Yesterday The Times reported on the settlement of a court case involving former shareholders in Uswitch who alleged that the Marquess of Milford Haven induced them to sell their shares, at an undervalue, to a company that they did not know was connected to him. Shortly afterwards the business was sold in its entirety for over £200m to a US company at a price per share some ten times what they had received.
The outline of the allegations points to an anomally in UK company law. For a company whose shares are publicly traded on an exchange, the directors are obliged by the Financial Services and Markets Act to disclose information about their share dealing and to make full disclosure of relevant information to shareholders through the regulatory news services. But this legislation does not apply to private companies. Shareholders in these businesses can only sue for deception or misrepresentation if they feel they have been wronged.
In another example, a friend of mine is a shareholder in a private company. After some years the shareholders as a whole appointed an outsider as chairman who, over a period, bought shares from individuals and became the largest individual shareholder. During this period there were expressions of interest from a foreign company in buying the business, though this has not yet come to anything. My friend thinks the chairman is very capable and has done a good job. There is no implication that he has done anything morally wrong. But UK company law offers very little protection if he had used inside information to buy shares at an undervalue. In this case, at least, the sellers would have known they were selling to an insider but would they have imagined that protections against insider dealing applied to them? Insider dealing is an offence defined in relation only to quoted companies not to private ones.
It seems to me that larger private companies which allow their shares to be traded should produce, at least, a code of behaviour for directors and other executive shareholders. If it were possible to put something stronger in place through a binding shareholder agreement that would be better. If a satisfactory way could be found to extend the law to private companies then that would be better still.