NEW YORK—Anthony Scaramucci, the newly appointed White House Communications Director, has the hair and wardrobe of a stock-photo businessman, a nickname too absurd to stick with anyone else (“the Mooch”), and a fortune made from hawking high-cost, low-performance investments to ordinary people who don’t need them.
His appointment Friday may have been a surprise to White House staff. But Scaramucci landing a high-profile Trump administration job is what what a sociologist might call “overdetermined.” He was blocked from becoming the administration’s public liaison and had slotted into a minor role at the Ex-Im Bank. Trump reportedly loved him on T.V., and was smitten that Scaramucci forced CNN to retract a story that said Scaramucci was being investigated for a meeting with an official at a Russian investment fund.
Three journalists resigned in the wake of that retraction. And Papa Trump wasn’t the only one impressed. Don Jr. “loves Mooch,” a White House advisor told the Daily Beast. “All the kids do.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
To understand the love, and really Scaramucci himself, you have to understand who he is on Wall Street. Like Trump, he is a press-seeking opportunist who created an outsized image for himself in his industry. Beyond the finance press, he gets called a financier and a banker, or a hedge fund manager. He is definitely not a hedge fund manager, though he probably doesn’t resent the implication of wealth and power that comes with such a description. Scaramucci is a salesman; or, even more specifically, a mascot for a whole class of salesmen. He’s a carnival barker for finance – looked down on for being just a bit too self-promotional, but broadly accepted and appreciated for the part he plays in defending the world of finance.
When then President Obama said in 2009 that banks that took taxpayer bailouts shouldn’t party in Las Vegas, Wall St. fumed and Scaramucci started hosting what is now a well-attended boondoggle there out of a sense of spite and promotional opportunity.
What Scaramucci was promoting, besides himself, was his company, Skybridge Capital. Skybridge is a hedge fund of funds. Scaramucci is in the hedge fund industry, but he's not a hedge fund manager. To anyone outside the industry, that can sound like hairsplitting, but it's the difference between selling rental cars and being the CEO of Ford. Scaramucci doesn't make stock picks and he doesn't trade. Skybridge takes investments in a bunch of different hedge funds, which are available only to institutions like pensions and endowments or exceedingly rich people, and repackages them so the merely ordinarily rich can invest in them. In effect, he's taken investment funds other people have already made, combines them and resells them with lower minimum investments requirements. Hedge funds, of course, have insanely high costs – the classic fee structure is 2 percent of assets and 20 percent of investment returns, which is several dozen times more expensive than readily available index funds. It’s unclear what that extra cost really buys, besides hedge fund managers’ Hampton’s estates. In fact, hedge funds have been underperforming the market for years.
Funds of funds like Scaramucci’s make money taking these high-cost, underperforming investments and add another layer of fees. But there’s another twist: the fund of funds pitch is that hedge funds aren’t just for the super-rich, they’re for what the industry calls the “mass affluent.” That’s really what makes funds of funds such a grift: it takes an already expensive, under-performing Wall St product, makes it more expensive and sells it to more people. It’s hard to overstate how little real need there is for this.
“It frequently takes a good sales job and publicity to entice people to invest in such a thing,” journalist Helaine Olen, the author of Pound Foolish, a book about the personal financial advice industry, wrote in an email to the Daily Beast.
And because of that need for sales and publicity, Scaramucci made himself an almost permanent, affable fixture on CNBC in the years following the financial crisis. But he wasn’t content merely to appear on other peoples’ shows. So he bought the rights to a then-dormant show called “Wall Street Week” for an undisclosed sum from Maryland Public Television. He then got Fox Business to relaunch the venerable show, poached a veteran CNBC producer to run it (angering CNBC executives) and made himself co-host. He did this all, despite having a contract to appear on CNBC, which also had an exclusive deal to broadcast his conference.
On “Wall Street Week,” which is prefaced with the disclaimer that it is “paid for and presented by Skybridge Media,” Scaramucci and his co-host chatted amiably with largely unknown guests and delivered the occasional softball interview to big names such as former Fed chair Ben Bernanke. Like his voluminous CNBC appearances, he came across as a market novice’s idea of a market expert. Scaramucci can talk smoothly about almost any topic in financial markets, tossing in some jargon without mixing in much substance. As finance writer Felix Salmon memorably put it: “he’s not a stock-picker, or even, really, a hedge-fund manager: he just plays one on TV.” (Disclosure: I worked for Salmon, though not when that piece was published.)
Scaramucci was not happy with that description and let Salmon know it. “Angry Mooch is always off the record,” Salmon, wrote after Friday’s news, “But I can assure you that it’s a force to behold. Trump, a fighter, surely sees and admires that trait in his new hire.”
A bit of that anger popped up when Scaramucci talked about an Obama administration rule that sought, in a roundabout way, to steer people saving for retirement away from the sorts of high-cost investments that he, Scaramucci sells. The rule, which said that any broker advising a retirement saver had to act in their client’s best interest, is “like the Dred Scott decision,” Scaramucci said at a conference in October. He claimed afterwards in an email to a reporter that he made the comparison to the Supreme Court case denying African-Americans citizenship because “the left-leaning Department of Labor has made a decision to discriminate against a class of people who they deem to be adding no value.” Scaramucci promised that a Trump administration would undo the rule. Sure enough, that effort is underway.
As Scaramucci has veered further into the political arena, he’s confronted the same problems Trump has: not just to sand down those rhetorical rough edges but the need to create some separation from his business. In January, Scaramucci struck a deal to sell Skybridge for around $200 million to HNA Group, a Chinese airline, real estate and finance conglomerate, and RON Transatlantic, a U.S. investment firm. He will personally make about $100 million when the deal closes and because of his role in the Trump administration, he will be able to defer any capital gains taxes he’d normally pay from the sale. This is a tax advantage that exists for executive branch employees selling off assets to comply with ethics law
HNA, however, is a potentially problematic buyer. The company has been on a U.S. purchasing spree with recent investments in Hilton Hotels, CIT’s airplane leasing business, and chip-maker Ingram Micro, each of which was approved by U.S. regulators. But a New York Times investigation into HNA’s “murky ownership and a complex array of affiliates” showed a “systemic pattern” of executives striking deals and transferring ownership among friends and family.
Scaramucci’s sale was slated to be finalized by June 30. Now, spokesmen for Skybridge and HNA, and Reggie Love, a partner and vice president at RON Transatlantic and former aide to President Obama, tell the Daily Beast they expect the deal to be completed by the end of the summer. Love said HNA are “world-class investors” who could help continue to grow Skybridge’s brand and business. “From what I can tell, everyone's petty happy,” he said.
Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China newsletter, said HNA may have done the Skybridge deal before it became clear Scaramucci was in the running for a job in the Trump administration, “but now, with him as a senior official, the optics at least of him taking tens of millions of dollars from HNA are terrible.” A source with knowledge of the transaction said there were no Chinese regulatory hurdles to the deal, but Bishop said he “would not be surprised though if Beijing is not comfortable with his deal now and may try to pressure HNA to find an out.”
Domestically, the deal is subject to approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. That committee should give Scaramucci a bit less trouble. It is headed by Treasury Secretary, and now Trump administration colleague, Steven Mnuchin.