Forensic economists examine the effects of CIA-led coups on the stock market.

The search for better economic policy.
Oct. 28 2008 7:07 AM

They Made a Killing

Did people who knew about secret, CIA-led coups use that information to game the stock market?

In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Gúzman became Guatemala's second democratically elected president. Árbenz's authoritarian predecessors had been very sympathetic to American business interests, particularly those of the United Fruit Co. (now Chiquita), which had bought up land titles on the cheap from Guatemala's corrupt elite for its ever-expanding banana empire. Once in office, Presidente Árbenz sought to take it all back, nationalizing UFC's Guatemalan assets and redistributing them to the poor.

But UFC had friends in very high places—the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, John Moor Cabot, was the brother of UFC President Thomas Cabot. The secretary of state himself, John Foster Dulles, had done legal work for UFC, and his brother Allen Dulles was director of the CIA and also on UFC's board. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we now know that the various Cabots and Dulleses had a series of top-secret meetings in which they decided that Árbenz had to go and sponsored a coup that drove Árbenz from office in 1954.

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With a U.S. puppet back in the president's mansion, UFC's profits were safe. But it appears the company wasn't the only beneficiary of this Cold War cloak-and-dagger diplomacy: A recent study by economists Arindrajit Dube, Ethan Kaplan, and Suresh Naidu argues that those in on the planning process also profited handsomely. By tracking the stock prices of UFC and other politically vulnerable firms in the months leading up to CIA-staged coups in Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, and Iran, the researchers provide evidence that someone—perhaps one of the Dulleses, Cabots, or others in the know—was trading stocks based on classified information of these coups-in-the-making.

This exposé is a contribution to the rapidly expanding field of "forensic economics," which tries to understand the who, what, and why of illicit transactions. Since these are activities that take place out of sight (at least when they're done right), researchers are forced to look for fingerprints left in the data by smugglers, bribe-taking politicians, and other lawbreakers.

Dube, Kaplan, and Naidu examine how the stock market reacted to events that no Wall Street trader should have known about: top-secret meetings of the coup-plotting cabals at CIA headquarters and presidential approvals of CIA-organized invasions. These events would have increased the expected future profits of companies like UFC—if the CIA-led coup in Guatemala were successful, for example, UFC would get its plantations back. If stock traders were privy to the coup-planning process, we would expect them to bid up the prices of affected companies in anticipation of these higher profits. These meetings and authorizations were all highly classified, however, and since you can't trade on information you don't have, UFC's stock price shouldn't have budged until the coup actually took place and the investing world learned of the regime change.

Unless, that is, some of the Cabots, Dulleses, or other insiders were using their privileged information to profit personally from a future coup. To understand why insider trading would boost a company's stock price, suppose that someone in on the planning—perhaps at UFC or at the State Department itself—started quietly buying up cheap UFC stock in anticipation of the price jump that would come when the coup took place (or tipped off his stock-trading cousins about the future boost to UFC so they could do the same). All of this pre-coup buying would increase demand for UFC stock, bidding up its price even before CIA operatives actually got to work overthrowing the Guatemalan government.

Such trading on inside information is illegal, and when it involves highly classified details about a future CIA coup, it verges on treason. Yet the researchers found that prices of companies affected by the CIA's regime-toppling efforts—UFC in Guatemala, Anglo-Iranian (oil) in Iran, Anaconda (mining) in Chile, and American Sugar in Cuba—went up in the weeks and months preceding the coups. (The authors restrict their analysis to coups for which they had access to declassified planning documents and for which U.S. companies had had property nationalized by the targeted regimes.)

Furthermore, these gains were concentrated in the days following crucial government authorizations or plans for the coup (suggesting the trades weren't simply the result of good guesswork about a coup in the making). For example, in the week that President Eisenhower gave full approval to Operation PBFortune to overthrow Árbenz, UFC's price went up by 3.8 percent; the stock market overall was flat that week.

In all, shares of coup-affected companies went up by a total of 10 percent following top-secret authorizations, swamping the 3.5 percent gain that came immediately in the coups' aftermaths. If information hadn't been leaking into the stock market via insider trading, then the entire impact of the coup should have appeared only when the very public invasions took place and the investing world finally got news of the regime change. Unfortunately, there are limits to what these stock-market forensics can uncover. When the researchers contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission to find out who was trading on these days, they learned that there are limits to what the Freedom of Information Act could provide. So, we can't pin the apparent insider trading on anyone in particular.

There's also some evidence, albeit tentative, that the market was very good at forecasting the coups' success and failure—a further indication that the traders driving up the price had detailed knowledge of the covert plans (and their expected outcomes). The CIA-led invasion of Cuba is referred to these days as the Bay of Pigs fiasco for a reason, and whoever was trading on insider knowledge seemed to place his bets accordingly—the pre-invasion increase in American Sugar's stock price was much lower than the gains for companies affected by the other, successful coups in the study.

What about the forensic economics of the Bush administration? Researchers have already estimated what it's worth for Republican-connected companies to have George W. Bush in the White House by looking at what happened to the stock prices of companies with former Republican lawmakers on their boards when Al Gore gave up his fight for the presidency on Dec. 13, 2000 (they went up; Democratically connected companies' prices went down).

If and when the story behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq becomes public, researchers will surely also be analyzing the share prices of the many companies that profited from a U.S.-occupied Iraq. None will see greater scrutiny than oil services giant Halliburton, whose former CEO Dick Cheney left the company to become vice president in 2000 and undoubtedly took part in the invasion's planning. (Some say he was pivotal in the decision to invade.) In the Iraq war's aftermath, Halliburton received billions in no-bid reconstruction contracts, boosting its profits and leading to accusations of corruption.

Halliburton's stock price jumped 7.6 percent the day the Senate authorized the use of force in Iraq, so investors clearly anticipated that war would be good for the company. Did insiders also profit from advance notice of these sweetheart deals to come? Conspiracy theorists will no doubt be interested in what happened to Halliburton stock on days when less-public meetings took place. Cheney himself certainly could not have traded on any inside information—monitoring of insider trades and stock transactions is much more sophisticated now than it was in the 1950s. But perhaps others in the V.P.'s office or at Halliburton (or their cousins, or their cousins' cousins) might have been able to do some trading on the sly. If so, they may have left tracks in the data for researchers to follow.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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