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Crack For Wonks

Political prediction markets are usually pretty boring during electoral off-years. When they're not trading on control of the White House and Congress, websites like InTrade and the Iowa Electronic Markets tend to focus on banalities like the movie Twilight's opening box office take or the likelihood of Danny Gokey winning "American Idol," thus alienating their core audience of politicos in favor of the teen demographic. When they do deal with public issues, it's usually an unfulfilling death watch--witness "Will Tim Geithner Be Fired Before 30 June 2009?"--or something so dry that even professional wonks can't get excited about it on a day-to-day basis, like "Will the U.S. Unemployment Rate in December 2009 Be Greater Than 9%?"

Now, thanks to some savvy entrepreneurs, there is hope. The American Civics Exchange has launched a pilot market that predicts big legislative outcomes--such as the passage of card check or cap-and-trade--that folks like us here at TNR track obsessively. What's more, they plan to use this "play money" market as a pilot for an honest-to-god, licensed and regulated commodity futures exchange on which large companies and "individuals with more than $10 million in total assets" can hedge against legislation that may hurt them financially. (They haven't added futures on health care reform yet... maybe they think no one stands to lose?)

To test it out, I bought short positions on 8,706 shares of "CAPTRADE" and 8,333 shares of "CARDCHECK"--meaning that I'm betting neither a cap-and-trade bill nor the Employee Free Choice Act will pass before December 31, 2009. The value of CAPTRADE suggested a 47 percent chance that cap-and-trade will pass this year, but I shorted it because I'm pessimistic: Brad says Congress probably won't go whole-hog on carbon emissions this year. The value of CARDCHECK suggested a 63 percent chance that EFCA will pass this year, but I shorted it because I think there's a card-check bubble: The price increases coincided with new entrants throwing cash into the market, and I think they've bid up shares beyond what's reasonable. Card check will probably hit legislative snags soon enough, reducing confidence and causing the price to drop.

As of Monday evening, both stocks have drooped and I'm up $43,210 in fake cash. Wonk heaven, baby.

[Photo: New York Times Magazine]

--Barron YoungSmith