The Economic Times reports today (17th January 2009) that SEBI is examining whether, in law, pledge of shares amounts to Insider Trading. The SEBI Committee, as the report importantly adds, will also consider whether the law should be amended whereby pledge of Promoters’ shares would now be required to be disclosed.
A crisis and major scandal such as Satyam often has the good effect of speeding up improvements in law that otherwise may take a longer time. Reports that some institutions sold shares in Satyam – some of them selling shares of Promoters held under pledge – well ahead of the disclosures and steep market fall has rightly caused outrage. However, the pressure to take quick action may also result in ill considered amendments, making rules out of exceptions, and also interpretations of “spirit” that otherwise may come to haunt later on.
I find it a little surprising when the report implies that even bonafide pledge of shares may be held to be Insider Trading apparently by taking an extended meaning of “dealing” in “securities”. I wonder whether the existing law is broad enough to include even such bonafide pledge of shares. The existing definition of “dealing in securities” in the SEBI Insider Trading Regulations is quite specific and exhaustive though a bit clumsy. It says that “dealing in securities” means “an act of subscribing, buying, selling or agreeing to subscribe, buy, sell or deal in any securities by an person either as a principal or an agent”. Pledging of shares is not subscribing or buying or selling of securities, nor is it agreeing to do so.
The definition has some clumsiness in terms of being circumlocutory when it uses the word “deal” again in the latter part of the definition but I doubt whether even this would be sufficient to cover bonafide pledge of shares.
Consider also the intention of these Regulations prohibiting Insider Trading. It is obviously to restrict insiders from dealing ahead of material disclosures, at a time when the price is significantly different from what may be if these disclosures were made. In Satyam, it is being alleged that the Promoters pledged shares when prices were high and thus obtained monies based on valuations that did not reflect the reality and which reality was disclosed much later. The lenders allegedly sold shares when market price started falling and Promoters could not meet margin calls. However, this, by itself only, cannot make bonafide pledge of shares insider dealing.
When a person pledges shares, he keeps the risks and rewards in the shares with himself. When the lender sells the shares on default or margin calls, he sells at a time when the prices may have already fallen but then it is the borrower who has to bear such fall. He would be credited obviously only to the extent of the amount realized by sale. If the borrower bears the risk of such fall, then this goes against the very concept of Insider Trading where the dealer profits from a fall in price that may be the result of adverse information published later.
In furthering the argument that pledge of shares is “dealing in securities” a cue also seems to be taken in the report from the fact that the definition of “securities” – Insider Trading involves dealing in “securities” – under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 includes “rights or interest in securities”. Since, and it is rightly stated, pledge of shares may involve, to some extent, grant of right or interest in securities, a suggestion apparently made is that in that case dealing in “securities” would cover pledge of shares (a contrary view is also quoted, which I agree to, but since the report does discuss the law further, it is being discussed here).
One possible answer to this is that what is covered under Insider Trading is “dealing” in securities – i.e., the process and action itself. It is the word “securities” that has been given an extended meaning under SCRA to cover “rights or interest”. The word “dealing” has not so been artificially extended and in fact, as discussed above, is quite specific and exhaustive (except for the quirk, also discussed). If pledge of shares is held to be Insider Trading, then Insider Trading is being interpreted to mean “dealing in (dealing in securities)”!
Interestingly, the Takeover Regulations exempts acquisition of shares by “banks and public financial institutions as pledgees". One may wonder whether, therefore, pledge was thus understood to be acquisition since otherwise there was no need to specifically give this exemption. However, this conclusion may not be correct since, even here, what is really exempted is “acquisition of shares” as “pledgees" and not the pledge itself. In other words, the pledge has to be an acquisition first – possibly as, e.g., in the case where the pledgee actually transfers the shares in its name and also does further acts. Also, there are decisions (of SAT, etc., not discussed here) that have held that pledge does not amount to acquisition of shares.
The above discussion though applies to bonafide pledge of shares and the moot question of course is whether the pledge of shares in Satyam was bonafide. Obviously, no one knows this yet and it may take a long time before the truth is established. However, clearly, if a pledge is not a bonafide pledge and is actually a sale in disguise, then it would be sale of securities and in that case the Insider Trading Regulations would squarely apply. But this would be by applying the regular and plain interpretation of Insider Trading and not by a crisis-driven, extended meaning.
If in the heat and pressure of action, to somehow find the Promoters of Satyam guilty of Insider Trading, a stretched interpretation is taken that any pledge of shares should also be deemed to be Insider Trading, it can cause a serious crisis to the whole corporate world generally. Firstly, Promoters of numerous other companies would also be deemed to have committed Insider Trading through pledge. Secondly, this process may bring out the real picture of the status of finances of Promoters in India post stock market meltdown!
It is then that the second issue raised by the ET report can be discussed and that is whether Promoters should be required to disclose the pledge of their shareholdings. I think this is a sensible suggestion and it would be valuable information for shareholders and the markets in general to know to what extent the Promoters are vulnerable and what is their real, net and clear holding and stake. Not that there is anything per se wrong in pledging shares or that it is “disclosure” of Insider Trading, Pledge may be for many reasons – for raising of finance for persons or corporate purposes or even further acquisition of shares, etc. In fact, if funds are raised by Promoters for financing further acquisitions of shares, then this may be even indicative of their own confidence in the Company. Of course, in some cases, this disclosure may help initiating investigation of the bonafide nature of the pledge.
However, as stated earlier, making Promoters to disclose, at this juncture, the pledge of their holding would also result in the discovery – probably shocking – of the reality as suggested by the oft-quoted statement of Warren Buffet – “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out”. We may thus find out how many Indian Promoters are swimming dressed very skimpily and how many are swimming stark, bare-assed naked!
- Jayant Thakur