Congress and the Insider Trading Prohibition Act: “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”*

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the “Insider Trading Prohibition Act” (“ITPA”).[1] Proponents are hailing it as a triumph of bipartisan cooperation. Conversely, critics are calling it the “Insider Trading Protection Act.” This is because the bill codifies in statutory law the “personal benefit” requirement under which the tippee can only be convicted if that person paid or promised some benefit (tangible or even intangible and reputational) to the tipper. That requirement had resulted in many convictions being overturned (and even more prosecutions probably not being commenced in the first place). In the Second Circuit, this doctrine had … Read more

The Underside of Hedge Fund Activism: Looting the Pension Fund

Hedge fund activism is a topic on which most law professors have closed their minds. They learned in student days that activist hedge funds are excellent agents of change that efficiently discipline managements at targeted firms and increase shareholder wealth. Maybe that generally happens, but we cannot stop there.

Even if activism increases shareholder wealth, that still leaves open the question of where these wealth increases come from. The standard view is that activists increase firm productivity, force the “deconglomeratization” of stagnant firms, and expose others to efficient takeovers. Of course, that does happen — sometimes. But the rival view … Read more

Game Over: How Best to Regulate Betting on Wall Street

What a difference a week makes! Almost two weeks ago, the frenzied discussion of GameStop assumed that a proletarian revolution was in progress, that the masses had organized themselves through Reddit and Robinhood, and that they were marching on the bastions of the evil short sellers, who had long held these serfs in subjugation. “Investors of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains,” proclaimed the zealots on WallStreetBets. A week later, it was clear that the revolution had failed. GameStop had fallen from well over $400 a share to the low $60s on Thursday — much … Read more

Biden and the SEC: Some Possible Agendas

This is the gossip season, and almost everyone has heard a rumor about who will be the next chair of the SEC. Although I was interviewed by the Biden transition team (for my views, not as a candidate), my sources are no better than those of others. Nonetheless, they all tell me that the next chair will be Gary Gensler, the former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and current chair of the Transition Taskforce for Financial Regulation for President-elect Biden. In my view, he is probably the optimal choice — experienced, tough at enforcement, and well versed in … Read more

The European Commission Considers “Short-Termism” (and “What Do You Mean by That?”)

The European Commission retained Ernst & Young (“EY”) to undertake a detailed study of “short-termism” and, implicitly, to report whether it was a major roadblock to more sustainable corporate governance. Their study was then presented at a three day international conference at Oxford on November 11-13. Professor Mark Roe of Harvard Law School and I were asked to make presentations. Professor Roe’s statement ran last week on this blog, here, and a summary of my statement appears below.

In a nutshell, the EY “Study on directors’ duties and sustainable corporate governance” for the European Commission describes a … Read more

ESG, Common Ownership, and Systematic Risk: How They Intersect

This brief column will assert that three developments that seem unrelated are in fact closely related and may soon impact U.S. corporate governance with the force of a freight train. This column summarizes a longer article just posted by this author on SSRN.[1]

Development No. 1: Stock ownership in the U.S. has now reached an extraordinary level of concentration. The Big Three — BlackRock, Inc., State Street Global Advisors, and Vanguard Group — now hold collectively over 20% of S&P companies, vote 25% of the shares voted, and, according to Lucian Bebchuk, will eventually hold 40%.[2]Read more

Disgorgement After Liu v. SEC: The Game Is On!

Experienced litigators know that an adverse appellate decision (even from the U.S. Supreme Court) rarely ends their case. The question is instead: What is the next move? What defenses do we fall back on? So it is likely to be with Liu v. SEC,[1] which, by an 8-1 margin, resolved that the SEC does have the authority to order disgorgement. Still, the Court subjected this authority to the important qualifications that: (1) the ill-gotten gains consist only of the net gains (with all “legitimate expenses” being deducted); (2) the recovery is returned to the injured investors (and thus not … Read more

Activist Short Selling Today: The Two Sides of the Coin

Two extraordinary accounting scandals — one at Luckin Coffee Inc. in China and the other at Wirecard AG, the German digital payments firm — have revealed brazen and bankrupting frauds, directed by the most senior executives at each firm. Together, they tend to support three conclusions:

  • Stealing candy from a baby appears to be harder than getting fraudulent financial statements past a Big 4 accounting firm;
  • If you want to detect fraud, forget the accountants and contact your local short sellers; they are the real detectives today; and
  • When the fraud is really egregious, we often find that the regulator

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Wall Street CARES!: Who Gets the Hidden Subsidies Under the CARES Act?

The CARES Act was passed under intense pressure and with minimal transparency. The consequence of this opaque process is that there are some surprising windfalls. No criticism is here expressed of the act’s purpose, but Wall Street knows one thing about federal subsidies: Charity begins at home.

The centerpiece of the CARES Act is Section 1102’s “Paycheck protection program,” which will make available some $349 billion to be lent to small businesses in loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (“SBA”).[1] These loans will carry a very low 1% interest rate, and the expectation is that most of the … Read more

The Senator Traded While His Constituents Died: A Legal Analysis of Insider Trading by Public Officials

The coronavirus’ impact across the United States will make an epic, even Tolstoyan, saga, sweeping across all levels of American society and featuring brave heroes and tragic victims. But so far, this story has lacked one figure that every drama needs: a clear villain – someone the public can despise. No, President Trump cannot play this role. Reckless, ignorant, and delusional as he may be, he can only play the fool of the story, but not the villain, because he has not been profiting off the tragedies of others.

A true villain would be useful. In the 1930s, much of … Read more

The Blaszczak Bombshell: A Return to the “Parity of Information” Theory of Insider Trading?

The law of insider trading generally moves with the speed of molasses in February. For every two steps forward, there is one (or more) steps backward. But this winter has seen a rapid succession of developments. First, the Himes Bill passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin,[1] but only after its sponsors retreated on its most important provision: the elimination of the “personal benefit rule” from insider trading law.[2] Second, the Bharara Task Force on Insider Trading reported, with a strong and unanimous recommendation that the personal benefit rule be abolished and a new statute passed.… Read more

Petition for Rulemaking on Short and Distort

Short selling serves a critical function in the capital markets by encouraging price discovery and preventing the formation of asset bubbles.  But recent years have seen a rise in “negative activism,” a novel phenomenon that has flourished in the era of social media and algorithmic trading.[1]  The typical negative activist opens a large short position; disseminates sometimes aggressive negative opinion about a public company (often stopping just short of factual falsehoods) on Twitter and elsewhere, which induces a panic and run on the stock price; and rapidly closes that position for a profit, prior to the stock price partially … Read more

The Future of the Large Law Firm: Growth, Mergers, and Inequality

By last count, there are now 29 U.S. law firms with at least 1,000 lawyers.[1]  In a few weeks, this number should rise to 32, primarily as the result of mergers.[2] My prediction is that this number will climb to well over 50 by the end of this decade. Still, two inconsistent trends are peaking at the same time: (1) large firms are growing in size, but (2) growth in the number of equity partners at these firms has stalled (and may even have declined). According to the annual survey by the National Law Journal, the number of … Read more

Toxic Unicorns: What Has Been Missed About WeWork’s Fiasco

Most everyone has had their say about the collapse of WeWork’s failed initial public offering (“IPO”).[1] Clearly, this failure was overdetermined, as many competing causes can explain it, including: (1) the extraordinary level of self-dealing that its CEO, Adam Neumann, regularly engaged in; (2) the corporate governance structure that locked up all voting power and control in him; (3) a system of non-GAAP metrics that more than raised eyebrows; (4) an extraordinarily high valuation for a company that, despite its claims of being a high-tech start-up, was closer to a simple real estate firm; and (5) the unstable personality … Read more

Introduction: Bill Allen As We Knew Him

The Blue Sky Blog has never before run eulogies, but Chancellor William Allen is a special case. Whether one evaluates him in terms of his historical significance, his unique craftsmanship as a judge, or his personal character and the courage he has shown in the face of adversity, he has few equals. He bridged an important transition during which Delaware’s jurisprudence went from being viewed skeptically as predictably pro-management to the current era in which Delaware decisions receive the same close and respectful attention as might be given to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Chancellor Allen was not alone in … Read more

The Rise of the Mega-Law Firm: Some Reckless Reflections and Prickly Predictions


This post comes to us from John C. Coffee, Jr., the Adolf A. Berle Professor of Law at Columbia University Law School and the Director of its Center on Corporate Governance. These slides accompanied a lunch address that he gave at a Conference, entitled “Law Firms in the 21st Century,” which was held at Columbia on September 14, 2019.

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Can Morrison Be Outflanked?: How Foreign Purchasers Are Suing in U.S. and Foreign Courts

Lord Denning, a highly quotable British judge, once remarked:

“As a moth is drawn to the light, so is a litigant drawn to the United States.”[1]

Some reasons for this strong attraction are obvious: (1) the U.S. (and only a few other nations) authorize opt-out class actions; (2) the U.S. permits (and generously awards) contingent fees; (3) the U.S. has no “loser pays” rule (and most other countries do); and (4) the U.S. uses juries in civil cases and permits punitive damages.

As I discuss in a recent paper posted on SSRN, available here, the strongest evidence of … Read more

Prof. Coffee Testifies on Insider Trading Legislation Before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Investor Protection

I am very happy and honored to be back before this committee. I have been asked to comment on several proposed bills, all of which I basically support, but I will focus my limited time today primarily on Congressman Himes’ Discussion Draft of an “Insider Trading Prohibition Act.” I want to commend Congressman Himes for having supervised the drafting of a very careful, balanced and sophisticated bill that should serve as a model for a long overdue effort to codify the law of insider trading. To date, the law of insider trading has been solely the product of judicial law-making, … Read more

Short Selling and the New Market Manipulation

Stock market manipulation has been around since shortly after stock markets were invented. Everyone is familiar with the methodology in the standard “pump and dump” scheme: False rumors are circulated, the stock is bid up by the manipulators, supply might be constrained, and, once the public’s appetite is aroused, the stock is dumped by the manipulators.

But the internet has changed all that. No need exists today for the boiler shop or its battery of phones or even carefully assembled lists of suckers. All that one needs today is to put one’s message (written under a pseudonym) on a blog … Read more

Was Bezos Blackmailed?

In the bizarre world that Washington politics has become, few stories are more fascinating than Jeff Bezos’ accusation that the National Enquirer and its parent, American Media Inc., committed blackmail and extortion by threatening to reveal nude pictures of him and his girlfriend unless he would “publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns.”[1] Let’s assume that everything Bezos said is true. Most of us sympathize with him (after all, being the world’s richest man is a tough role that does make one awfully vulnerable). All kinds of political motives for threatening … Read more