People working for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who owned stock in companies under investigation were more likely to sell shares than other investors in the months before the agency announced it was taking enforcement actions, according to a new academic paper.
SEC employees holding shares of five firms including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and General Electric Co. in 2010 and 2011 sold stock in 62 percent of the trades they initiated, compared with 50 percent among all the investors who traded those shares in that period, Emory University accounting professor Shivaram Rajgopal reports in the paper.
Rajgopal, who plans to present the work today at a University of Virginia accounting seminar, said in a telephone interview that while the analysis doesn’t prove misconduct it points out a suspicious pattern.
“It does suggest it is likely, or probable, that something is going on,” he said.
The records, obtained from the SEC under a Freedom of Information Act request by Rajgopal and his co-author, Roger M. White, a doctoral student at Georgia State University, don’t identify individuals.
The limitation means the researchers couldn’t tell if an individual trader made or lost money in a transaction. They also couldn’t discern if those trading worked in jobs where they might have advance knowledge of actions that could push stock prices lower.
Rajgopal and White analyzed records of 7,200 trades from 2009 to 2011. Since 2009, most of the SEC’s 4,000 employees have had to report their investments and trades to the agency.
“All we can do is show some statistical, circumstantial smoke, and we don’t know if there is really a fire,” Rajgopal said. Still, he added, “It’s not clear why we should find this pattern by sheer chance.”
John Nester, an SEC spokesman, declined to comment on the study.