Researchers Ferret Out Information From White House Visitor Logs
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Earlier this year, as President Trump began to dismantle policies of his predecessor, he decided to change President Obama's policy in making the White House visitor log public. A new study explores what kind of information is in the White House visitor log. Our co-host David Greene sat down with NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to talk about the study.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: Isn't this just a guest list, or is there more to it?
VEDANTAM: Well, there is more to that. I was speaking with Jiekun Huang. He's a finance professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Along with his colleague Jeffrey Brown, Huang compared data from the White House visitor logs from late 2009 to 2015, records of about 2,000 meetings, and matched names on the logs with executives from major companies. Almost immediately, a big correlation jumped out.
JIEKUN HUANG: Following a White House meeting, the company receives more government contracts. And the incremental profits that companies derive amounts to about $30 million for the average company that have a meeting with the White House.
GREENE: Well, Shankar, that doesn't sound like a small thing, I mean, $30 million boost in profit on average after you get a meeting in the White House if you're a company. I mean, that's a lot of money.
VEDANTAM: Yeah. So we don't know whether it's coming from that meeting. All we know is that the financial performance of these companies improves after these meetings. Again, to put it into context, the researchers are looking at companies where information about executives is public.
These are often major companies, you know, billion-dollar companies. So $30 million means a lot less to a billion-dollar company, David, than it does to, you know, you and me. Perhaps more revealing, David, than the dollar amount was the effect of the White House meeting on the stock prices of various companies.
HUANG: We find that the company's stock experienced an increase of about 1 percentage point relative to the market as a whole in the three months following the meetings.
VEDANTAM: Huang told me, David, that one thing that's especially revealing is that meetings with the president as opposed to meetings with other White House staff seem to have the biggest effect both on earnings and on stock prices.
GREENE: OK, so a White House meeting with the company, a company sees a boost in profits and also a boost in stock price. I guess the big question, Shankar, is, is this really a clear cause and effect, or could there be other stuff going on here?
VEDANTAM: So this is the big question. How much of this is causation? How much of this is correlation? You could argue, for example, David, that successful companies are more likely to get White House meetings, or maybe the White House is organizing meetings between executives of big companies and the president ahead of a big deal being announced.
Of course there's also enormous evidence that companies routinely turn political access into private profit, so it's naive to imagine that doesn't happen regularly. One signal that that might be the case here, David, is that Huang says companies that got a lot of meetings at the Obama White House suffered adverse stock returns after Trump became president, which suggests it isn't merely profitable companies that get access to the White House but White House access that's helping the companies score big profits. So when companies lose that access, they suffer financially.
GREENE: All right, Shankar Vedantam, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: He is NPR's social science correspondent. And we should say he's also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain.
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