December 6, 2023
The Proposed Guidelines set out for the first time the specific regulatory requirements and the SFC’s regulatory expectations in respect of market soundings in Hong Kong.
On October 11, 2023, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (“SFC”) published a consultation paper (the “Consultation Paper”) on the proposed guidelines for market soundings (the “Proposed Guidelines”). The Proposed Guidelines are noteworthy since it sets out for the first time the specific regulatory requirements and the SFC’s regulatory expectations in respect of market soundings in Hong Kong. This client alert will explore the SFC’s proposals in greater detail.
I. Why introduce the Proposed Guidelines?
To understand the rationale of the requirements in the Proposed Guidelines, it is helpful to understand why the SFC has decided that it is the appropriate time to introduce the Proposed Guidelines.
Firstly, the SFC observed an increasing number of persons trading ahead of placings and block trades, which suggested that some intermediaries may have unfairly taken advantage of non-public information received during market soundings to make unjustified profits. This led the SFC’s thematic review of market sounding practices and controls adopted by intermediaries in 2022, where the SFC noted a divergence of practices among intermediaries in designing their risk controls over market soundings, which suggested that more clarity on the SFC’s regulatory expectations was required to deter substandard conduct and to assist intermediaries in upholding market integrity during market soundings.
Secondly, in light of the determination of the Securities and Futures Appeals Tribunal (“SFAT”) on September 27, 2022 (the “SFAT Determination”) in the Aarons case, the SFC considered it appropriate to provide both sell-side and buy-side market participants with additional clarity on complying with the general principles in the Code of Conduct for Persons Licensed by or Registered with the Securities and Futures Commission (the “Code of Conduct”) during market soundings. In summary, the case involved a hedge fund manager who entered into short swaps (which can be used for short selling) after the manager received non-public information about an intended block sale (a large, privately negotiated sale of securities) of shares in a listed Korean company from one of the underwriters of the block sale. The communication was made by the underwriter (a sell-side broker) to the hedge fund manager (a buy-side participant) as part of a market sounding to see if the manager would be interested in participating as a buyer on the block sale. After news of the block sale became public, there was a material drop in the share price of the listed Korean company, and the short swaps entered into by the hedge fund manager generated a profit for the fund he managed.
The SFAT upheld the finding by the SFC that the hedge fund manager’s conduct was such that he was not a fit and proper person to continue to be licensed, having regard to General Principles 1 (Honesty and fairness) and 7 (Compliance) of the Code of Conduct. In doing so, the SFAT determined that a two years suspension of the hedge fund manager’s licence was the most appropriate sanction.
It is relevant to note that the hedge fund manager was not charged with the offence of insider dealing under the Securities and Futures Ordinance (Cap. 571) (“SFO”). The reason is likely because the civil and criminal insider dealing regimes under the SFO have a regulatory lacuna with respect to insider dealing committed in Hong Kong with respect to overseas listed securities. This regulatory lacuna will be addressed when amendments to the insider dealing provisions under the SFO are introduced (please see our earlier client alert for further details). As such, in hearing the appeal, it was not necessary for the SFAT to determine whether or not the communication made to the hedge fund manager constituted “inside information” as defined in the SFO. Rather, the issue to be determined by the SFAT was whether the hedge fund manager’s conduct breached the Code of Conduct (namely, General Principles 1 and 7). The SFAT ultimately agreed with the SFC’s findings that the hedge fund manager’s deceitful conduct after receiving “material non-public information” about an impending block sale meant that he failed to adhere to principles of honest and fair conduct, and hence failed to act with the integrity that the market required, and in conclusion failed to comply with General Principles 1 and 7 of the Code of Conduct.
II. What communications are subject to the Proposed Guidelines?
The Proposed Guidelines would apply to the communication of non-public information – irrespective of whether or not it is price-sensitive “inside information” – with potential investors prior to the announcement of a securities transaction, to gauge their interest in a potential transaction or assist in determining the specifications related to a potential transaction (such as private placements and large block trades) (“Market Sounding”), by intermediaries who:
It is important to highlight that the Proposed Guidelines apply to communications on all “non-public information”, irrespective of whether the same information constitutes “inside information” under the SFO. It is also noticeable that, despite referring to the SFAT Determination, the Proposed Guidelines do not use the potentially narrower term “material” non-public information, as found in the SFAT Determination, and instead adopt the much broader term “non-public information”. This appears to be intentional, as the Consultation Paper explains that one of the SFC’s concerns was that intermediaries may run the risk of potential misconduct from an inaccurate determination of what constitutes “inside information”, as it often involved complex judgment and interpretations and that it was not uncommon for parties to arrive at different conclusions) – and presumably similar concerns apply to the determination of whether or not non-public information is “material” or not. Adopting the broader term “non-public information” therefore reduces the risk of inaccurate determinations.
III. What communications are not subject to the Proposed Guidelines?
According to the Consultation Paper, the Proposed Guidelines will not apply to communications regarding:
The above carve-outs will be important in light of the wide range of Market Sounding communications that are likely to contain some form of “non-public information”. However, internal procedures and controls will need to be carefully designed and implemented, or else intermediaries run the risk of potential misconduct from an inaccurate determination of whether a particular communication falls within the above carve-outs, and therefore failing to comply with the regulatory requirements in the Proposed Guidelines.
The Proposed Guidelines also make clear that they may apply even before a formal mandate from the Market Sounding Beneficiary is received, i.e. as soon as the Disclosing Person starts to conduct any form of market sounding (soft or otherwise) on behalf of a Market Sounding Beneficiary.
IV. Core Principles of Market Sounding
The Proposed Guidelines contain a set of Core Principles (“CP”), which all Market Sounding Intermediaries should comply with in conducting Market Soundings. The CPs are briefly summarised below:
Market Sounding Intermediaries are expected to periodically review and update their governance and oversight arrangements, policies and procedures, and internal systems and controls, to ensure that they remain robust and effective.
V. Specific requirements for Disclosing Persons
As the party that initiates Market Soundings, Disclosing Persons bear the initial responsibility to ensure that any non-public information associated with Market Soundings is properly safeguarded and disclosed in accordance with the standards of conduct set out in the Proposed Guidelines. To this end, the specific requirements applicable to the Disclosing Persons are more extensive than for the Recipient Persons, and are summarised below.
Stage of Market Sounding
Pre-Market Sounding procedures
Before the initial contact with Recipient Persons or other potential investors to conduct a Market Sounding, a Disclosing Person should:
During the Market Sounding communications process
A Disclosing Persons should adopt a standardised pre-approved script that is reviewed by senior management or independent functions, such as Legal and Compliance, during initial and subsequent Marketing Sounding communications. In summary, the script should at a minimum include:
After obtaining the above consents, a Disclosing Person should provide a written confirmation to the Recipient Person as soon as possible, summarising the contents covered in its Market Sounding communications.
Prior to receiving the Recipient Person’s consent (as explained above), a Disclosing Person should ensure that any preliminary information shared with the Recipient Person is sufficiently broad, limited, vague and anonymised to minimise the change of the Recipient Person guessing the name of the security involved. Greater caution should be exercised in determining the amount of non-public information to be shared where the subject security may be identified even with the provision of only limited information (e.g. for narrow industry sectors) – for example the situation in the SFAT Determination as discussed above.
After non-public information has been disclosed during a Market Sounding, a Disclosing Person should: (i) conduct assessments to determine whether the information has ceased to be non-public (e.g. following the announcement of the transaction, or if the transaction was called off); and (ii) inform the Recipient Person(s) as soon as possible in writing when the information ceases to be non-public according to the Disclosing Person’s assessment.
A Disclosing Person should keep the records in relation to its Market Soundings for a period of not less than seven years. These records must include:
VI. Specific requirements for Recipient Persons
The specific requirements for Recipient Persons are relatively lighter when compared with the Disclosing Person, and are summarised below.
Stages of Market Sounding
Handling of Market Sounding requests
A Recipient Person should:
A Recipient Person should keep the records in relation to its Market Soundings for a period of not less than seven years. These records must include:
The Consultation Paper containing the Proposed Guidelines is currently undergoing a public consultation. The SFC has indicated that it currently plans to provide a six-month transition period for the industry to update their internal procedures and controls after the Proposed Guidelines are finalised. Even prior to the finalisation of the Proposed Guidelines, intermediaries may still find it helpful to compare their existing internal procedures and controls with the requirements in the Proposed Guidelines, as it provides useful guidance on the SFC’s regulatory expectations and areas which an intermediary may wish to consider updating. As demonstrated by the SFAT Determination, the SFC can still find an intermediary to be in breach of the General Principles in the existing Code of Conduct if the intermediary engages in substandard conduct in respect of market soundings.
 “Consultation Paper on the Proposed Guidelines for Market Soundings”, published by the SFC on October 11, 2023, available at: https://apps.sfc.hk/edistributionWeb/api/consultation/openFile?lang=EN&refNo=23CP6
 Christopher James Aarons v. Securities and Futures Commission, SFAT Application No. 1 of 2021, Determination, September 27, 2022, available at: https://www.sfat.gov.hk/files/SFAT%202021-1%20determination.pdf
 SFO, sections 270 and 291.
 “Hong Kong SFC Places Key Reforms to SFO Enforcement Provisions on Hold Following Industry Feedback”, published by Gibson Dunn on August 11, 2023, available at: https://www.gibsondunn.com/hong-kong-sfc-places-key-reforms-to-sfo-enforcement-provisions-on-hold-following-industry-feedback/.
 SFAT Determination, paragraph 192.
 “Inside information” is defined in sections 245 and 285 of the Securities and Futures Ordinance as “specific information that (a) is about (i) the corporation; (ii) a shareholder or officer of the corporation; or (iii) the listed securities of the corporation or their derivatives; and (b) is not generally known to the persons who are accustomed or would be likely to deal in the listed securities of the corporation but would if generally known to them be likely to materially affect the price of the listed securities.
 The Consultation Paper, paragraph 24; and the Proposed Guidelines, paragraph 1.2.
 The Consultation Paper, paragraphs 20 to 21.
 According to the Proposed Guidelines, a case-by-case consideration of the facts and circumstances is needed to determine whether there is some “level of certainty” of a corresponding potential transaction materialising. The examples of factors to take into account when making such determination include the extent to which the Market Sounding Beneficiary has orally or in writing: (i) expressed an interested with the Disclosing Person in proceeding with a possible transaction; (ii) shared any particulars with the Disclosing Person in relation to the possible transaction (such as the timing, size, pricing or structure of the transaction); or (iii) mandated, requested or consented to the gauging of investor appetite by the Disclosing Person. It is important to note that these are only examples of some factors to take into account, and are not intended to be exhaustive.
 The Consultation Paper, paragraphs 27 to 41; the Proposed Guidelines, paragraph 2.
 The Proposed Guidelines, paragraph 3.
 The Proposed Guidelines, paragraph 4.
Gibson Dunn’s lawyers are available to assist in addressing any questions you may have regarding these developments. If you wish to discuss any of the matters set out above, please contact any member of Gibson Dunn’s Global Financial Regulatory team, including the following members in Hong Kong:
William R. Hallatt – Hong Kong (+852 2214 3836, [email protected])
Emily Rumble – Hong Kong (+852 2214 3839, [email protected])
Arnold Pun – Hong Kong (+852 2214 3838, [email protected])
Becky Chung – Hong Kong (+852 2214 3837, [email protected])
*Jane Lu is a paralegal (pending admission) working in the firm’s Hong Kong office who is not yet admitted to practice law.
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