HOW THE RICH GET RICHER Part 1

I’m planning on doing a series of, hopefully, short posts (although this one’s on the long side) with anecdotes on how the rich get richer, often at the expense of the rest of us. Here’s the first installment with three examples.

Example #1: At least 18 large companies have given executives large payouts just before filing for bankruptcy. These companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers but gave a collective $135 million to executives just before filing for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy attorneys note that the payouts were timed to skirt a 2005 law intended to prevent executives from prospering as their companies failed. The intent was to ban payouts that unfairly enrich the executives who drove their companies into bankruptcy. Such huge payouts are particularly egregious during an economic crisis when employees of the companies are suffering severe hardships. [1]

Example #2: Some members of Congress and some Trump administration supporters, who were privy to private early briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus, made investment decisions that appear to have  been based on this non-public, inside information. Under the Stock Act of 2012, members of Congress are barred from using non-public information they get as a member of Congress to buy or sell personal stock holdings. However, at least four members of Congress made significant stock transactions in late February just before the stock market crashed. The private briefings they received on the potential seriousness of a pandemic would be considered insider information because this information was not available to the public. Moreover, at that time, the public information from the Trump administration and from an Op-Ed written by Senator Burr was reassuring the public that the U.S. was well prepared for a pandemic and had the coronavirus under control.

Senator Burr of North Carolina, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had received multiple briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus. On February 13, 2020, less than a week after publishing his upbeat Op-Ed, he sold 33 stocks worth over $600 thousand (and perhaps as much as $1.7 million) in several industries likely to be hard hit by a pandemic. Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia made 29 stock transactions in late February, including buying over $100,000 worth of a company providing software tools for working remotely. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma sold up to $750,000 worth of stock and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sold millions of dollars of stocks. All four Senators have denied doing anything illegal. Senator Burr’s brother-in-law also sold significant stock holdings on the same day as the Senator. Providing investment tips to others based on inside information is illegal. [2]

On February 24 and 25, at a private meeting of the conservative Hoover Institution’s board, senior members of Trump’s economic team expressed uncertainty about how the coronavirus would affect the economy. However, on these same days, President Trump and the same economic advisers were saying publicly that the coronavirus was under control and that the economy and the stock market looked good. The president’s advisers appear to have been giving an early warning to wealthy party donors that contradicted their public statements. A hedge fund consultant, William Callanan, who is a Hoover board member and attended the meeting, circulated a memo about this to a hedge fund founder and others that gave them the ability to make investment decisions based on this non-public information. [3] This would appear to be illegal insider trading facilitated by the Trump administration’s private briefings.

Example #3: Insiders at companies developing COVID vaccines and treatments have been selling their companies’ stock and making millions of dollars. Insiders, including executives and board members, at a dozen of these companies have sold more than $1.3 billion in company stock since March 2020 when the seriousness of COVID became evident. In the same period last year, insiders at these companies sold just $74 million of stock, less than 6% of 2020 sales. Over $1.1 billion of these stock sales occurred at just three companies – Moderna, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Vaxart. In particular, the chief medical officer (CMO) at Moderna is systematically liquidating all his stock, including stock obtained by exercising stock options granted to him, through planned weekly trades that are making him $1 million a week. Moderna’s chief executive officer (CEO) has sold nearly $58 million in stock, although he still retains substantial company stock.

Insiders are not allowed to sell company stock based on insider information, but can legally sell company stock under plans that schedule the stock sales in advance. However, these plans are relatively easy to change on short notice, which can make them at least appear to be an end run around illegal insider trading. Moderna’s CMO modified his plan on March 13 and its CEO did so on May 21 shortly after the company announced positive preliminary results from its vaccine development. Insiders have an incentive to exaggerate and hype good news while downplaying possible challenges or uncertainties in order to inflate their company’s stock price and increase their personal profit from sales of company stock. Vaxart is being sued by shareholders for misleading them while a hedge fund with ties to a board member was selling hundreds of millions of dollars of company stock.

This insider stock selling at companies working on COVID responses is particularly concerning because many of these companies have received substantial funding from the federal government under Operation Warp Speed, the government’s initiative to accelerate development of a COVID vaccine. Moderna is receiving $1 billion to support the clinical trial of a possible vaccine and has been promised another $1.5 billion to manufacture and distribute a successful vaccine. Taxpayers are paying for the risky up-front investments while executives and shareholders are (already) reaping the financial benefits even though no vaccine has yet completed testing. [4]

These last two examples indicate that selling (and buying) stocks based on non-public information is not uncommon. Some of it is clearly illegal but enforcement is sometimes difficult or lax and some of it either isn’t illegal or has been given a gloss of legality by allowing company insiders to engaged in scheduled stock sales.

In any case, it appears that the Trump Administration and federal government regulations have effectively institutionalized insider trading. Those investing in the stock market without insider connections should stand forewarned.

[1]      Washington Post, 10/28/20, “Failing firms’ executives got millions,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Burns, K., & Millhiser, I., 5/14/20, “Sen. Richard Burr and the coronavirus insider trading scandal, explained,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/5/14/21258560/senator-richard-burr-coronavirus-insider-trading-scandal-explained)

[3]      Kelly, K., & Mazzetti, M., 10/15/20, “As virus spread early on, briefings from Trump administration fueled sell-off,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Wallack, T., 10/24/20, “Drug company insiders are profiting handsomely from the world’s desperate hope for a COVID-19 vaccine,” The Boston Globe

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