America, your world is about to get much more Wall Street.
With the selection of Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director, President Trump is bringing Wall Street to Main Street through the door of the White House.
Scaramucci — known on Wall Street as “The Mooch” (affectionately that is) — is charming, loquacious, effusive, combative, single minded, transactional, over the top, and loyal to a fault. He will bring a storm with him — it’s likely the storm Trump wants.
It’s unclear if it’s the storm Trump needs.
Scaramucci brings to the White House not only his smooth style and experience with the international jet set, but also a distinctly Wall Street set of complications. Some of them relate to the White House’s current drama — the Trump family’s connection to Russia.
Aside from that, the business Scaramucci founded, SkyBridge, has yet to finalise its sale to a Chinese firm, HNA.
HNA is a massive conglomerate reaching the end of a years-long buying spree, and it is now under intense scrutiny in China and around the world. The SkyBridge sale must be approved by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as part of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS).
We’ll get to both in a bit.
How a man becomes a Mooch
For years Scaramucci was Wall Street’s unofficial master of ceremonies — the Long Island son of a construction worker who talked and boxed his way through Harvard Law and up the ladders of finance. He bought his firm, SkyBridge, from Citigroup during the depths of the financial crisis and built it into a bridge between financial advisers at firms like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, and the brightest stars of the hedge fund world.
That’s just one aspect of the business. What turned Scaramucci into “The Mooch” was more likely the annual bash SkyBridge throws at the Bellaggio in Las Vegas — the SkyBridge Alternatives Conference (SALT).
It is a Davos-in-the desert gathering of the globalists (Scaramucci is a fixture at the World Economic Forum as well) but with a particular Wall Street flavour of fete. Guests have ranged from Karl Rove to Vice President Joe Biden, from Appaloosa founder David Tepper to former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke — Lenny Kravitz and The Killers have performed.
And so it isn’t hard to imagine a man with this kind of Rolodex stepping into politics. Scaramucci joined the ranks of Republican donors during the Obama administration. He first caught the spotlight after getting in a very public argument with Obama, while voicing his opposition to post-financial crisis regulation on the industry.
He has remained vocal about his opposition to such regulation since. He recently compared a rule meant to force financial advisers to act in the best interest of their clients to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857, which upheld the idea that African American slaves were not citizens. He had to explain, later, that he was talking about bad laws — not trying to claim persecution that compared to slaves, but you still get the point.
Scaramucci backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and in the last election, he switched horses a few times. He joined the Trump campaign in May of 2016 after stints supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Governor Jeb Bush. His aim was to be in a campaign where he could have a central role, and in Trump’s inexperienced operation he was a political veteran.
A man for the storm
In Scaramucci, Trump will find a clear communicator with teeth. He will also find the loyalty he needs.
By way of example, I offer billionaire investor Steve Cohen, founder of the now defunct, but once legendary, hedge fund SAC Capital. SAC, you may recall, was taken down by charges of insider trading.
Cohen no longer manages outside money and was forced him to pay a $US1.2 billion fine.
Scaramucci spoke out in Cohen’s defence until the bitter end. Even after SAC was hit with the insider trading charge, Scaramucci had this to say about his friend:
“…at the end of the day, I like Steve. He’s a friend of mine. I have tried to teach my children and my employees and people around me you stick by your friends when they’re in trouble, and if he’s obviously done something wrong here, hopefully, it gets settled very quickly,” Scaramucci said on CNBC via telephone from his vacation.
Cohen is expected to make a comeback, but no one knew that during the storm. In defending his friend, Scaramucci took a massive risk, and that’s the kind of risk Trump likely wants to see his communications director take for him every day.
Even outside the White House, Scaramucci has used his position as a fixture on Fox News and presence on Twitter to defend the administration — most recently defending Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian government lawyer in June of last year.
Of course, Scaramucci has had to account for his own meetings with Russian figures. At this year’s World Economic Forum, he met with
Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a $US10 billion state-run investment vehicle that was sanctioned by the US government in 2015. At the time, Scaramucci told Russian news outlet TASS that he thought sanctions were ineffective.
This meeting complicated things for Scaramucci’s position in the White House, but he stayed loyal to Trump after his appointment dragged on and on. He wasn’t expected at this year’s SALT in May. It was expected that by this time his firm’s sale would be closed and he would be comfortably in the White House. But there were setbacks — according to reports, Omarosa Manigault stole his office at one point — and The Mooch made it to the Bellaggio to be master of ceremonies once more.
There he reiterated his loyalty to team Trump. But with every mention of the president, his Wall Street guests could only respond with nervous laughter. Wall Streeters do not like uncertainty. They do not like matters that remain unresolved.
Like a rolling stone
And so the lack of resolution to the sale of SkyBridge has had people all over the business talking. That especially after Bloomberg reported that at a sale price around $US180 million, the buyers — China’s HNA and a Venezuelan born banker with ties to Hugo Chavez — were vastly overpaying.
HNA has had a tumultuous few months. The massive conglomerate grew out of the last 5 years of a foreign asset buying spree for Chinese financial firms. Now that spree is over, according to the government, and now that the dust is settling Chinese officials have questions. HNA itself has been caught in a domestic political firestorm.
There are questions about who really owns HNA. There are questions about whether or not it’s safe to do business with them (Bank of America has told clients it won’t). The European Central Bank is investigating its less than 10% stake in Deutsche Bank. Scaramucci’s huge payoff, meanwhile, depends on this same fund closing a deal.
Meanwhile, here at home there is CFIUS. Pursuant to section 721 of the Defence Production Act of 1950, the Treasury must review any transactions that would result in control of a US business by a foreign person.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin will have to sign off on this deal, and it is not a simple one.
There’s also just the fact that this appointment hasn’t come without its own turmoil in the White House. It reportedly prompted Sean Spicer to quit his job as spokesman but also is said to be opposed by other administration insiders.
And there is Russia and the sanctioned fund manager there.
There is already a storm in the White House, and Scaramucci will be adding to it. He’ll be comfortable there.