U.S. SEC warns against illegal trading during coronavirus disruption

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. securities regulator on Monday warned corporate executives against insider trading during disruption caused by the coronavirus, in an unusual statement that underscores the chaos coursing through financial markets.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission logo adorns an office door at the SEC headquarters in Washington, June 24, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Company directors, officers, employees, consultants and other outside professionals who have access to material, nonpublic information should be “mindful of their obligations” to keep certain information confidential and comply with prohibitions against illegal securities trading, the co-directors of SEC enforcement said in a statement.

The warning comes amid growing concerns that some individuals may be gaining access to critical market-moving information ahead of the rest of the world, following a handful of suspiciously timed trades or price movements.

Most notably, the U.S. dollar pared gains moments before the Federal Reserve announced last week that it was launching a new dollar funding facility for nine central banks to ease a global dollar crunch, Reuters reported.

Separately, two Republican U.S. senators came under criticism last week for selling large amounts of stock before the coronavirus-induced market meltdown and after closed-door briefings on the coronavirus outbreak.

Global markets and businesses have been reeling from the pandemic, which has made it difficult for companies to keep up with their regular disclosures. The SEC earlier this month said it would grant regulatory relief on a conditional basis for companies seeking to delay mandatory filings because of issues related to the virus.

That means corporate insiders are regularly learning new information of great value while more people may have access to such material, nonpublic information, Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, co-directors of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, said in the statement.

“Trading in a company’s securities on the basis of inside information may violate the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws,” the officials said in the statement.

The outbreak has also sparked a flurry of fraud, with investment scammers making claims about the development of a vaccine for the virus, or offering other fraudulent products they say will help mom-and-pop investors hedge against their falling retirement accounts, according to regulatory announcements.

The SEC’s Enforcement Division is committing “substantial resources” to making sure retail investors are not victims of fraud or illegal practices, the SEC officials warned.

Reporting by Chris Prentice; Editing by Leslie Adler and Michelle Price