Well, if Congress won't do it, we, the geek people, will have to instead, it seems.
In the wake of reports last month that four US senators sold stocks shortly after a classified briefing on January 24 about the risk posed by the novel coronavirus, Timothy Carambat, a mechanical and software engineer, created a website to make stock sales by every senator more visible.
In an email to The Register, Carambat, who runs a design firm based in Covington, Louisiana, called Industrial Object, explained he was motivated to create Senate Stock Watcher after news broke that Senators Richard Burr (R-NC), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) had dumped stocks before most people in America understood the implications of the outbreak. It is illegal for senators to buy and sell shares using non-public information.
Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been sued for alleged securities fraud, a charge he has denied. It is said he unloaded up to $1.7m in stocks in mid-February, particularly in hotel groups that would be later hit hard by the virus pandemic, all while receiving daily confidential briefings about the impact of the bio-nasty – and reassuring the public everything would be fine.
"As public servants, there are some senators making alarmingly large money movements at what would seem to be very fortunate timing in the market," Carambat said.
"I understand some senators were previously very accomplished businesspeople, but in my opinion, the level of access they have to information currently is highly privileged and it would only make sense to keep their own financial best interests at heart."
Details about the stock sales in news reports prompted Carambat to look into the source of the data, which turned out to be the US Senate Financial Disclosures website.
"An initial query for data pre-dating the 'quarantine market crash' shows a slew of senators filing Periodic Trading Reports (PTR’s)," said Carambat.
"Sometimes these filings are scanned PDFs, but some are just HTML tables. Each PTR table shows the trade data, ticker, trade dollar range, and any comments. I was blown away by the data but clicking through each PTR report just simply isn’t reasonable and the data is all there."
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So Carambat decided to create a website to make the data easier to access and understand. This was last Sunday, and about four hours later, he'd put together a working version. He said he assumed it would be like other online experiments, attracting a few hundred visitors before being forgotten.
However, Senate Stock Watcher has elicited rather more attention than he expected. Carambat said his posts about the project on various Reddit forums have been well received.
The website has seen at least 125,000 page views over the past week, mostly in the past few days. Carambat acknowledges that's not a lot compared to popular commercial websites but says it's considerably more than the 200 or so he usually sees in total for a personal project.
"I was elated to have made something people were using and loving," he said, noting the irony in the fact that the most popular project he has made has been the least complicated.
The software behind it all, he said, is a simple web application, and the data is collected by a traditional Python web scraper, a tool he has built quite often. "Scraping is done at the close of business every day of the week (1700 EST)," he said. "The website is hosted on Amazon Web Services in an S3 Bucket as a static site and distributed via CloudFront."
The Register asked whether any additional features are planned, such as a way to report suspected insider trading activity directly to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Carambat said he's not a financial trader and doesn't feel qualified to implement an automated violation reporting system, but he said he'd be open to hearing from potential collaborators who have ideas for improvements.
He added that he is looking at building more analysis dashboards, to provide weekly, monthly, and per-senator reviews, if possible.
"I am not a broker, nor am I qualified to make any kind of inference on this data," he said. "I simply present this data in a user friendly format and I urge the user to simply use it for information and not as a 'stock tip.'" ®