Rajat Gupta Conviction May Deter Insider Trading -- For Now

The conviction of Rajat Gupta on insider trading charges is a real score for government prosecutors -- maybe the biggest such conviction in history.

It will also probably barely deter other people from insider trading.

"I think for the next few days people will talk about Gupta, and for the next few days they will be more thoughtful about their actions," said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. "And then it will stop."

A federal jury on Friday convicted Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs director, of passing on nonpublic information from Goldman board meetings to former hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, who has already been convicted and jailed for insider trading.

Several lawyers and analysts praised Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, for winning a conviction against Gupta despite having only circumstantial evidence. The success could lay the groundwork for more aggressive cases in the future, these experts said.

"This is a big win for the prosecution," said Philip S. Khinda, co-head of the SEC Enforcement Practice at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. "It will embolden the government."

Just as impressive, Gupta was not just some low-rent hedge fund manager, but someone who had reached the highest ramparts of the business world. As such, he makes an unforgettable example for potential wrongdoers.

"I think people are going to take a look at this and say, ‘That could be me,’" said Thomas Gorman, a lawyer at the firm Dorsey & Whitney who defends clients against Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department securities investigations. "This is one of their own, a man at the pinnacle of corporate America. That sends a big message."

"In the history of insider trading, Rajat Gupta is probably the highest-level person in corporate America who’s been convicted on inside trading," said Richard Sylla, a professor of economics and financial history at the New York University Stern School of Business.

Impressive. But the memory will fade, Sylla warned. "The effect of these things wears off."

Though Bharara is being widely praised for his prosecutions, other industry watchdogs are mostly asleep and don't seem likely to perk up any time soon.

"This should be a model for the rest of the law enforcement community on Wall Street, but I don't have much hope for that," said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a non-profit group pushing for financial reform. "While this case may be a deterrent, the juxtaposition of slack enforcement in any other arena green-lights people to do what they want."

A possibly more fundamental problem is human nature: The people who are considering trading on inside information don't typically stop and think about the long-term potential consequences, according to Duke professor Ariely.

Ariely, the author of a new book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty," has as part of his research talked to more than a dozen people who have been accused and/or convicted of insider trading. None even stopped to even think about the possibility that they might be caught, Ariely said.

In that way, inside traders are like any of us who text while we drive, eat food that's bad for us, or partake in any number of other behaviors that could have horrible long-term consequences.

"There's recent analysis that looks at whether there's evidence the death penalty is reducing crime, and there's no evidence for it," Ariely said. "And if you don't find clear and strong evidence there, what are the chances that this will work out?"

What's more, these inside traders felt like their behavior was socially acceptable -- everybody was doing it, in other words, Ariely said.

And everybody is doing it because it makes them money. Always has, always will.

"It will make people on Wall Street pause, but because the motivation on Wall Street is to make money, people will always violate the law," said Michael S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who chairs the white collar defense practice at the law firm Cole Schotz. "This case is not going to prosecute away insider trading."