John Wiley Execs' Stock Selling Spree: Should Investors Worry?


Textbook and nonfiction publisher John Wiley & Sons (JW.A) credited a "record-setting year" in reporting healthy third-quarter earnings and profits last month. Stock prices have climbed 64% since November and are now hovering around $40 a share. But in that same period, nine Wiley executives unloaded more shares than at any other time in the last 20 years, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

According to data obtained by The Washington Service, President and CEO William Pesce was the biggest seller, shedding more than 376,000 shares for about $5.5 million in net proceeds. CFO Ellis Cousens sold 125,000 shares for net proceeds of about $2.5 million, while seven other unnamed executives divested themselves of more than 520,000 shares at an average price of $41.87 -- for a total of roughly $6 million.

Making Up for a Sluggish 2009

Speculation among analysts is mixed. A big stock sale usually raises eyebrows over the potential for downward pressure on the shares. In this case, the insiders' unloading may be compensation for a sluggish 2009, when stock sales and prices were low. Both Pesce and Cousens still hold more stock now than they did in 2008, when Wiley was having its toughest earnings period. Pesce currently holds about one million shares, compared to about 754,000 in April, 2008, while Cousens holds approximately 138,000 shares, up significantly from about 84,000 at this time two years ago.

Spokesperson Susan Spilka told the Journal that "the company does not undertake to explain the decisions of individual employees and how they may be affected by various personal factors including tax and estate planning and the upcoming expiration of option awards." The personal factors are in line with what Pesce told Wiley stakeholders about the stock sale being designed for tax planning, estate planning and diversificataion.

Spilka added "there may be additional factors, such as the previously reported upcoming retirement of [three of the stock sellers] at various times within the next year or so that affect their holdings."

Good News in the Fourth Quarter?

Whatever the cause, the sale may be followed by share price gains. It sounds counterintuitive, but a higher stock would be in line with Wiley's fourth-quarter earnings projection. Analysts like David Wong, co-founder of Form4Oracle, also told the Journal that the pattern of stock sales over the last few months demonstrate insiders think Wiley stock is fairly valued above $40.

If all of this proves true, Wiley's fourth-quarter report should bring further good news for investors.