House members in the know score ‘abnormal’ stock profits, study says

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It’s no secret that members of Congress qualify as political insiders, but a new report strongly suggests that they also may be insiders when it comes to trading stocks.

An extensive study released Wednesday in the journal Business and Politics found that the investments of members of the House of Representatives outperformed those of the average investor by 55 basis points per month, or 6 percent annually, suggesting that lawmakers are taking advantage of inside information to fatten their stock portfolios.

“We find strong evidence that members of the House have some type of non-public information which they use for personal gain,” according to four academics who authored the study, “Abnormal Returns From the Common Stock Investments of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.”

To the frustration of open-government advocates, lawmakers and their staff members largely have immunity from laws barring trading on insider knowledge that have sent many a private corporate chieftain to prison.

The watchdog group OpenSecrets.org said on its blog Wednesday that the findings suggest “that U.S. House members are using their powerful roles for more than just political gain.”

The professors reviewed more than 16,000 common stock transactions carried out by about 300 House members as revealed in the members’ financial-disclosure forms from 1985 to 2001.

In a 2004 study, the same professors found that U.S. senators also enjoy a “substantial information advantage” over the average investor — and even corporate bigwigs — when it comes to picking stocks. The latest study shows that members of the Senate outperform their House colleagues by an average of 30 points per month.

Despite the GOP’s reputation as the party of the rich, House Republicans fared worse than their Democratic colleagues when it comes to investing, according to the study. The Democratic subsample of lawmakers beat the market by 73 basis points per month, or 9 percent annually, versus 18 basis points per month, or 2 percent annually, for the Republican sample.

“Given the almost folkloric belief that Wall Street invariably favors Republicans, the superior performance of trades made by Democratic representatives may seem surprising,” the study authors said.

One theory is that Democrats were the majority for most of the years under review and thus held more leadership posts, giving them greater access to nonpublic information. Once they took power in 1995, Republicans may have limited their ability to profit from the perks of political power because of their lack of leadership experience.

Strict laws ban corporate executives from trading on their insider knowledge, but no restrictions exist for members of Congress. Lawmakers are permitted to keep their holdings and trade shares on the market, as well as vote on legislation that could affect their portfolio values.

The rationale is that requiring lawmakers to divest their economic holdings would “insulate a legislator from the personal and economic interests that his/her constituency, or society in general, has in governmental decisions and policy,” according to the House ethics manual.

Even so, concerns about members of Congress enriching themselves based on inside information has prompted at least one House bill, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which would limit the ability of lawmakers to buy and sell stock shares.

First introduced in 2006, the bill has yet to reach the House floor. Its sponsors, Reps. Louise McIntosh Slaughter, New York Democrat, and Timothy J. Walz, Minnesota Democrat, reintroduced the bill in March.

“This is a matter of equality under the law,” Mr. Walz said at the time. “The same standards we have established for Wall Street should apply to Congress. The potential for abuse is obvious and troubling, and there is simply no good reason Congress should get to play by a separate set of rules in the stock market.”

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