Saturday, December 12, 2009

Congress Allowed To Use Inside Info To Invest in Stocks
For a group often criticized for being out of touch with what's happening on Main Street, some argue Congress seems to be deeply in touch with what will soon happen on Wall Street, especially when compared to the average investor.

"If the question is -- are they using information that they're picking up in Congress to beat the market? The answer is absolutely," said Dr. Alan Ziobrowksi, a professor of economics at Georgia State University.

This may surprise you, but it's perfectly legal for both members of Congress and their staff to use inside knowledge about upcoming legislation to play the stock market.

For example, let's say Congress is quietly preparing to pass a bill that helps the dairy industry. Before the public is aware of Congress's intentions, our elected leaders and their staffer can invest in dairy companies that stand to benefit from the bill. Then, they can pass the bill and watch the stock take off. Critics call it a form of legalized insider trading.

For those of you wondering whether scenarios like that really happen, five years ago Dr. Ziobrowksi studied the stock market investments on United States Senators. He discovered they were beating the market averages by 12 percent a year.

ZIOBROWSKI: That's actually about twice as high as the abnormal profits made by insiders, corporate insiders -- which is an extraordinary amount of money.

REPORTER: Is there any way to explain how they made those profits other than the fact that they may have had advance knowledge of what would happen to those companies?

ZIOBROWSKI: Uh, no. Frankly... These guys are way outside the margin of accident.

Critics of Congressional investment practices point to a recent transaction made by Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. In September of 2008, when the economy was on the brink of collapse, the U.S. Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Federal Reserve went to Capitol Hill to privately brief Boehner and other congressional leaders. At the time, one of the greatest economic dangers the country was deflation. One day after that meeting, records show Congressman Boehner pulled his money from a fund tied to inflation.

"It says to me he picked up some information and he tried to save himself a lot of money by dumping it as soon as he could," Dr. Ziobrowksi said. "And again, though, technically speaking, there is absolutely nothing illegal about that."

But if you're not a member of Congress, or not lucky enough to work for one, buying and selling stocks based on information not available to the public can be a crime. Just ask Martha Stewart, who went to prison for lying to investigators about that very topic.

Even corporate CEOs play by tougher rules than Congress. When a CEO or a company officer buys or sells stock in their company, of which they have inside information, they have to publicly disclose that transaction within two days. Members of Congress report their stock transactions once a year.

"Well, it's really a double standard between what we in the corporate world have to adhere to and what people in government have to adhere to," said Amherst-based investor Tony Ogorek of Ogorek Wealth Management.

There also are concerns about conflicts of interest. After all, members of Congress could be voting on bills that directly or indirectly affect the companies they're invested in.

"I think the worse danger of course is that they're going to be passing and lobbying legislation on the basis of what's good for their portfolio rather than what's good for you and I," Dr. Ziobrowski said.

For three years, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-Fairport, NY) has been trying to stop the practice.

"Well, the only reason it's legal is because it had never been declared illegal," Slaughter said.

In 2006, Slaughter introduced a bill known as The Stock Act, which would ban Congress and its members from using their inside knowledge of upcoming legislation to make money.

REPORTER: How big of a problem has this become?

SLAUGHTER: We don't know the real scope of it. We just knew that there was a point in time when it seemed to be pretty apparent.

According to Slaughter, when the market was soaring a few years ago, Congress discovered some of its staff members were using their government-owned computers to play the stock market during work.

"The first apparent piece of that came when there was some legislation about asbestos removal, and what we were going to do about it," Slaughter said. "And there was a senate bill that we were waiting for that sort of collapsed. The next morning, the stock on asbestos went through the roof, and there was no question that they had had some kind of prior notice that this was going to happen."

As powerful as Slaughter has become on Capitol Hill. Her cause has gained little momentum; however, she has found an ally in Senator Charles Schumer, who supports even tougher rules that would ban members of Congress from trading any stocks.

REPORTER: Why do you think this measure has not passed or gained any traction so far in Congress?

SCHUMER: I suppose there are Senators and Congressmen who would be affected by it and don't like being told they shouldn't do it. But you know what? You want to trade a lot of stocks? You want to own a lot of stocks? Don't be a Congressmen or Senator. No one is forcing you to run for office.

It's not uncommon for members of Congress, who are paid a base salary, to leave office a lot wealthier than when they arrived. We sifted through the financial disclosure forms for as many Western New York members of Congress - past and present - as we could find. Most did not directly own any company stock or had their money tied up in special funds whose investments they did not control.

We did, however, discover that former Buffalo Congressman John LaFalce, who rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange before he retired in 2002, was heavily invested in the market while in office, even while he served as the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee.

LaFalce declined an on-camera interview, but told 2 On Your Side, "I always stayed away from banking stocks and (any) stocks within the jurisdiction of my committee."

We found nothing to suggest LaFalce traded based on knowledge unavailable to the public. But in a body as big as Congress, with its massive staff, Slaughter is convinced that the practice of insider trading continues in Washington, D.C.

"We have no business doing that," Slaughter said. "What we're there for is writing legislation to benefit everybody in the United States of America. We are not there to make it possible for somebody to make any money what(so)ever on that information."

To some, it is a frightening prospect at a time when Congress has never had as much financial control over Wall Street, and perhaps inside knowledge of what will happen next in the market.

Slaughter said she is going to try to attach her bill banning Congressional insider trading to a bigger bill that regulates the credit card industry. She believes that could make it more difficult for her colleagues to vote against it.

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