Are Members of Congress Engaged in Insider Trading?

Legislators who buy stock somehow manage to earn a much higher return on their investments than the rest of us

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When Congress isn't sending billions in taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street firms, some of its legislators appear to be using information unavailable to the general public to personally profit on stock trades.

So says a study just published in Business and Politics. A portfolio that imitates the stock purchases of House members outperforms the market by more than 6 percent in the course of a year, its authors found. "A previous study of the stock returns of U.S. Senators in a leading finance journal indicates that their portfolios show some of the highest excess returns ever recorded over a long period of time, significantly outperforming even hedge fund managers," they wrote. "Until now, there has been no similar study of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives."

Now we know that from 1985 to 2001, the specific interval used to generate the data, senators do the best, House members follow, and the average American investor brings up the rear. In defense of Congress, however, most legislators weren't exploiting their advantage: on average only 27 percent of senators and 16 percent of House members bought and sold common stock. Interestingly, in the House "by far the most successful traders were those Representatives with the least seniority." The authors acknowledge that result is counterintuitive, and posit this explanation:

Whereas Representatives with the longest seniority (in this case more than 16 years), have no trouble raising funds for campaigns, junkets and whatever other causes they may deem desirable owed to the power they wield, the financial condition of a freshman Congressman is far more precarious. His or her position is by no means secure, financially or otherwise. House Members with the least seniority may have fewer opportunities to trade on privileged information, but they may be the most highly motivated to do so when the opportunities arise.   

So what should be done?

It's presented as a thorny problem. "To restrain Members from taking personal advantage of non-public information and using their positions for personal gain, Congress has decided that such unethical behavior is best discouraged by the public disclosure of financial investments by Representatives and the discipline of the electoral process," the authors point out, but "to form a reasonable opinion of a Representative's conflicts of interest, voters must familiarize themselves with their Representative's personal asset holdings, the details of each law under consideration in the House and the voting record of the Representative. This could be difficult for any voter."

That's why faster disclosure would work best here. Forget filing periodic reports. Just force Members of Congress to be transparent about their stock trades in real time. Voter oversight wouldn't even be needed -- the idea is that self-interested traders would closely monitor the buying and selling of stock by legislators, who'd thereby lose a lot of their ability to get a jump on other investors.

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