Bartlett's investing choices glitter

June 27, 2008|By JAY HANCOCK

The winner of the Maryland Congressional Delegation Investment-Picking Contest, held annually in this space since 2003, "just got lucky" last year, his spokeswoman suggests.

Don't believe it.

Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, the great-grandfather, physiological scientist, patent holder and Western Maryland Republican who always has a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, has owned and believed in precious metals at least since the early 1990s.

His stake in what we can assume is gold and similar items surpassed $250,000 last year as the financial system shuddered and people rushed for the only kind of investment politicians and central bankers can't mess up.

Gold rose 30 percent in 2007 to $834 an ounce. Bartlett's wealth rode along with it, according to recently filed disclosures posted online by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Precious metals valued at between $100,000 and $250,000 in Bartlett's 2006 portfolio were worth between $250,000 and $500,000 at the end of 2007. (Federal forms require only a range of value, not precise amounts.)

The stake didn't rise because he bought more. What he already owned just became very hot.

The value of Bartlett's total assets, most of which are real estate, rose from between $1.7 million and $6.5 million in 2006 to between $1.8 million and $6.8 million in 2007.

The congressman declined to be interviewed or give details beyond the "Precious Metals" indicated in his disclosure. But it seems fair to assume he is a classic gold bug who is suspicious of the Federal Reserve and worried about long-term inflation.

Although he has apparently said little publicly about monetary policy over the years, Bartlett is the kind of libertarian, Ron Paul Republican who puts more trust in markets and hard assets than in Washington.

He is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus along with Paul, who favors abolishing the Federal Reserve (which tries to manage the paper-based money supply through regulatory fiat) and restoring gold and silver as money.

The case for gold is this: Congress and the Fed find it hard to resist goosing the economy with deficit financing and excessive money-supply growth. Over the long term this tends to blow the value of the dollar to smithereens, so the prudent citizen should store up wealth in the manner of yore, before there was a Fed.

Gold is also a refuge in scary times, and you can bet there are more than a few precious-metal stakes whose previous address was a mortgage-bond portfolio. Huge price increases in energy, food and other commodities have prompted fears of inflation such as this country hasn't seen since the 1980s.

Bartlett subscribes to the "Peak Oil" thesis, which says that the planet is running out of petroleum and that prices will continue to soar. As the theory gains adherents and oil futures shot above $140 a barrel yesterday, gold has continued to appreciate, making its fans look even smarter.

Few other Maryland congressmen or senators owned direct investments in commodities, metals or energy last year, all of which have been on fire.

Eastern Shore Republican Wayne Gilchrest, who lost his seat to Andy Harris, owned stock in oil refiner Valero Energy, which rose 40 percent last year, and electricity producer Dominion Resources, up 13 percent. But those gains were partly wiped out by his holdings in Citigroup, whose subprime mortgage business helped it get pounded for a 45 percent 2007 decline.

Conspicuously not participating in the energy bull market were Democrats Steny Hoyer and Dutch Ruppersberger. They owned large pieces of mutual funds managed by Legg Mason's Bill Miller, who has famously avoided oil stocks and gotten burned by housing and financial shares.

Hoyer had between $250,001 and $500,000 in Miller's Legg Mason Value Trust, which lost 7 percent of its value last year. Ruppersberger's stake in Value Trust was between $100,000 and $250,000, and he had between $15,001 and $50,000 in Legg Mason Opportunity Trust, another underperforming Miller fund. A stake in Legg Mason stock, which went from the $100 neighborhood to $75 last year, didn't help his portfolio.

Ruppersberger did, however, switch tens of thousands of dollars from stock mutual funds into a super-safe money market fund last July, near stocks' peak for the year.

The only person in Maryland's congressional delegation besides Bartlett who owned gold last year was his ideological opposite, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has a bad habit of buying investments high and selling them low.

She sold something listed as an M&T Bank Precious Metal Gold Certificate, valued at between $1,001 and $15,000, on April 13, 2007, when gold was $680 an ounce.

Mikulski piled into technology stocks at the peak of the bubble in March 2000 and bought several international stock funds last year, when they were looking pretty pricey.

If it turns out she's back into precious metals this year, it will have been an unmistakable "sell" signal. Gold will fall if the world economy slumps and the inflation threat recedes. Bartlett, however, looks committed to the bright, yellow metal no matter what the price.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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