The highlight of Wall Street’s charitable year comes early every May when several thousand power suits sit down in midtown Manhattan for a banquet that celebrates the generosity of America’s financial industry elite.
This year’s gathering, emceed this past Monday by newscaster Katie Couric and serenaded by the balladeer Usher, did plenty of celebrating. The $61 million the evening raised, gushed the top exec of the gala’s sponsoring foundation, demonstrates that high finance’s finest “know they’ve been blessed by good fortune” and “want to be generous to others.”
But not too generous, as the number-crunchers at Alpha magazine made plain the very next morning when they released their annual look at the financial industry’s 25 top-paid hedge fund managers.
Numero uno on the latest Alpha list: the 47-year-old Ken Griffin, one of the many hedge fund chiefs at Monday’s charity gala. In 2015, Griffin personally collected $1.7 billion from his hedge fund labors.
Griffin took home the equivalent of $142 million per month last year. His average monthly compensation more than doubled the “generous” $61 million the financial industry’s entire elite donated to charity at its biggest annual philanthropic blowout.
We don’t know how much of that $61 million Griffin himself contributed. But we do know from various press reports quite a bit about the hedge fund king’s spending habits over the past year.
This past September, Griffin shelled out $200 million for three floors in a new Manhattan luxury condo and then $60 million more for an eight-bedroom penthouse in Miami. He also paid $300 million for a Willem de Kooning painting and another $200 million for a Jackson Pollock. On the domestic front, he settled a “nasty divorce” that saw his ex demand $1 million a month for child support.
Griffin had no problem whatsoever affording all of this largess. His total fortune now sits at $7.5 billion — and he’s doing his best to make sure busybody lawmakers don’t do anything that might shrink it.
In last year’s Chicago mayoralty election, Griffin ended up the biggest donor to rich people-friendly incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel. Griffin, a self-described “Reagan Republican,” went on to donate $3 million more to the unsuccessful White House bids of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker.
Hedge fund billionaires have one particularly obvious reason to care deeply about what happens in the political world. They all owe a substantial chunk of their fortunes to the “carried interest” loophole, a federal tax provision that lets fund managers pay taxes on most of their incomes at just a 23.8 percent rate, not the 39.6 rate that applies to standard income in America’s highest-income bracket.
But hedge fund managers have far more reason to care about politics than carried interest. The phenomenal success of the entire hedge fund industry rests almost totally on the political choices lawmakers have chosen to make over the past four decades.
State and federal lawmakers have spent most of those years cutting back tax rates on the rich and slashing away at government spending on public services. Both these choices have turbocharged the hedge fund boom.
The tax cuts on high incomes have left the wealthy with oodles of extra cash sloshing around in their pockets, much more cash than they could possibly ever spend on creature comforts. The hedge fund industry has aggressively gone after all this extra cash, offering the rich exotic new investment vehicles that promise wealthy investors lusciously high returns.
Private banks and other financial industry institutions have gone after that extra cash, too. But hedge funds — entities designed to service only deep-pocket investors — have a built-in advantage. Hedge funds face virtually no government regulation.
Why the regulatory hands off? Most hedge funds require at least a $500,000 minimum investment, and anyone who can afford to buy into a hedge fund, the argument goes, rates as a sophisticated investor who doesn’t need to be protected.
That stance leaves hedge fund managers free to plow dollars into “nontraditional” investment schemes that can deliver to hedge fund investors jackpots unimaginable to average investors. Big jackpots, in turn, attract more deep-pocket investors. Overall hedge fund investment has ballooned from $539 billion in 2001 to $2.9 trillion last year.
These trillions invested in hedge funds cascade billions into the pockets of hedge fund managers. Ken Griffin and his fellow hedgies typically charge investors a fee that amounts to 2 percent of whatever funds they manage — and another 20 percent of whatever profits their managing makes.
Meanwhile, over in the public sector, tax cuts for the rich have unleashed a different dynamic. These tax cuts leave state and local elected officials chronically short of cash. All public services suffer in the resulting inevitable squeeze. The pension funds for public employees may suffer the most.
Year by year, local and state governments contribute to these pension funds less and less. The pension funds have to make up for these lower contributions. Their typical strategy? They start looking at riskier investments that offer the hope of higher investment returns. They start looking at hedge funds.
A generation ago, no public pension fund dollars went into hedge funds. Hedge funds today draw nearly 10 percent of their investment capital from public pension funds. In other words, tax cuts for the rich have triggered a chain of events that has left just about the richest of our contemporary rich — hedge fund managers — colossally richer.
Exactly how much richer? Over the past 15 years, the hedge funders who have appeared on Alpha’s annual top 25 list have waltzed off with $192.5 billion. In 2015, the top 25 pulled down an average $517.6 million each.
But that average has actually been falling, down from $1.01 billion in 2009. The hedge fund golden era, notes a recent Reuters analysis, has probably passed.
Hedge fund managers are no longer delivering big payouts for their clients. They seem to have picked most all the low-hanging high-return fruit. In fact, in 2015, hedge funds overall actually lost a bit more than 1 percent on the dollars they invested.
Yet hedge fund managers themselves, as the latest Alpha figures show, are still doing remarkably well. Consider, for instance, Leda Braga of Systematica Investments, the only woman in the hedge fund manager top 50. Braga finished 2015 a distant 44th in the hedge fund pay sweepstakes. Her compensation: $60 million, over twice the take-home of 2015’s top Wall Street banker.
Some wealthy investors and struggling pension funds appear to be getting tired of bankrolling hedge fund manager fortunes and often getting back nothing in return. Some investors are yanking their investments out of hedge funds. But most deep pockets are staying put. They have “few safe places” to take their money, as Reuters notes, what with “stocks at relatively expensive levels and many bonds yielding little to nothing.”
So the hedge fund golden age may be passing, but the hedge fund gravy train is still rolling along — and will continue to roll until we break the vicious cycle of tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for the public services that average Americans rely on.
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits Inequality.org. His most recent book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900–1970 (Seven Stories Press). Follow him on Twitter @Too_Much_Online.