by Jennifer Namazi, Editorial Director, NASPP
May 14, 2015 - http://www.naspp.com/blog/2015/05/an-unintended-downside-of-10b5-1-plans.html

It’s been about 15 years (yikes, already?) since the SEC adopted Rule 10b5-1. For those new to the concept, a 10b5-1 plan may be best explained as a device that allows company insiders to trade in the company’s securities pursuant to a pre-arranged trading plan or instruction. The pre-arranged element is intended to help the insider avoid automatic liability for insider trading and serve as an affirmative defense to claims of insider trading. While there have been many benefits to enacting such trading plans, 10b5-1 plans have not escaped scrutiny from the SEC. I won’t cover that particular scrutiny in today’s blog, but will tackle another unintended downside: the impact of well-intentioned, pre-determined trades on a company’s stock price.

Haven’t We Seen It All?

In recent years we’ve seen the gamete of questionable situations that arise from having a 10b5-1 trading plan. Did the executive really not have material non public information at the time they created the plan? Or, on the flip side, did the executive time that press release to be just before or shortly after the trade already set to occur in his or her 10b5-1 plan? The thing these scenarios have in common are that they raise a question as to whether a specific individual should have indeed been able to trade in the company’s stock, in spite of having a 10b5-1 plan. We could cover a lot of examples of these instances. But today I want to turn to one thing I hadn’t heard of until recently, a circumstance that had nothing to do with the ethics of the trades executed under an individual’s 10b5-1 plan. It appears to be a completely, unintended consequence of the executives and company being well intentioned and yet still generating some ripples about it.

It Started With A Tweet

On February 9, 2015, CNBC’s Jim Cramer sent a memo to the board of social media darling Twitter. The essence? Stop 10b5-1 trades, because the flow of these trades (albeit pre-timed and planned) are hurting the company’s stock price. As CNBC reported, the actual memo said: “Memo to the board of directors of Twitter: Someone suggest that there be a moratorium on selling stock for a bit, maybe six months, maybe a year, to show that you believe in the company… If I were on the board I would simply say, ‘Hey guys, could you give it a break for a while because you are now telling a good narrative about user growth and engagement and you are starting to get people excited again about the company and its stock and your selling makes them feel foolish.’”

The activity that prompted the memo was a series of sales of stock by top executives at Twitter in the weeks and months prior to the memo. Although the trades were done pursuant to 10b5-1 plans, several were executed in close proximity to each other, bringing in millions of dollars to Twitter executives ($8.5 million to its CEO in January and February alone, with a similar amount to its founder and chairman, and $1.8 million to another executive). Although it may be argued that the trades were executed based on long, pre-planned directives, the quantity and dollar value of the shares liquidated seemed to be sending a message that the executives were dumping stock. Not to mention simultaneously releasing thousands of shares into the market.

So what happened? What did the Twitter board do? The company has not commented on the matter, but in a Fortune article citing exclusive information (Exclusive: Twitter execs put stock sales on ice – April 22, 2015), it appears that the memo was received and action taken. Fortune cites having multiple sources who confirm a moratorium on 10b5-1 transactions, save one insider who continues to be permitted to sell stock. Aside from the transactions of that lone insider, no other 10b5-1 transactions have occurred since February 6, 2015. It’s not clear if the company canceled plans or simply did not renew them. Whatever the details, the end results appears to be a moratorium. Since that time, Twitter’s stock price has risen approximately 25% (as of the date of the Fortune article). You be the judge. Did a halt in insider trading activity send a positive message to shareholders, resulting in an increased stock price?

Takeaways

While the Twitter scenario is the first I’ve heard of this type of moratorium, in particular initiated by a party external to the company, it certainly provides food for thought. Social media has given a voice to many – shareholders, customers, media, and others. It’s quite simple to send a message to a company, including its board of directors. And in this case it seems the message was heard. This raises the question – do other companies need to worry about how their 10b5-1 plan trades are perceived by the market?  I don’t have a definitive answer on that, but I do have some suggestions.

Consider the potential timing of trades when approving 10b5-1 plans. One thing companies should consider, if they haven’t already, is how the future trades may be perceived by shareholders in the best and worst of trading scenarios. If an insider has multiple stock price targets to trigger sales, for example, and all those targets are hit in a short period of time given a rapid rise in stock price, how will those multiple trades be perceived?

Evaluate how many plans have similar triggers. Companies approach evaluating and approving proposed 10b5-1 plans differently. One thing to assess is just how many insiders have plans or propose plans with similar triggers. If five executives want to sell shares when the stock price reaches $50, this could result in a large volume of shares and transactions hitting the market all at one time. I’m not a 10b5-1 expert, but it seems there has to be a way to monitor existing plan terms and match those up against those proposed by new trading plans. If volume of shares and shareholder/market perception is a potential concern, perhaps the company can establish collective limits (as a matter of policy) as to how many shares can be sold at a given price or under a certain trigger. I may get flack for even suggesting this option, but I’m throwing it out there. Should companies, as a matter of policy, restrict the number of shares that can be sold under a trading plan, or, even a limit on shares sold cumulatively – based on the collection of all existing plans? This would certainly have helped Twitter buffer against the influx of shares into the market earlier this year.

This type of unintended aftermath of 10b5-1 trades feels like new territory. I’d love to hear from anyone who has (as a matter of policy) specific limits to prevent an influx of shares into the market, or who has ideas about best practices to help companies avoid a public call-out like Twitter received. Although they haven’t publicly admitted to any action taken, if we are to listen to the “sources” in this matter, kudos is due to Twitter’s board for handling the situation in a constructive way.

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