The emergence of Sandy Weill, the American financier who drove a coach and horses through the Glass-Steagall banking restrictions Act, as an advocate of breaking up the super-banks into separate investment banking and utility banking units, was something of a Damascene moment.
Glass-Steagall is the law that limited the investing risks banks could take.
As the person responsible for merging Citibank with Travelers, a broadly-based financial group, Weill is credited with breaking down the traditional barriers between the previously “Wasp-controlled” commercial banks, such as Citi, and the traditionally Jewish-run investment banking and trading community.
In his New York office at Citigroup he proudly displayed a plaque declaring: “The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall.”
However, in the American political system, it is one thing advocating change and quite another forcing it through. We were reminded of this when US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited London late last month for an Olympic stop on his way to Poland and Israel, as he sought to bolster his foreign credentials, and at the same time pander to some important voters at home.
Among the events he attended when in London was a fundraising operation organised by supporters at Barclays bank, owner of the former Lehman Brothers investment banking operation in New York, that at the last count was the eighth biggest donor to the Romney campaign.
Political giving is a way of life in the United States and it buys the donors enormous clout.
In the current campaign, Wall Street is coming out in force for Romney. As a former private equity kingpin at Bain Capital, the financial community sees Romney as one of their own, despite his slightly exotic Mormon background. The Centre for Responsive Politics in Washington DC has discovered that donors working for Goldman Sachs top his list with $636,000 worth of gifts.
The switch by Goldman, from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012, might well be seen as the investment bank picking what it considers to be winners. Another interpretation is that Goldman is disappointed with the incumbent administration.
In 2010, as a result of a civil action brought by the Securities & Exchange Commission, Goldman was fined $550,000 for misleading investors (they included the Royal Bank of Scotland). Moreover, tighter Wall Street controls, through the Volcker rule, is making proprietary trading more difficult and cramping the aggressive Goldman trading model.
Goldman is far from being the only Wall Street house backing Romney. Others include JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Credit Suisse. Because of the restrictions on corporate donations, big commerce uses “bundlers” — organisers — whose job it is to gather together individual donations of $2,500 to create substantial sums.
Not all the cash is flowing directly into Romney’s coffers. The legendary casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who now derives much of his income from Macau, has reportedly made several million dollars available to Republican candidates, at all levels, to campaign against President Obama’s approach to the Middle East.
At a time when Wall Street, including the investment banks, look to be heading back towards their traditional Republican roots, the Obama campaign is having to look elsewhere for its support. As has so often been the case in the past, it is looking to billionaires that tend to support liberal causes — several of them drawn from the Jewish community.
Among the big Democratic donors is the Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg, who has donated $100,000 directly to the a political action group Priorities USA Action. His past and present support looks to have paid off in terms of access and he has been at the White House three times since Obama took office. Another big donor is Penny Pritzer, scion of the Chicago-based Hyatt Hotel family, who has been a guest at the White House no less than 40 times and reportedly has raised $100,000 for the current campaign from family and friends. She joins some of America’s most famous financiers including George Soros, a backer of Obama since his 2004 Senate race.
The most celebrated US investor of all, Warren Buffett, who bought the Israeli tool-making company Iscar in 2006, is also in the Obama camp. Buffett, who is not Jewish, has been a great friend of the community in Omaha investing money on its behalf having forged a relationship over bridge with a now wealthily-retired Rabbi.
One of Obama’s biggest supporters is the Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who is best known as the founder of Fox Family Worldwide that was eventually sold to Walt Disney for $5.3 billion. In the current campaign, Saban has donated an estimated $1 billion to the Obama-backed super political action committee, PAC Unity 2012.
Despite Romney’s private equity background, hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, whose son works in the White House and is a friend and supporter of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is also a big Obama supporter. Forbes magazine reports that Lasry held a $40,000-a-head dinner for Obama at his New York home raising $200,000 in one evening.
In the American political system fundraising is everything. And while the Republican candidates were fighting it out among themselves through most of the winter and spring, President Obama was accumulating a massive war-chest estimated at $100 millions. It has not been a wasted resource. No sooner had Romney emerged as the Republican candidate than Obama and the Democrats went on the attack.
Friends on Wall Street told me some months ago that the Democrats, with the support of Obama, have invested heavily in tracing every aspect of Romney’s financial career discovering that he is among the richest person ever to win the nomination with a net worth estimated at $250 million and accumulated through private equity.
Romney is winning the support of Wall Street but how popular that will be in the wake of the “Occupy” movements is questionable.
Obama’s Hollywood donors look less toxic but they will be anxious to swing the President behind the currently halted campaign to stop piracy on the internet.
Alex Brummer is City Editor the Daily Mail and author of Britain for Sale