Inside Moves

Did you see the 60 Minutes story on our duly-elected Congresscritters potentially profiting by using information they gleaned from their work on the Hill to inform their investment decisions?  Well, according to this Wall Street Journal story many big-time investors are profiting from information they glean directly from members of Congress and Congressional staffers.

"Hedge funds and other investors have found that Washington can be a gold mine of market-moving information, easily gathered by those who are politically connected," according to Sanford Bragg, CEO and president of Integrity Research Associates, an independent group that analyzes research providers…

Wall Street firms have for years hired lobbyists to scour Congress and the White House for news that could affect stock prices. Now, investors want to hear from decision makers firsthand.

Many turn to William Williams, president of JNK Securities, a firm that brings lawmakers and investors together "to bridge the information gap between Washington and Wall Street," according to a recent news release.

Mr. Williams used to charge clients as much as $10,000 for meetings with lawmakers. That changed last year after a reporter from the publication Inside Higher Ed asked the office of Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) about an email from JNK showing it was charging to attend a possible meeting with the senator. Mr. Harkin refused to attend.

Now, hedge funds don't pay fees to JNK Securities. If they use information gleaned at these face-to-face meetings they are expected to execute their trades through the brokerage firm, which collects commissions.

There's more, but you get the picture.  I seriously doubt this kind of inside information is restricted to the federal level – I'm willing to bet it goes on at the state and local level as well – and as the reporters point out it's not illegal activity, but I think this is exactly the kind of thing that has escalated the level of mistrust of our public and business institutions to astronomical levels.

If you were to talk to the folks involved in these meetings, both on the government side and industry side, you'd probably get an earful about this dialogue being necessary to make sure the government fully understands the issues so they don't unnecessarily burden industry with misaligned regulation or some such thing.  Sure, it makes perfect sense for government representatives to fully understand the industries they are proposing to regulate, but I'll be darned if I can understand why those discussions can't be publicly broadcast so that everyone is on the same playing field. (Truth be told I can't think of a reason why investors would need to be included in the discussion at all, but for now let's just assume they have a place at the table). Let's put it this way – why shouldn't I, as an individual investor, have access to this information at the same time as a hedge fund investor?  If Congress was a public company and members of Congress were board members of the company then this behavior would be considered insider trading.  It's ironic that because they are essentially board members of USA Inc. their behavior is perfectly legal.

The article goes on to mention some proposed legislation that would prevent this type of inside information trading, but I'm not sure how effective any legislation can be until the entire culture in the halls of power changes. If the people in power can't perceive that it's wrong to play favorites in the public sector, to create a favored class, then there's not a piece of legislation that can be passed that will fix the problem because they'll simply find a way around it to help their friends. 

Long ago some wise people realized that our entire society is constructed on a foundation made up of one element – trust.  Without trust financial markets collapse, bank runs happen (why do you think we even have an FDIC?), government collapses (usually after a bout of totalitarianism) and civil society disappears.  If our leaders don't begin to reestablish trust with the people I fear what my children will inherit.  This probably seems like an over reaction to a relatively minor financial story, but I think this story perfectly highlights what's wrong with our country right now and I very much want to see this fixed before it's too late.

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