Last night, 60 Minutes ran a report on the shocking normalcy of stock trades by members of Congress. The world's greatest deliberative bodies are exempt from insider trading laws, even though its members get quicker access to market-moving information than almost anyone else. If you're one of those 9 percent of Americans who still trust Congress, well, avert your eyes.
Steve Kroft's report was based largely on a new book, Throw Them All Out, written by the conservative scholar/sometime Palin speechwriter Peter Schweizer. I'm working my way through it now, and one of the ugliest revelations so far -- prodded in the Kroft story -- is the degree to which Rep. Spencer Bachus, then ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, bet against the market as it collapsed in 2008. Schweizer finds "no less than forty options trades" in Bachus's records from July 2008 to November 2008. The trades made him wealthier; almost nobody else had the information he had, and could have made them. Take this example, from the bottom of the collapse.
On the evening of September 18, at 7 p.m., Bachus received [a] private briefing for congressional leaders by Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke about the current state of the economy. They sat around a long table in the office of Nancy Pelosi, then the Speaker of the House. These briefings were secretive. Often, cell phones and Blackberrys had to be surrendered outside the room to avoid leaks.
What Bachus and his colleagues heard behind closed doors was stunning. As Paulson recounts, “Ben [Bernanke] emphasized how the financial crisis could spill into the real economy. As stocks dropped perhaps a further 20 percent, General Motors would go bankrupt, and unemployment would rise . . . if we did nothing.” The members of Congress around the table were, in Paulson’s words, “ashen-faced.”
Bernanke continued, “It is a matter of days before there is a meltdown in the global financial system.” Bachus was among those who spoke. According to Paulson, he suggested recapitalizing the banks by buying shares.
The meeting broke up. The next day, September 19, Congressman Bachus bought contract options on Proshares Ultra-Short QQQ, an index fund that seeks results that are 200% of the inverse of the Nasdaq 100 index. In other words, he was shorting the market. It was an inexpensive way to bet that the market would fall. He bought options for $7,846 on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average opened at 8,604. A few days later, on September 23, after the market had indeed fallen, he sold the options for over $13,000 and nearly doubled his money.
There are dozens of examples like this. On September 8, Hank Paulson gets a tip from GE about the company's sluggish bond sales, on September 10, Bachus shorts GE options four times. It's all legal, and Bachus is now the chairman of House Financial Services.