Banking Crisis Hits Members

Several Tally Stock Losses

Posted April 4, 2008 at 6:39pm

It isn’t just happening on Main Street.

The ongoing banking crisis is leaving dozens of Members of Congress with massive potential losses on their personal balance sheets, as policymakers, too, prove vulnerable to the financial woes of Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual and other one-time Wall Street darlings.

All told, tumbling share prices for more than a dozen of the most troubled banks and investment houses, which last week continued to write off record numbers of bad loans, may have cost 51 Members as much as $13.2 million in stock value during the past 15 months.

Congress’ uber-rich had the most at stake. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who married into the Heinz ketchup fortune, is near the top of Roll Call’s list, with as much as $2.9 million in potential banking stock losses. According to his 2007 disclosure form, Kerry owned at least $1 million apiece in insurer AIG, investment bank Morgan Stanley and mortgage issuer Washington Mutual, whose stock alone has lost 75 percent of its value during the past 15 months.

Kerry also owned at least $51,000 in Bank of America stock, whose value has dropped 24 percent since Dec. 29, 2006.

Kerry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Roll Call scoured Members’ 2007 financial disclosure statements using a list of insurers, banks and other financial institutions whose stocks have been hit the hardest by the recent credit market collapse going back to Dec. 29, 2006 — the last trading day of the year and the date Members valued their holdings.

In recent months, many lenders, along with loan backers and secondary investors, have walked away from billions of dollars in risky mortgages they wrote in recent years that included nontraditional — some claim unfair — repayment terms. Bad debt begot fewer profits and skittish investors, who have ground credit markets to a halt — a slowdown that shows little sign of letting up.

Mark Lane, a banking analyst at William Blair & Co. in Chicago, said it’s difficult to say exactly when the bleeding will stop for bank stocks, whose exposure to these risky loans is uncertain, according to experts. “The credit cycle has to run its course,” Lane said, adding that it may take time for the recently passed stimulus package to boost the economy.

“If it’s a two-quarter recession, then stocks may have already bottomed … if this is a typical cycle, then we are closer to the bottom than people think,” Lane said. “[But] because of the mortgage dynamic, many people think that this is a unique cycle that may last longer.”

For example, Swiss bank UBS AG continues to tally its losses, announcing last week that it was writing down an additional $19 billion-plus in bad loans. The bank’s stock was trading at roughly $33 per share last week, down roughly 45 percent from 15 months ago.

Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who works with may GOP Members on their financial disclosure statements, suggested during a conversation about potential pitfalls in disclosing financial information that it’s not surprising that nearly 10 percent of lawmakers may be out millions of dollars because of the current credit collapse.

“Frankly … these people are economically illiterate,” she said.

Only two lawmakers held stock in Bear Stearns, the Wall Street giant whose federally backed sale is now drawing scrutiny on Capitol Hill: Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who had as much as $250,000 and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who had as much as $390,000. That stock is down more than 90 percent since the end of 2006.

Harman, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) owned at least $137,000 combined in UBS stock at the end of 2006. If the four still held the stock as of April 1, its value would have dipped to as low as $62,146.

But as frequently occurred during the course of Roll Call’s reporting, all four Members declined to discuss whether they or their financial advisers saw the tsunami coming or whether they had sold their UBS stock.

For now, the intrigue about Congressional losses will continue until mid-May, when Members disclose their 2007 stock transactions and other financial information.

Although most Members decline to show their hands, a few lawmakers suggested they’re in it for the long haul. Freshman Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), who sits on the House Financial Services panel, owned as much as $100,000 in Washington Mutual and banking giant Citigroup stock when he was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2007.

Since then, Washington Mutual has shed 75 percent of its share price and Citigroup has dropped 57 percent. Wilson, who declined to comment for this story, handed over his investments to an outside firm after he was elected in November 2006. The firm, without his input, sold off the Washington Mutual stock in two chunks last year.

He still owns the Citigroup stock, however, which may have cost him at least $9,000.

That’s a pittance compared to the hit Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R-W.Va.) portfolio took thanks to Citigroup’s slide. She holds $1.5 million to $6.02 million worth of the stock — a result of the fact that her husband, Charlie Capito, has worked for the firm for 30 years, spokesman John Coffin said. Her holdings have lost at least $859,000 in value, or as much as $3.44 million.

Capito also is the biggest potential loser in Roll Call’s analysis.

As the ranking member on the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, Capito has been on the front lines of the debate over how to respond to the housing crisis. But Coffin said no matter the degree of her loss, the lawmaker’s personal stake in the market does not impact her legislative work. He said that given her Citigroup holdings, she sought and received clearance from the House ethics committee before joining the committee in 2001.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) may have lost as much as $25,000-plus from sagging banking stocks during the past year. The former investment banker disclosed last year that he owned $15,001 to $50,000 in securities firm Merrill Lynch & Co., whose stock has lost more than half of its value since Dec. 29, 2006.

But through a spokesman, Crenshaw suggests that he’s sitting tight, as the current contraction is all part of an economic cycle.

“I’m a long term investor,” he said. “Stocks go up and they go down.”

Pollsters agree that the economy overall is tops among voters’ primary concerns. And as gas prices continue to climb and foreclosures reach record levels in some parts of the country, only 21 percent of Americans think the economy is in overall good condition, a New York Times/CBS poll released last week found.

GOP pollster David Winston, who is also a Roll Call contributing writer, suggested that few voters are likely to be sympathetic to Members’ financial woes. They have their own problems, he said, which they may expect lawmakers to fix.

“Given where the economy is at this point, where most people are focused is how do I manage my situation in this environment?” Winston said. “I’m not sure they look out beyond how they can manage their own particular situation.”

Leah Carliner, Torey Van Oot and Jessica DaSilva contributed to this report.