When CEOs Visit the White House, Their Companies Profit

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/08/why-trump-white-house-visitors-logs-should-public-215116

When the Trump administration announced its plans to stop sharing the White House visitor logs—cutting off the public’s ability to know the people, groups, and interests with access to the president’s advisers—White House communications director Mike Dubke cited “grave national security risks and privacy concerns” as the rationale. Having reviewed years’ worth of White House visitor logs, we agree there are major risks associated with the documents’ release—political ones. Keeping the logs secret makes it more difficult for the American public to know who’s seeking favors from the administration and leveraging the prestige and power of the White House for their own benefit. There is vast power and clout in the White House, and visits by corporate executives to meet with top executive branch officials can result in outsized influence on policy and the extraction of political favors. Precisely how do private companies benefit from access to federal officials? Surprisingly, beyond anecdotal stories, it has been difficult to know; there had been no irrefutable data on how firms’ access to the White House translates into private gains—until now. In the first study of its kind, we used the Obama administration’s White House visitor logs from 2009–2015 to identify 2,286 meetings between federal government officials and corporate executives from S&P 1500 firms. We found that money can buy you greater access to the White House, and that for corporations, that access translated into big returns on Wall Street. Our findings also underlined a simple fact: Without transparency from the Obama administration, we would have never known any of this. And lacking that transparency from the Trump administration, the American people will be left in the dark while many insiders profit from their White House meetings.***Not every corporate executive who visits the White House intends to influence policy, nor are those who try to do so always successful—nor is that even necessarily a bad thing if they do. But the potential that such meetings influence the administration makes a strong case for the public’s right to know who is meeting with senior officials, and what is going on behind the closed doors of White House meeting rooms. Access to policymakers is both highly valuable and difficult to obtain—they have limited time and an almost endless list of people who want to bend their ears. But for major corporate executives, access is increasingly important. Private firms benefit in myriad ways from gaining access to powerful politicos—from winning government contracts, to receiving regulatory relief and influence in political decision-making, to just simply gaining an informational advantage about government plans.In each year between 2009-2015, executives of more than 200 U.S. corporations that at some point have been among the S&P 1500 visited the White House to meet with executive branch officials at least once. Combined, these firms account for about 40 percent of the total market capitalization of the entire S&P 1500.Our study found that corporate executives’ meetings with White House officials were associated with cumulative positive abnormal stock returns of approximately 0.9 percent in the two months immediately following the meetings—a result driven mainly by the strong returns for companies that met directly with the president and his top aides. For multi-billion dollar corporations, this means that a single White House visit by a corporate executive can add hundreds of millions of dollars to shareholder value.Perhaps unsurprisingly, firms that spent more on lobbying and firms that contributed more to Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns were more likely to gain access to his White House. And it’s not simply a matter of large corporations prospering regardless of who’s in control in Washington: We found that following the 2016 election, when partisan control of the White House changed hands, those companies that’d enjoyed access to the Obama White House experienced significantly lower stock returns than otherwise similar companies.Why is access to high-level policymakers so valuable? By again comparing firms with government access to otherwise similar firms with no or lesser access, we found evidence for several different sets of benefits.First, firms with access to the White House received a larger increase in government contracts following their meetings with federal officials than those firms without access. Our back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that on average, this increase in the size of contracts resulted in about $34 million in new profits per year. Simply put, White House access makes government contracts more likely, which, for the corporations involved, means bigger profits.Second, when compared to companies without access, those firms able to obtain White House meetings secure, on average, more favorable regulatory actions (as inferred from the tone of regulatory news). The affected regulatory actions are those focused on specific firms rather than on entire industries. In one notable example of this, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google executives’ frequent visits to the Obama White House were instrumental in the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to drop its antitrust investigation of the company.Third, companies that are privy to the inner workings of the government and the policymaking process may be better able to mitigate political uncertainties and improve corporate decision-making. For instance, firms that rely heavily on exports would be able to invest with more confidence if they have a better sense of the administration’s forthcoming trade pronouncements. Using a measure of political uncertainty created by academic economists, we found that firms whose executives visited the White House became less likely to cut back on investments during periods of heightened policy uncertainty relative to firms that did not visit. This suggests that politically connected firms may be better able to navigate the uncertainty by having better information.It’s obvious corporations benefit when they have political access to the White House. It’s less clear whether the value created for the shareholders of a single firm is also good for the public at large. There are, of course, instances where the public can benefit from these meetings, as executives provide government officials with relevant information that enables policymakers to make better-informed decisions. Still, the potential for quid pro quo exchanges between private firms and government officials, where policy favors are traded for political or personal gains, is real. Even in those cases that don’t rise to an explicit quid pro quo, there’s the possibility that officials are influenced in ways that cause them to behave differently than they otherwise would.For all of these reasons, the public has a right to know with whom White House officials are meeting. The facts of these encounters—who met, when, where, and how many attended, etc. —must be made available so that citizens are aware of the potential issues that might arise from such meetings, positive or negative. Firms see a tangible benefit from these meetings, trading on the power and influence of officials ostensibly working for the benefit of the people of the United States. But the people of the United States should at least have the opportunity to know who’s meeting, and decide for themselves exactly who benefits. The challenge of transparency is that those who are open—those who make information available—put themselves at risk of attack over what is found in that data. Less transparent actors, meanwhile, don’t take the risk of accountability, and the public suffers in the dark as a result.It’s not exactly surprising that campaign contributions and lobbying efforts can open doors in Washington. Nonetheless, the public deserves to know who walks through those doors.

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