Sunday, November 01, 2015

Inside Information Is Worthless And Illegal

Every analyst on Wall Street has access to the same public information about corporate performance and the economy's health. Just like in school, when every student has access to the same course material, a few with superior abilities will get the top grades just by bringing better insights to bear. Financial analysis works the same way. Intellectual firepower and solid character are the top investor's primary tools. Only criminals resort to insider trading. Competent investors never use inside information.

Any US government intelligence analyst who has ever held a security clearance and handled classified information can draw analogies between their responsibilities and those of a Wall Street analyst. Intelligence professionals cannot discuss their classified work in public. Only very privileged insiders at higher levels of the government can make policy using classified information. Policy actions for classified information must adhere to FedRAMP security protocols and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosure procedures. These legal controls on the use of classified government information are just as stringent as legal controls on the use of inside information from public companies.

The best deep dives highlight the uselessness of any and all so-called privileged information in making financial decisions. Everything relevant to a public company's performance is found in its published financial statements. The superior analyst ignores management spin in conference calls. The classic ratios of fundamental analysis reveal everything. The intelligence community's experience also offers another valid analogy. Somewhere between 80-85% of actionable intelligence is available through open sources. Collection is as easy as parsing a Google Search result.

Warren Buffett ranks among history's best money managers precisely because he bases all of his decisions on the study of publicly available information. He pals around with America's top CEOs and could probably find out anything he wants about what goes on behind closed doors. He doesn't need to poke behind the curtains because he can't use any of that information in his investment decisions anyway. Knowing how to read financial statements, industry reports, and government statistics is always good enough for Mr. Buffett. It's good enough for me too.

The SEC enforces its rules against insider trading. Regulators take the misuse of material, nonpublic information very seriously. Harvard Law School's 2014 article "Hedge Funds and Material Nonpublic Information" covers the case law establishing liability for various parties in a tipping chain. Huge legal fees at best, and prison time at worst, await any financial titan who trades on some tidbit the public can't discover. I want very much to catch some negligent hedge fund misusing information so I can turn them in to the SEC for prosecution and collect a bounty. I attend San Francisco's tech and finance conferences with just such an intention. Call me the financial bounty hunter.