The truth may make you sick. Technically, it's public knowledge, but I can tell you -- it's Congress' dirty little secret.
Congress is rich. Unbelievably rich. And until just recently, insider trading laws didn't apply to Congress.
I don't know which is worse: The fact that insider trading was legal for some of our nation's wealthiest politicians... or that Congress refused to do anything about it for decades.
"A few lawmakers proposed a bill that would prevent members and employees of Congress from trading securities based on nonpublic information they obtain. The legislation has languished since 2006," according to The Wall Street Journal.
That was, the legislation languished until "60 Minutes" -- one of the most respected investigative journalism programs on television -- dedicated a segment to the issue. Here's a portion of what they had to say...
"In mid-September 2008, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average still above 10,000, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were holding closed-door briefings with congressional leaders and privately warning them that a global financial meltdown could occur within a few days. One of those attending was Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus, then the ranking Republican member on the House Financial Services Committee and now its chairman.
"While Congressman Bachus was publicly trying to keep the economy from cratering, he was privately betting that it would, buying option funds that would go up in value if the market went down. He would make a variety of trades and profited at a time when most Americans were losing their shirts."
And that was just one example. Also dug up by "60 Minutes:"
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her husband have participated in multiple exclusive IPOs -- including that of Visa (NYSE: V). According to one report, Pelosi purchased 5,000 shares of Visa at the IPO price of $44. Just a couple of days later, when the stock was trading to the investing public, it traded at $64 per share.
Current House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, bought stocks in health-care companies days before the so-called public option was pulled from the legislation. The removal of the public option proved to be a boon for private health insurers, making a significant sum for Boehner's investments.
The report from "60 Minutes" led to a frenzy. And a few months after the story aired, the STOCK Act, which curbed insider trading by Congress, was signed into law.
But why was it delayed for so long?
Apparently Congress was making too much money off the lax rules to do anything about it.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, 249 of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires. That's 47%. For comparison, about 5% of American households are worth more than $1 million.
So much for representation "by the people." And why on earth would Congress change rules that have obviously helped them for decades?
Thankfully, the STOCK Act strengthened financial reporting requirements for members of Congress (along with some of their higher-paid aides). Not only did it eliminate insider trading, but it said Congress must now disclose their trades within 45 days after they happen.
That means we have an opportunity to see exactly what our "representatives" are buying. And we need to know...
In a study cited by Barron's, members of the House of Representatives beat investors like you and me by 55 basis points a month. That comes out to an extra 6.8% per year. I think Barron's said it best...
"To give an indication of what House members' outperformance is worth, investing at the stock market's long-term total return of 10% would mean $10,000 would grow to $25,937 in 10 years. But with their special investment acumen, their 16.8% annual returns would leave them with $47,253 in 10 years."
With that in mind, I decided to dive in and see just exactly what the most popular investments are with Congress...
The 10 Most Popular Stocks in Congress
I'll be honest -- the most popular stocks held by Congress aren't some super-secret investments. They aren't exclusive investments owned only by those in Congress with some inside knowledge of a future breakthrough.
Instead, they're large multinational corporations that make up the bulk of many average investors' portfolios.
I won't keep you in suspense...
This data is provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. The most recent year available was 2011, before the STOCK Act passed.
As I said above, Barron's cited a study that suggests members of Congress post returns much better than average investors.
If their most popular holdings are similar to what many investors own, how is it that Congress can earn such higher returns?
No one can say for sure, but my research is turning up a few clues.
For starters, every single one of these stocks pays a dividend. A 29-year study by Ned Davis Research found that dividend-paying S&P 500 stocks returned 8.6% annually from 1972 through 2011, while non-dividend payers returned just 1.4% annually over the same stretch.
But perhaps a more important thing to note is the length of time that these representatives have held onto these stocks. If you check out the 10 most popular stocks owned by Congress five years ago, eight of them are on the list today. And the two not on the list are in the top 25 today. So is it that members of Congress are just holding on to stocks longer?
That's what I think, but let me explain why...
In 1940, the average holding period for an investment was seven years, according to William Hutchings of the Financial News. By 2007, that period had shrunk to just five days.
But you don't have to trade every day... or every week... or even every year to beat the market. In fact, your success actually increases the fewer trades you make and the longer you hold.
A recent study by mega-investment firm Oppenheimer showed that the S&P 500 has NEVER suffered a loss in a 20-year period (measured in rolling monthly periods), dating all the way back to 1950.
Of course, we all know you can't say the same for holding stocks for a year or two. When you hold stocks for a short period of time, your odds of losing money are much, much higher.
And you can lose a boatload of money in a hurry...
In fact, in its worst one-year period, the S&P 500 dropped 44.8%. No wonder Warren Buffett has always said his favorite holding period is "forever."
I think these shorter holding periods for average investors are hurting their returns.
So yes, it appears Congress is buying many of the same well-known stocks as everyday investors. The difference is, they're holding onto their stocks longer than regular investors.