Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been reprimanded by federal ethics officials for failing to sell individual stocks that he had agreed to divest within three months of his confirmation (he was confirmed in February 2017), creating "the potential for a serious criminal violation." Claiming that he had forgotten about the remainder of his stake, Ross earned himself an additional 15% return when he finally cashed out of his remaining Invesco shares as equity prices continued to rise after his confirmation. As part of his ethics agreement, Ross pledged to divest his Invesco holdings and other equities within 90 days of his confirmation, and more complex assets within 180 days, according to Bloomberg.
Then again, perhaps investors should interpret Ross's decision to finally sell as a warning, given that one of the men in charge of the US economy has sold the rest of his stocks and is buying Treasury bonds - hardly an encouraging indicator for the economy.
In fact, Ross hasn't just sold stocks - in some cases, he's gone short, saying that he's shorted shares of holdings to which he doesn't have access. Ross has reportedly taken short positions in five stocks.
Ross shorted shares of Navigator Holdings Inc., a company in which he owns a $250,000 stake, even though he wasn't required to under his ethics agreement after he found out the New York Times was readying a story about his holdings in the company.
Ross defended the lapse by arguing that he has many complex investments and that it's difficult to keep track of them all. Ethics officer David Apol said Ross's negligence "may have negatively affected" public trust in the administration. Apol also faulted Ross for the short sales.
Ross defended himself in a statement. "My investments were complex and included hundreds of items," he said, adding that he "self-reported" his errors, and worked with Commerce’s ethics office to avoid conflicts. Ross said that to restore public trust, he would sell equities he was allowed to retain under his ethics agreement and place the proceeds in U.S. Treasury securities.
Ross also sold between $20 million and $50 million worth of Invesco shares last December, about eight months after he had promised to divest them, explaining that he mistakenly believed the holdings had already been sold. The shares increased in value by 15.5 percent in the interim.
Invesco, an investment management company, acquired Ross’s company, WL Ross & Co. LLC. in 2006.
In reports filed with OGE, Ross also disclosed late sales of at least $250,000 worth of stock in Greenbrier Companies Inc. and $1,000 in Sun Bancorp Inc. in December, and at least $50,000 in Air Lease Corp. in June, long after he was supposed to divest them. In each case, Ross explained he had been unaware that he still held the assets.
Ross received a 90-day extension beyond a May 15 deadline to file his financial disclosure for 2017. Apol urged the Commerce secretary to "devote the resources necessary" to ensure the report is accurate, and avoid "any self-help" remedies in future attempts to comply with ethics rules.
Ross disclosed assets worth at least $336 million ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing. He's believed to have a net worth of $860 million. But Ross has not only retained his investment in Navigator, which some lawmakers said raised a "clear" conflict of interest, he's also retained investments in private-equity investments mostly tied to foreign property markets. Given the character of his investments, it's probably prudent for investors to ask themselves: 'Why is he selling now'? And 'what does he know that I don't?
Read the ethics officer's letter below: