WSJ & Bloomberg — Congress has a License to Steal
By JASON ZWEIG, TOM MCGINTY And BRODY MULLINS
Some members of Congress made risky bets with their own money that U.S. stocks or bonds would fall during the financial crisis, a Wall Street Journal analysis of congressional disclosures shows.
Senators have criticized Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for profiting from the housing collapse. And Congress is considering legislation to curb Wall Street risk-taking, including the use of financial instruments known as derivatives and of leverage, or methods that amplify returns.
According to The Journal’s analysis of congressional disclosures, investment accounts of 13 members of Congress or their spouses show bearish bets made in 2008 via exchange-traded funds—portfolios that trade like stocks and mirror an index. These funds were leveraged; they used derivatives and other techniques to magnify the daily moves of the index they track.
There’s no evidence the legislators and their spouses used privileged information or failed to follow rules on disclosure. Congressional rules permit lawmakers and their families to invest in—or bet against—publicly held companies they oversee through committee assignments, as well as broader markets or indices. While some made money, others lost.
Some of these legislators have publicly criticized practices such as short-selling, or betting on a security to decline. In February, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) argued on the Senate floor that “we don’t need those speculating in the marketplace to take unfair advantage of the values of equities that are owned by Americans all over this country for the sake of making a buck on a short sale.”
On Oct. 8 and 9, 2008—as the Federal Reserve was bailing out American International Group Inc.—an account Sen. Isakson held invested more than $30,000 in ProShares UltraShort 7-10 Year Treasury and UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury, the records show. These are “leveraged short” funds, designed to gain $2 for each $1 drop in the daily value of U.S. Treasury bonds.
Sen. Isakson said his account is professionally managed by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and he has no control over it. “They make those decisions and I report what they do,” Mr. Isakson said. “I put money away in my career so I can hopefully retire one day.”
Sen. Isakson said, “Short selling has a role to play in the market.” He said he supports legislation to limit it but wouldn’t prohibit it.
Such trading involving members of Congress or spouses “doesn’t look real great when the economy is tanking and people are blaming the government,” said former Rep. Joel Hefley (R., Colo.), once head of the House Ethics Committee. Still, he said, “You can’t have people not using their best judgment on their investment portfolio.”
According to The Journal’s analysis of the disclosures, collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, few members of Congress made more than a dozen securities trades in 2008. Typical trades were for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.
While some lawmakers trade for their own accounts, others delegate trading to a spouse, stockbroker or financial adviser. A few legislators keep their money in blind trusts and don’t know how it’s invested.
Jonathan Gillibrand, husband of New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, made more than 250 transactions in options in his E*Trade account in 2008, when his wife was in the House, according to disclosures.
Another good article regarding the issue:
Your senator learns that a much- maligned weapons system now has enough votes for funding. Before the news gets to a reporter, he buys shares in the arms manufacturer for a quick, handsome profit.
What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, according to the law. Nor would it be illegal for him to tip someone else, say, his largest campaign contributor.
Laws that criminalize insider trading cover corporate insiders and those they tip, but not specifically Congress. And while scholars differ on whether existing law could be applied on Capitol Hill, it hasn’t been.
It’s a gap in the law that two members of Congress have been trying for years to plug, to no avail. Congress is famous for telling others what they can and can’t do. When it comes to proscribing its own conduct, it’s a different story.
So, Congress Critters automatically get a Concealed Carry permit when they take office and have a license to steal as well. Nice work if you can get it.