulations. Note that the definition of insider under R. 2(1)(g) of the PIT Regulations includes persons with access to UPSI. This implies that if a retail investor, with no connection to the firm, has access to this information, the retail investor is also classified as an insider. This speaks to the over-inclusiveness of the term 'insider' under prevailing securities laws.

  • Assume that a newspaper carries a story about a "rumour about the default". Since this is now reported in the media, it will be accessible to the general public. The listed entity chooses not to verify the information since it does not trigger the materiality threshold under R. 30 of the LODR Regulations (for example, it might not cause a price movement or may only cause a price movement lower than the limits specified in the threshold).

  • Under the current proposal, an unverified event or information reported in the media would not be considered 'generally available information' under the PIT Regulations. It would continue to be UPSI. The definition of insider regarding UPSI would extend to the general public. As a result, the PIT Regulations would generalise the prohibition on trading based on such information, even though it has been reported in the media, because the listed entity chose not to verify it. This may effectively hinder the price discovery process, a core function of securities markets.

Further, the explanation to R. 4(1) of the PIT Regulations states that if a person possesses UPSI, their trades would be presumed to have been motivated "by the knowledge and awareness of such information". The proviso to this explanation states that an insider can prove their 'innocence' if: (i) the transaction is an off-market inter-se transfer between insiders who were in possession of the same unpublished price sensitive information without being in breach of R. 3 and both parties had made a conscious and informed trade decision, (ii)the transaction was carried out through the block deal window mechanism between persons who were in possession of the unpublished price sensitive information without being in breach of R. 3 and both parties had made a conscious and informed trade decision.

As a result, under proviso (i) two people who read the same unverified story in the media are consequently insiders and who have made a 'conscious and informed trade decision' can trade in the listed entity's securities if such trade is off-market; and under proviso (ii) a block deal trade is also allowed under similar circumstances.

The effect would be that regular trades on the floor of the exchange based on unverified media reports would be prohibited. However, off-market transactions or block deals conducted based on such information would not count as 'insider trading', creating a problem of arbitrary discrimination. This also drastically reduces the pool of investors able to trade, which may possibly lead to a liquidity collapse.

Substantive problem #2: Contradictions with existing regulations

The proposals contradict a literal interpretation of UPSI as set out in the PIT Regulations since they suggest that information which is neither unpublished (since it has been published in the media) nor price-sensitive (since it does not affect the price of securities and therefore falls outside the scope of the materiality threshold verification requirements under R. 30 of the LODR Regulations) would still be considered UPSI. This would suggest a need to amend the definition of UPSI under the PIT Regulations and, potentially, the provisos to the explanation to R. 4(1) and the definition of insider under R. 2(1)(g). The proposals in the Current Consultation Paper also necessitate changes to determining materiality under R. 30(4) of the LODR Regulations. This is because the proposed definition of materiality is not a part of the June 2023 Amendments. The materiality thresholds proposed impact which market rumours listed entities need to verify.

Difficulties with the process

Assuming that SEBI has considered the potential impact on liquidity and does not regard it as problematic, we are still faced with the problem of how these proposals may be implemented. The current proposal may require changes in other substantive regulations. If they are indeed to be implemented, they should be done through amendments to the PIT and LODR Regulations. Board minutes, Circulars, or Guidelines should not suffice to effectuate substantive changes. Under Section 30 of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 (the SEBI Act), changes to regulations must be laid "as soon as may be after it is made, before each House of Parliament, while it is in session, for a total period of thirty days." This allows for Parliamentary oversight of the regulator's exercise of powers of subordinate legislation and prevents the use of such powers beyond permitted limits. The June 2023 Amendments are scheduled to take effect from June 1, 2024, there is little time left for listed entities to prepare, and such amendments should be published soon. The process under S. 30 of the SEBI Act was followed in the case of the June 2023 Amendments, and the Amendments were laid before Parliament on August 11, 2023. There is no reason this process should be side-stepped now. SEBI should come out with a precise legal instrument, and the amendments to the PIT and LODR Regulations, to implement its proposal.

Ideally, the regulator should, in addition to inviting and analysing public comments, identify the problem or market failure these seek to address, the principles governing the proposals, the outcome the regulator aims to achieve through such changes, and an analysis of their costs and benefits as recommended by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC) in its Handbook on adoption of governance enhancing and non-legislative elements of the draft Indian Financial Code of December 26, 2013. The Financial Stability and Development Council had also approved the implementation of the FSLRC's recommendations in its meeting in October 2013. If this process had been followed, the failures in substantive thinking described earlier would have been avoided.

The authors are researchers at TrustBridge. We thank Amol Kulkarni and Madhav Goel for useful comments.

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