More Md. Lawmakers Hedging Their Bets On U.s. Economy

July 03, 2009|By JAY HANCOCK | JAY HANCOCK,jay.hancock@baltsun.com

Thousands of investors bailed out on Legg Mason's Bill Miller last year as funds he manages plunged much further than the stock market overall.

Not Steny H. Hoyer. The House majority leader from Southern Maryland proved as loyal to the famous Miller as he is to the pro-Israel lobby. He held on to shares in Miller's Legg Mason Value Trust fund worth $100,001 to $250,000 even as the value plummeted last year by 55 percent.

A year earlier, the stake had been worth $250,001 to $500,000. Since Hoyer listed total assets worth only $148,000 to $447,000, he's taken a significant financial blow. Let's hope his attempts to reform health care turn out better than last year's portfolio returns.

Here's the annual look at how Maryland's congressional delegation, charged with helping direct the nation's finances, are managing their own. Opensecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, publishes congressional financial disclosures soon after they're filed in late spring.

Few senators or congressmen escaped last year's storm. Most took losses in stocks, even as some shifted money to cash. A few made surprisingly good calls. And by buying gold and inflation bonds, a growing number of your representatives are hedging against long-term weakness in the U.S. dollar.

Miller, of course, is known for beating the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index - the best measure of large-company stocks - for 15 years in a row, ending in 2005. Then he became known for doing considerably worse than the market as he drastically underestimated the severity of the financial crisis, buying stock in such dogs as Citigroup, AIG, Countrywide Financial and Freddie Mac.

While his record has turned around this year, Value Trust lost its shareholders 60 percent of their kitty between mid-2007 and the end of 2008. Even so, the fund still had about $4 billion of investors' money at year end, including Hoyer's.

Hoyer was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County wasn't so devoted. After keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars with Legg for years, he got fed up in early September, the day after the government seized Freddie Mac and sister mortgage financier Fannie Mae, and sold the caboodle.

He unloaded shares of Value Trust worth $50,000 to $100,000. He dumped shares in the Legg Mason Opportunity Trust, also managed by Miller, worth $15,001 to $50,000. He also got rid of a stake in the Legg Mason Special Investment Trust, a fund investing in medium-size companies that is managed by Sam Peters, worth $250,001 to $500,000.

A Ruppersberger spokeswoman did not respond to my queries.

But I doubt that the congressman regrets selling, even though Opportunity Trust was among the top U.S. stock funds in the second quarter, gaining 46 percent, and the other funds have bounced back, too. Opportunity Trust is still down almost 40 percent from when Ruppersberger got out on Sept. 8. Value Trust is down almost 30 percent, as is Special Investment Trust.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski also avoided pain by jettisoning Baltimore-managed funds. She sold shares in three T. Rowe Price stock or real estate funds in January 2008, putting the proceeds into safer money-market funds and missing most of the worst year for stocks since the Depression.

She sold more stock funds in late September, just before the bottom fell out. But then she dumped even more shares in mid-October at levels below today's prices.

Still, Mikulski, who frequently tries to time the market, is probably better off than if she had stood pat like Hoyer or Rep. John Sarbanes.

Sarbanes owned a chunk of the AllianceBernstein Value Fund worth $50,001 to $100,000, which lost 42 percent last year. In his favor, he owned a similar amount in the much more conservative PIMCO Total Return bond fund, which gained 5 percent.

A few years ago, only Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland owned precious metals among Maryland representatives. Bartlett has been a gold bug for years, and it paid off as gold rose from less than $500 an ounce a few years ago to nearly $1,000 now. At the end of the year, his precious metals were worth $250,001 to $500,000.

But now others are joining the club.

In September, as things began to melt down, Mikulski bought stakes in two gold funds worth $2,002 to $30,000. Ruppersberger bought interest in a gold fund worth $1,001 to $15,000, as well as Treasury inflation bonds, which pay off if inflation rises.

Soaring and continuing federal deficits tend to erode the dollar's value against gold and could set the stage for severe inflation. Congress has more than a little to do with the deficits.

Let's hope Mikulski, Bartlett and Ruppersberger don't know something we don't.

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