President Obama's Chamber of Commerce speech singling out GE, Dow, Whirlpool, and Caterpillar for praise got me thinking: What if there were some way to invest in companies that have a close relationship to the Obama administration?
Would this be a money-making proposition, allowing an investor a piece of the upside as the companies use the power of the government to their advantage? Or would it be a money-losing proposition, because the companies whose CEOs are spending their time cultivating government relationships are doing so only as a desperate tactic because their firms are otherwise unable to compete successfully in the marketplace on the basis of the value they offer their customers?
So I spent some time running the numbers. Suppose one began this strategy at the beginning of the Obama administration, buying one share of each publicly traded company with an executive appointed by the president on February 6, 2009 to the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. That would be UBS, GE, CAT, and ORCL. In the nearly two years since then (using the Monday February 7 closing prices, and using Yahoo! Finance historical price data that adjusts for splits and dividends), the gain would have been 145% — far outperforming the 52% return of the S&P 500 Index over the same period.
Suppose that later that year, you decided to buy one share of each American publicly traded company that had a top executive attend President Obama's first state dinner at the White House, in honor of Prime Minister Singh of India. GE and CAT are on the list again, along with Honeywell, Pepsi (CEO Indra Nooyi) and Ethan Allen (ETH) CEO Farooq Kathwari.The return through day's end February 7, 2011 would have been 46%, versus a 19% gain for the S&P 500 over the same period.
Or suppose you wanted to invest in the publicly traded companies whose executives President Obama appointed on July 7, 2010 to the President's Export Council. Buying UPS, Boeing, Met Life, Disney, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, Ford, Verizon, United Airlines, ADM, and Xerox would have earned a 30% return over a period in which the S&P 500 gained 24%.
So far, it looks like a pretty good way of outperforming the market.
Some caveats: It doesn't always work. The president invited executives of Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and UBS to his May 19, 2010, state dinner for the president of Mexico. Those three companies, together, have since then underperformed the S&P 500 by about 7 percentage points.
And these time periods are all less than two years. There's no telling whether the outperformance will be sustained over time, or when President Obama leaves office and these companies are replaced on the White House favorites list by others. Remember that study of Indonesia that found the stock prices of the companies whose executives stood closest to the dictator in photographs suffered most when the dictator fell ill?
And I'm pretty confident of the math and the statistics, but the results haven't been peer-reviewed. The results aren't weighted according to the overall capitalization of the companies, so they are skewed somewhat by what the starting per-share prices happen to be. If anyone has a better way of constructing the index, I'm happy to send a spreadsheet and will update this post with your results.
Finally, it's worth thinking about what accounts for the outperformance. It could be sheer chance. It could be selection bias — stronger companies may have a better chance of getting chosen by the president. It could be that the executives are using information or access they gain as a result of their White House ties to advance their companies' interests. It could be that there are public relations benefits to be being associated with the president, and that the mere public appearance of having inside information or government access boosts the companies' stock, even if the companies aren't actually getting any special treatment. There may be other explanations I haven't considered.
Anyway, we will watch these groups of public companies — the ones whose executives were invited to Mr. Obama's state dinners, the members of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board and the Export Council, and the new council on Jobs and Competitiveness to be headed by Mr. Immelt, and we will continue to report on their performance. And if they continue to outperform, perhaps we'll consider licensing the FutureOfCapitalism Crony Capitalist Index methodology to some ETF or mutual fund company. After all, there are enough problems with crony capitalism — mentioned in the post on the Chamber of Commerce speech — that the least that could be done to ameliorate them would be to let ordinary investors share in whatever gains there are (especially those that come from other taxpayers), and in the process shine a spotlight on the president's practices.