Insider trading another reason to Occupy Congress
By Richard Beales and Reynolds Holding
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.
Occupy Congress has garnered far less attention than the global protest movement that started as Occupy Wall Street in lower Manhattan. But politicians helped create the financial crisis. Fresh news of U.S. lawmakers trading on inside information is further reason for mistrust.
The evidence is tough to ignore. Beyond specific examples broadcast on Sunday by TV news program “60 Minutes,” studies have found that stock portfolios modeled on those of U.S. senators and representatives beat the market each year by a whopping 12 percentage points and 6 percentage points, respectively.
It’s easy to see why that might be. Lawmakers get the scoop on bills or regulations that can send a company’s or sector’s shares soaring or plunging. But they’ve been allowed to slide under insider-trading law, partly because regulators have concluded that members of Congress don’t owe anyone a legal duty to avoid trading on what they learn in their jobs.
This cramped reading of the law may suit some watchdogs, whose wages come at the whim of lawmakers. But whatever the strict legalities, actions like selling stocks short the day after a closed-door Federal Reserve briefing on the 2008 financial collapse surely breach the public’s trust.
Meanwhile, politicians refuse to make such snappy calls with the nation’s finances. They have delayed even the smallest decisions they’re supposed to take on behalf of their constituents.
One example was the bickering over raising the cap on federal debt, which helped trigger an unprecedented credit downgrade from Standard & Poor’s. Another ongoing scandal is the failure, three years on, to even begin reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government mortgage finance giants that have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.
Then there was the general acceptance of laxity in bank regulation in the run-up to the 2008 crunch. Protesters have been railing against the influence of money in politics, but the cash used to elect people doesn’t go straight into their pockets. Profits from insider trading once in office bridge that gap in the logic. Bankers can’t be voted out. For that reason, Occupy Congress may have a better shot of achieving change than does Occupy Wall Street.