Sunday, November 29, 2009

Looks Like Some Pretty Good Capitalists Run The Congress

Go to Policy, portfolios and the investor lawmaker: As stock ownership rises in Congress, experts warn of potential ethics concerns from the Washington Post this past week.

Most members of the House of Representatives own stock. The article says "The investments increasingly put lawmakers in the position of voting or advocating on matters that could affect their personal wealth, whether the lawmakers realize it or not."

Politicians who rarely agree on anything might be found to be voting for the same bill if it matters to their pocket book. They are supposed to report what they own but the drag their feet and the records are not very well computerized, so they are harder to analyze. And they are good at this investing stuff. From 1985-2001, the legislators beat the market by .55 basis points a month. In a year that means 6.6 percentage points above the market.

In that time, the market (DJIA) gained just a bit under 1% a month (from 12-31-85 to 12-31-2001). It went from 1,546 to 10,021. So, if you had $1,546 in the market it became worth $10,021. But, if you were a member of Congress, it rose about 1.5% a month and you would have ended up with $26,970. Each dollar in the market grew into $6.48 while for the lawmakers it grew into $17.44.

"The researchers, whose findings were presented at a congressional hearing in July, said the statistics suggest that those unusual returns must be based on lawmakers' access to "government and important social contacts.""

But legislators acting on their self interest is not new. Charles Beard wrote about this in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. He argued that self-interest was a big force in how the framers wrote the constitution.

In the 1950s, Forrest McDonald We the People : The Economic Origins of the Constitution, in attempt to refute Beard. But more recently, economic historian Robert A. McGuire wrote a book called To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. He used modern statistical analysis to show that the Beard thesis may be legitimate.

My students might recall something like this that I talk about on the first day of the semester. Congressmen in the early 1790s voted on the "Funding and Assumption Act" based on how much money they would receive if that bill passed. The bill paid back all of the debts from the Revolutionary War at full value (they were not getting paid back before the Constitution was passed because under the Articles of Confederation all states had to agree to a tax increase-this did not happen much so taxes were never raised to pay back the money the government borrowed to finance the war). But under the Constitution if both the House and the Senate passed a tax increase and the president signed it, it became law.

The debts were securities or bonds. Some congressman owned them. I found how much about half the congressmen owned in these bonds from McDonald's book. The ones who voted yes on the bill had an average of about $6,000 while the ones who voted no had about $700. So it is possible that money influenced the vote.

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