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This is a hypothetical question. Suppose I am part of a team that worked on a research paper, which when published, will likely have a substantial impact on one or more stock prices. The research may or may not be explicitly related to these stocks.

Is it ethical to profit by trading on the knowledge that the information in this paper will have such an impact?

Edits suggested by the comments:

  • Assume that any stock purchase is listed as a conflict of interest.
  • Assume that the research does not make use of any proprietary or confidential information which is not available to the general public. That is, this situation does not fall under the standard legal definition of insider trading.

1 Answer 1

I can think of several different cases:

Case #1: I do research based on interviews that shows fanny packs are going to come back in style. I buy a few stocks in addition to publishing my paper.

Case #2: I do research by mining a publicly available non-restricted social sciences data set that shows people will start drinking R.C. Cola more than Coca Cola. I buy a 10% interest in the company based on my research.

Case #3: As an unemployed geologist, I discover that there are major, high quality, and easily accessible oil reserves under west virginia and buy a large number of shorts on oil stocks before the research goes public.

Case #4: I work for a natural gas company and do research on their behalf and discover that their wells contain far less natural gas than previously thought. I short their stock and profit.

Case #5: I have access to private algorithms that can predict anything. I use these to figure out who the next Justin Timberlake will be and invest heavily in his company.

Case #6: I discover a tree found only in a small forest in France can cure cancer. I buy the entire forest (to monopolize the resource and get rich).

I don't see anything wrong with cases #1-#3. Trying to work our criteria without availing to ethical theories, I'd suggest the following questions to evaluate any hypothetical profit:

  1. How much profit are we talking about? (a $20 bet? several millions dollars?) The smaller the less meaningful the simultaneously benefit.
  2. Who was the research done for? If I have no obligations to others based on my research, then it's more likely to be in the clear. If I was employed or working on a grant, then I have obligations to my employer which may obligate me to act or not act in certain ways. Is my profit in conflict with these obligations?
  3. Did my research depend on resources that I don't own or have the right to use?
  4. Does my profiteering involve something that might otherwise be immoral?

And of course, on the research side, you have an obligation to disclose any material conflicts (but again, the size of investment matters -- we don't need to know about $100 bets, but we do need to know you have a controlling interest in a blimp company for your paper on the future of air transportation).

tl;dr if it's merely your research will impact some companies, then assuming we're not talking George Soros level amounts of money, there's no obvious reason why it would be unethical to benefit financially from your research.