Mitchell’s Musings 6-11-2018: Missing the True Problem

06 Jun 2018 3:26 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-11-2018: Missing the True Problem


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


When President Trump tweeted in advance of the official release date about good labor market news to come, there was much resulting discussion about insider trading.[1] But that discussion misses the point. The problem with his tweeting was not insider trading.


Let’s first note what insider trading means, keeping in mind that yours truly is not a lawyer. Basically, it involves acquiring and trading on information that is not available to the general public. If a drug company, for example, has discovered a new drug that is potentially valuable and if some executive of the firm buys stock in the firm before the official announcement, that purchase is insider trading. In principle, if you are caught doing insider trading, Bad Things happen to you.


One interpretation of the rationale for the ban on insider trading is that such trading is unfair to those without access to the inside knowledge. In the example above, the general public will not be aware of the news about the drug until after the official announcement. By the time most folks can trade on that knowledge, the stock will already have risen in value, particularly if insiders are already bidding up the stock.


Note, however, that - in practice - only those traders who can react almost instantly to the news will gain, even without insider leakage. So one could debate whether the result is really fairer than if “insiders” – such as the hypothetical insider-executive – get the benefit. In strict economic terms, where fairness is not considered, it doesn’t really matter who gets the gain. The only thing that matters is that the stock quickly reflect the true value of the firm – including in that valuation the discovery of the new drug.[2]

In the case of the president’s leak, there are two points to be made. First, unless he or someone in his circle somehow traded on the information that was leaked, he/they did not engage in insider trading. Second, his tweet was a public release that anyone with access to Twitter could have read. So the information was available to the general public, albeit not at the official release time. Trading on public information is not insider trading.[3]


Finally, what the president hinted at was good news in the labor market – which turned out to be a drop in unemployment to 3.8%. Unlike the drug company example, however, it is not clear what one might expect the stock market to do in response to that news. One response could be that the low unemployment rate was statistical confirmation of a strong economy - which should be good for stocks. If you thought that response was likely, you should buy stocks. But another response could be that the very low unemployment rate was a sign that the economy was overheating, that inflation could be the result, and that the Federal Reserve would likely raise interest rates as a reaction. Other things equal, a rise in interest rates might be bad news for stocks. It could mean that the economy would slow down. It could mean that investors would move money from stocks to bonds (which would have higher yields).[4] So with advance information, you should sell stocks.


Given this background, what was the problem with the president’s leak? What’s wrong with the leak has nothing to do with insider trading and everything to do with the integrity of government official data. There is always suspicion that government data releases are being rigged to make the incumbent regime look good. Indeed, during the second Obama campaign, there was fake news from Obama’s opponents suggesting such a rigging was occurring.[5] The reason that there are official pre-announced release dates set well in advance is to minimize such suspicions. With dates fixed long in advance, there should be no suspicion that data were being released with the timing established for political purposes.


In the past, if presidents were tempted to fiddle with data announcements, there were folks in the administration that steered them away from the temptation. During the Nixon administration, for example, George Shultz (Labor Secretary, OMB Director, and then Treasury Secretary), discouraged the president from an advance announcement of good-news data.[6] Apparently, in the current administration, Gary Cohn – former director of the National Economic Council – played the Shultz role with President Trump.[7] But he is gone now. And there is no one in the White House who can exercise restraint and conformance to established practice in order to protect the integrity of official data. That lack of control – not insider trading - is what the problem is.

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Footnotes:

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/01/us/politics/trump-jobs-twitter.html

[2] An argument could be made that if you allowed insider trading, insiders might have incentives to leak false information and trade on it. Someone could leak information about a supposed new drug – which didn’t actually exist – and then trade on the false information (buy the stock, hold it until it rises in price, and then sell it before the truth is revealed. Allowing such a practice could make the market less “efficient” because of the difficulty in distinguishing between real news and false news.

[3] It has happened in the past that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) accidentally put an important data release on the internet before the official release time, and someone noticed it and traded in response, simultaneously informing the BLS that the information was in fact public.

[4] The movie the “25th Hour,” suggests that labor market information is valuable to markets – but doesn’t actually explain what the trader shown did in response to his guess about weekly unemployment insurance claims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVHY9nIPo6s

[5] http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/published/ChanceEthics6.pdf

[6] A recording of a phone conversation between Nixon and Shultz in which the latter restrains Nixon’s urge to put out data early is at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qV84JmgwVE.  

[7]https://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-money/2018/06/04/cohn-kept-the-jobs-numbers-for-trump-240624

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