Top executives at U.S.-traded companies sold a total of roughly $9.2 billion in shares of their own companies between the start of February and the end of last week, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.
The selling saved the executives—including many in the financial industry—potential losses totaling $1.9 billion, according to the analysis, as the S&P 500 stock index plunged about 30% from its peak on Feb. 19 through the close of trading March 20.
The Journal examined more than 4,000 regulatory filings related to stock sales between Feb. 1 and March 19 by corporate officers of companies traded in the U.S. Avoided losses for the seller are based on the change in the value of each stock between when it was sold and March 20.
By far the largest executive seller was Amazon.AMZN 1.96%com Inc. Chief Executive Jeffrey Bezos, who sold a total of $3.4 billion in AmazonAMZN 1.96%shares in the first week of February, shortly before the stock market peaked, allowing him to avoid paper losses of roughly $317 million if he had held the stock through March 20, according to the Journal analysis.
The sales represented roughly 3% of Mr. Bezos’s AmazonAMZN 1.96%holdings, according to the most recently available regulatory filings. He sold almost as much stock during the first week in February as he sold during the previous 12 months.
There is no suggestion that the executives sold shares based on any inside information. The stock market hit an all-time high in February, and executives often sell shares early in the year for tax and other reasons, including preset trading strategies. But the amount of stock sold by executives and officers of U.S.-listed companies was up by roughly one-third from the comparable periods in the previous two years, according to the analysis of regulatory filings and data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
During the same period in February and March of 2019, corporate officers sold about $6.4 billion worth of stock
While Mr. Bezos’s sales accounted for more than a third of the 2020 sales, thousands of other insiders sold stock. More than 150 executives and officers individually sold at least $1 million worth of stock in February and March after having sold no stock in the previous 12 months, the Journal analysis found.
Wall Street executives also sold large dollar amounts, including Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., who sold $25 million of his company shares on Feb. 14, pre-empting potential losses of more than $9.3 million and Lance Uggla, CEO of IHS Markit Ltd., a data and analytics firm, who sold $47 million of his shares around Feb. 19. Those shares would have dropped in value by $19.2 million if Mr. Uggla had retained them. A spokesperson said the shares were sold under a preset plan.
A spokesperson for BlackRock said Mr. Fink’s sales were a small percentage of his holdings and that he sold $18 million in stock around the same time last year. The sales were about 5% or less of Mr. Fink’s holdings, according to his latest filing.
Some of the nation’s most vulnerable industries are reeling because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the trading by top executives meant less in the way of personal stock losses.
Recent state government orders to limit gatherings have all but shut down some industries, and it is unclear how the public will react even when those lockdowns ease.
Some of the selling was prompted by government-sanctioned trading plans, known as 10b5-1 plans, that allow corporate executives and directors to set in advance the sale of stock for certain prices or dates.
The stock market’s plunge may have triggered some plans, depending on the details, says Adam Epstein, who advises companies on corporate governance practices.
“What doesn’t change—even if there is such a plan—is that optically from an investor’s perspective it is always bad for investors when CEOs sell shares,” Mr. Epstein said. He advises chief executives to construct their investment portfolios so they aren’t forced to sell shares in order to raise cash if their company’s stock falls sharply.
Some of the executives who sold stock came from industries most battered by the economic crisis. James Murren, outgoing CEO of MGM Resorts International, sold $22.2 million of his company’s stock, staving off a possible $15.9 million loss. The company’s shares closed at $9.11 on Friday, down 73% from their February high.
Mr. Murren sold the shares, around the market peak, on Feb. 19 and Feb. 20. A spokesperson noted that the sales came one week after Mr. Murren announced he was leaving MGM. On March 22, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tapped him to lead the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Among the executives who sold stock this year but not last year was Marc Rowan, co-founder and director of Apollo Global Management Inc. He sold $99 million in February and early March, avoiding paper losses of about $40 million. A spokesperson pointed to an Apollo public filing that described a plan, put in place last fall, allowing Mr. Rowan to sell shares.
Last week, several members of Congress, their spouses and investment advisers drew fire because they sold stock after the lawmakers met to discuss the threat of coronavirus.
Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) sits on two committees that received detailed briefings on the epidemic. On Feb. 13, he and his wife sold as much as $1.7 million in stock. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) also sold shares.
Ms. Loeffler said she was unaware of the trades and that they were handled by advisers. Mr. Burr said he relied on public news reports in making his trading decisions.
Ms. Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange Inc.,ICE 10.19%owner of the New York Stock Exchange, sold $18 million in shares of the company he heads during the period, including $15 million in March. That compares with a monthly average of less than $2 million stock in 2019, according to the analysis.
If he had held the stock, it would have declined by about $3 million in value, according to the Journal analysis. Intercontinental Exchange said in a statement that Mr. Sprecher’s sales were part of a prescheduled trading plan.
As the stock market fell, Marsh & McLennan Cos. CEO Daniel Glaser sold $26.5 million in stock, shaving $6.7 million in potential losses. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show the sales came under a preset plan and that he sold in March in the two previous years as well.
Bond-rating company Moody’s Corp. CEO Raymond McDaniel sold shares totaling $10 million, compared with his monthly average of $3.3 million in 2019. He spared himself about $2.7 million in paper losses through the trades, the Journal analysis shows.
A spokesperson for Moody’s said Mr. McDaniel’s sales were “carried out through an automated exercise of stock options pursuant to a Rule 10b5-1 trading plan put in place in November of last year.” The plan hasn’t been altered since that time, the spokesperson said.
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