Blackout Periods: What Do They Mean For Your Employees and Executives?‍

Casey Fenton

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January 9, 2024

In 2001, the collapse of Enron shook the corporate world to its core. Among the litany of governance issues unearthed was the controversial trading of company stock by executives who had inside information on the company's financial downfall. Fast forward to today, the financial landscape has evolved to include various mechanisms aimed at preventing such ethical and legal violations. One of these mechanisms, designed to ensure fairness in trading and bolster investor confidence, is the concept of "Blackout Periods." 

As an entrepreneur or business owner, particularly if your company is publicly traded or planning to go public, understanding blackout periods is more than just a legal necessity—it's a moral obligation. So, what exactly are blackout periods, and why should you care? More importantly, how do they impact your employees and executives? Read on to answer these questions.

What are Blackout Periods?

Think of a blackout period as a 'quiet time'—a set timeframe during which company insiders, such as executives and employees, are restricted from trading the company’s stock. While this may sound straightforward, it's a safeguard against insider trading and market manipulation. The rationale is to prevent those with access to material, non-public information from capitalizing on it before it's disclosed to the general public.

What Triggers a Blackout Period?

Knowing when a blackout period might be imposed is necessary for steering clear of potential pitfalls. But what catalyzes these restrictive timeframes? Below are various events that can trigger a blackout period:

1. Earnings Announcements

Perhaps the most common trigger, earnings announcements, can significantly impact your company’s stock price. Blackout periods are usually enforced before the public release of quarterly or annual financial results. This is often called the "earnings blackout period" and can start as early as a month before the announcement and last until a couple of days afterward. During this time, you and your employees are expected to keep mum and refrain from trading your company's stock.

2. Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A)

If you find yourself in the enviable or precarious position of either acquiring another business or becoming an acquisition target, prepare for a blackout period. The reason? M&A activities are sensitive information that can affect not only your company's stock price but also that of the other involved entities. Until the deal is publicly announced or falls through, the involved parties should refrain from trading.

3. New Product or Service Launches

If your company is on the cusp of releasing a groundbreaking product or service that has the potential to disrupt the market, a blackout period is typically imposed. This ensures that those who are privy to this information can't exploit it for personal gain at the expense of public investors.

4. Regulatory Changes

Sometimes, regulatory changes or major lawsuits could also be triggers. These external events can potentially influence your company's valuation, and thereby warrant a blackout period.

5. Internal Reorganization

Whether it’s a significant layoff, changes in executive leadership, or any other form of corporate restructuring, these shifts often necessitate a blackout period. Why? Such internal shifts have far-reaching financial implications, which could be exploited for insider trading if a blackout period is not in place.

6. Unplanned Events

Events like the sudden departure of a CEO, unexpected natural disasters affecting operations, or cybersecurity incidents can also necessitate an ad hoc blackout period. Unlike other triggers, these are less predictable and are reactive measures to maintain market integrity.

Being aware of these triggers enables you to be proactive in informing your executives and employees, ensuring compliance, and dodging regulatory issues that can lead to substantial penalties or erode shareholder confidence.

Why Blackout Periods Are Necessary

You might be wondering, "Why hamstring insiders from trading stock when they probably know the most about the company's potential?" Well, that’s precisely the point. Blackout periods exist to:

1. Protecting Market Integrity

Imagine a market where insiders could freely capitalize on information not yet available to the public. Such a market would suffer from a severe credibility crisis, discouraging investors from participating. By enforcing blackout periods, the market maintains its integrity, ensuring that no one gains an unfair advantage based on privileged information. It makes the marketplace more equitable and secure for all parties involved.

2. Maintaining Investor Confidence

Investor trust is the backbone of any publicly traded company. If investors start to suspect that insiders might be taking advantage of confidential information, they're likely to withdraw their investments, leading to a downward spiral in your company’s stock value. Blackout periods send a signal to the investor community that the game is fair, bolstering confidence in your company and the system at large.

3. Upholding Legal and Ethical Standards

We can't stress this enough: insider trading is illegal. Beyond the immediate legal repercussions, which can include hefty fines and jail time, the long-term damage to your company’s reputation can be catastrophic. And it's not just about obeying the law; it's about upholding ethical standards that define the character of your organization. When you enforce blackout periods, you send a clear message to your employees and stakeholders that your company operates under the highest ethical standards.

4. Avoiding the Scandal Spotlight

No company wants to be the headline news for insider trading scandals. Even the mere accusation can mar your company’s reputation, attract regulatory scrutiny, and distract from your core business objectives. Blackout periods serve as a prophylactic measure against this kind of negative press.

5. Providing A Buffer For Corporate Decision-Making

Your executives are constantly in the decision-making hot seat, balancing numerous competing interests. Knowing that a blackout period is in place can help alleviate the pressure or temptation to make decisions based on how it might personally benefit them through stock trading. This buffer helps to ensure that the choices made are in the best interests of the company and its shareholders.

6. Leveling the Playing Field

Don’t forget about fairness. The average retail investor doesn't have the same level of access to important company information as you and your employees do. Blackout periods are a democratic way of ensuring that everyone gets an equal shot at trading your company's stock based on publicly disclosed information.

Understanding Rule 10b5-1

While blackout periods are designed to prevent illegal stock trades, it’s understandable that you might be concerned about how these limitations affect you and your top brass—especially if your stock options are a significant portion of your compensation. This is where Rule 10b5-1 comes into play, a provision that serves as both a safeguard and a loophole. 

Rule 10b5-1 is part of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. It allows company insiders to set up a prearranged trading plan to buy or sell company stock, but—and this is crucial—the plan must be established when the insider does not have access to material, non-public information.

Under this rule, you, your executives, or any employees can establish written, pre-specified trading plans that detail when and how many shares will be bought or sold over a specific time. Once this plan is set up, the trades can be executed automatically, without further action or approval, even during blackout periods.

Setting Up a 10b5-1 Plan

The process of setting up a 10b5-1 plan should be meticulously designed, often in consultation with legal advisors, to comply with all regulatory requirements. The plan should specify the following:

  • The number of shares to be traded
  • The price at which shares will be traded
  • The dates on which trades will occur
  • Affordability of Flexibility

What’s beneficial about Rule 10b5-1 is its flexibility. You can set up a plan to execute trades at market prices or even peg them to certain performance metrics. The key is that the plan must be established in good faith and not as a way to evade insider trading laws.

By adhering to a 10b5-1 plan, you are generally shielded from insider trading allegations, as the trades are considered to be pre-planned and not based on any inside information that you may later acquire.

It's worth noting that there is often a "cooling-off" period between when the plan is established and when the trading under the plan begins. This ensures that the plan wasn't set up based on inside information.

IPOs and Blackout Periods

If you're planning an Initial Public Offering (IPO), a blackout period is usually mandated. It can start several weeks before the IPO and last up to 180 days after. This post-IPO blackout period restricts insiders from selling their shares, helping to stabilize the stock price and signaling confidence to potential investors.

Who Are Subject to Blackout Periods?

You may be thinking this only applies to C-suite executives or those in managerial roles. Not true. Blackout periods can apply to:

  • Executives and Board Members: Those at the top echelons of the company hierarchy.

  • Employees: Particularly those who have access to sensitive company information.

  • Immediate Family: Sometimes, the blackout period can also extend to an insider’s immediate family members.

Best Practices During Blackout Periods

Navigating through a blackout period can feel like walking on a tightrope, but it doesn't have to be a precarious ordeal. Implementing best practices can safeguard your company against unnecessary risks and complications. So, what should you be doing during these times to ensure compliance and maintain your firm's reputation?

1. Timely Communication

One of the key strategies is early and clear communication. Inform all your employees, especially those with access to insider information, about the onset and duration of the blackout period. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, and it's your responsibility to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

2. Legal Consultation

Never underestimate the importance of legal advice. Seek counsel to understand the nuances and exceptions that might be applicable to your situation, especially in the context of Rule 10b5-1, as discussed earlier. A legal advisor can help you set up compliant trading plans and offer insights into how to navigate complex scenarios.

3. Internal Controls

Strengthen your internal controls during these sensitive periods. Implement mechanisms to monitor any trade activity closely and ensure that all trades are pre-cleared by a designated compliance officer or legal department. The more stringent your controls, the lesser the chance of an accidental violation.

4. Employee Training

Providing comprehensive training on the dos and don’ts during blackout periods can act as a preventative measure. Awareness programs, workshops, or even simple internal memos can educate your workforce on the risks of insider trading and the significance of blackout periods.

5. Robust Documentation

During a blackout period, keep meticulous records of all corporate decisions, especially those that could impact your company’s stock price. Should your firm ever face scrutiny, this documentation will serve as evidence that any trading activities were conducted in good faith and not based on insider information.

6. External Communication

While it’s crucial to maintain internal communication, it’s equally important to manage external messaging. Coordinate with your PR and Investor Relations teams to ensure that any public disclosures are consistent and don't accidentally leak any insider information.

7. Exercise Caution with Exceptions

While Rule 10b5-1 does provide an avenue for planned trading during blackout periods, exercise extreme caution. Ensure that these plans are set up well in advance and are not manipulated for short-term gains. Any abuse or perceived abuse of this provision can lead to legal repercussions and damage your reputation.

8. Review and Revise Policies

Blackout periods are also a good time to review and revise your existing policies on insider trading and corporate governance. Given the dynamic nature of business and regulations, periodic reviews will help keep your guidelines up-to-date and relevant.

9. Accountability and Consequences

Lastly, be explicit about the consequences of non-compliance. From potential job loss to legal repercussions, make sure your employees are aware that violations are taken seriously and will not go unpunished.

Encourage Ethical Trading 

Understanding and navigating blackout periods are crucial for maintaining your company’s integrity in the public market. Take these periods seriously, and establish firm policies to govern trading during these sensitive times. By doing so, you not only protect your employees and executives but also build investor confidence in your company.

For more information about how your employees can trade their vested stocks and RSUs, feel free to browse our blog here. Conversely, you may book a demo with Upstock today to get a feel of RSUs as your potential equity compensation model.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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