Company insiders will typically be in possession of material non-public information (MNPI) about their companies. In order to allow insiders the opportunity to trade, the SEC adopted Rule 10b5-1, which provides an affirmative defense to insider trading liability if the trades are made pursuant to a written plan or trading instruction entered into when the trader was not aware of MNPI. Over the years, there has been considerable concern that insiders were abusing Rule 10b5-1 plans by adopting plans just prior to trading, adopting multiple plans, or even terminating plans when they turned out to be unprofitable. The SEC recently adopted new rules designed to curb some of the more abusive practices, but one significant problem remains: while Rule 10b5-1 plans are supposed to be irrevocable, insiders who back out of plans have so far escaped liability under the central anti-fraud provision of the federal securities laws, principally because a violation of that provision requires an actual trade.
The issue of “insider abstention”—insiders who decide not to trade based on MNPI—has long bedeviled insider trading law and policy. Insider abstention is typically undetectable and unknowable, raising insurmountable issues of proof, while the general requirement that fraud be “in connection with the purchase or sale of a security” imposes a rigid legal barrier. But Rule 10b5-1 plans stand on a different evidentiary footing: they are written plans, communicated to third parties, creating a clear record of intent. The only real question is whether legal liability can attach in the absence of an actual purchase or sale of a security.
Traditionally, the answer to this question has been no. The SEC staff has stated on a few occasions that cancellation of a Rule 10b5-1 plan would not in itself lead to liability under Rule 10b-5 because terminating a plan would not meet the “in connection with” requirement. However, Rule 10b5 is not the only statutory provision that has been used to prosecute insider trading. The SEC has frequently prosecuted insider trading under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act, a provision that applies not only to the “sale” of securities but extends more broadly to “offers” to sell securities. And criminal authorities have increasingly been prosecuting insider trading under mail and wire fraud statutes that do not have an “in connection with” requirement at all. These other statutory provisions could provide a basis for insider trading liability in the context of a cancelled or terminated Rule 10b5-1 plan.
"Insider Abstention and Rule 10b5-1 Plans,"
The University of Chicago Business Law Review: Vol. 3:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/ucblr/vol3/iss1/3