Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed another scalp in her fight against the finance industry’s influence on Washington last week.
After years on the warpath against Wall Street, the Massachusetts Democrat set her sights on the left-leaning Brookings Institution. She accused Robert Litan, a Brookings scholar and former Clinton-administration economist, of being a shill for the mutual-fund company that funded his research criticizing the Obama administration’s plan to regulate investment firms. Though Litan claimed that the company, Capital Group, had no influence on his findings, Brookings sought and received his resignation just hours later.
Warren’s push to purge Wall Street money from D.C.’s think tanks is more selective than it seems. The senator maintains a cozy relationship with Better Markets, a Washington, D.C.–based 501(c)3 organization funded almost exclusively by multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager Michael Masters. The hedge funder’s advocacy group is so tight with progressives’ favorite senator that the two often operate as a united front in the fight for stricter financial regulations — Better Markets’s stake in the finance industry notwithstanding.
Some see a serious conflict of interest in the Masters-funded push for financial reform. While Better Markets tirelessly lobbied lawmakers and regulators to tighten the screws on financial firms, Masters’s hedge fund held hundreds of millions of dollars in call options for many of the same companies. If Masters had sold the companies’ stocks short — and the presence of the call options strongly suggests he might have — he could use Better Markets’s advocacy to promote rules that would drive down their prices and drive up his profits.
By failing to adequately disclose its relationship with Masters to lawmakers, observers say Better Markets is doing exactly what Warren accused Brookings of doing — covertly taking money from a finance-industry player to influence regulators with the power to approve policies from which that player can earn huge profits.
“It’s a huge conflict of interest,” says Jill Sommers, a former commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) who was appointed by President Obama to a second term in 2009. “I can just generally say it is unprecedented.”
“I think it’s outrageous,” says a former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) counsel with knowledge of congressional finance committees, who requested anonymity. “From a congressional perspective, it certainly violates the spirit of disclosure laws.”
Better Markets openly lists Masters as its founder and chairman, but the group’s IRS 990 forms show that Masters also essentially bankrolls its entire operation. Through his charity, The Spring Foundation, Masters donated the group’s entire $3 million operating budget in 2010, 2011, and 2013. It’s unclear where Better Markets got its $3 million budget in 2012.
The Spring Foundation’s cash comes directly from Masters’s hedge fund, The Marlin Fund. A 2011 profile explains how Masters typically turns over 70 percent of the fund’s portfolio in six months or less, relying on behavioral finance to identify “triggers” that will move mispriced stocks. These triggers include investor anxiety over political events such as wars, credit crises, and financial rules proposed or enacted by federal regulators.
Warren’s push to purge Wall Street money from DC’s think tanks is more selective than it seems.
It’s that last trigger that Better Markets might be in a position to influence, given that the nonprofit often advocates for financial regulations affecting companies in which The Marlin Fund is invested. In a March 25, 2015, hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Better Markets president Dennis Kelleher told Elizabeth Warren that MetLife and other large insurance companies should be classified as “systemically important financial institutions,” a designation that mandates heavy federal control, imposes additional costs on the firms, and keep down stock prices. On May 22, Better Markets filed an amicus brief supporting the government’s designation of MetLife as “systemically important.”
But Kelleher did not disclose to lawmakers that The Marlin Fund held $50 million in call options on MetLife at the time of the March hearing, and another $775 million in call options on Prudential and Citigroup, two insurance companies also affected by the designation. And the hedge fund held call options totaling $60 million in MetLife, $85 million in Prudential, and $278 million in Citigroup when it filed its amicus brief in support of the rule change.
#share#The large number of call options is a sign that Masters may have been “short selling” these insurance stocks, hoping to make a profit on a decline in share price. With Better Markets working to convince lawmakers to maintain onerous regulations on large insurance companies, The Marlin Fund could bet that MetLife’s, Prudential’s, and Citigroup’s stock prices would fall. But that, by itself, is a risky strategy — if the price of a short-sold stock unexpectedly rises, the losses could theoretically be unlimited. Call options, which give the holder the option to buy a stock at a predetermined price, would work as a “hedge” against an unforeseen price increase — allowing The Marlin Fund to limit any potential losses from its bets against the insurance companies.
Even if Masters wasn’t actually short selling the stocks, it’s troubling that Better Markets never disclosed its benefactor’s economic stake in the affected companies. “If you testify before Congress, you have to sign a form that certifies you don’t have a financial interest in whatever you’re discussing,” says the former SEC counsel. “It may not be direct — [Kelleher] isn’t the holder of those call options. But his sole source of income was. So it’s a classic conflict of interest.”
Better Markets was in a strong position to influence the rule-making process. Though it was only founded in 2010, the group has quickly become a key player in the regulatory battles wracking the finance industry after the 2008 economic crisis. Sommers says that the nonprofit “testified on practically every roundtable [the CFTC] had on implementing Dodd-Frank,” and Kelleher remains a frequent panelist in Capitol Hill hearings on financial rulemaking.
The relationship between Elizabeth Warren and Better Markets is a close one. Warren was the keynote speaker at one of the group’s meetings in 2013 and wrote a testimonial on their website lauding them as “strong partners in the fight to level the playing field for middle-class families.” Better Markets, in turn, often operates as a high-profile surrogate cheerleader for Warren’s crusades. When journalists look to give the senator’s point of view in a story, they often turn to Kelleher as a source.
While Warren attacks Brookings for taking finance-industry money, she’s remained silent on Better Markets — something the former SEC counsel sees as a double standard.
While Warren attacks Brookings for taking finance-industry money, she’s remained silent on Better Markets — something the former SEC counsel sees as a double standard. “I think it’s very analogous, it’s the same thing [as Brookings’s relationship with Capital Group],” he says. “It’s an undisclosed financial arrangement.”
Neither Warren nor Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, responded to National Review’s request for comment on Better Markets’ potential conflict of interest. And Banking Committee chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) seemed unaware of Better Markets’ connection to The Marlin Fund. “Senator Shelby believes that all witnesses before the Senate Banking Committee should be forthcoming regarding their affiliations and whether they create any conflicts of interest,” Shelby spokeswoman Torrie Matous says.
“I can’t imagine that members of Congress know about any of this, or surely they wouldn’t keep asking [Better Markets staff] to testify,” says Sommers, the former CFTC commissioner.
Kelleher, however, says Congress should automatically know about Better Markets’ business connections. “Who in the world doesn’t know Mike Masters is our primary funder?” he says. “I don’t think you should denigrate lawmakers’ ability to know widely available facts.”
Kelleher also rejects concerns over his organization’s ties to The Marlin Fund. “The stock market doesn’t care about what Dennis Kelleher is going to say two and a half hours into a three-hour hearing,” he says. “The entire premise is based on the idea that what I have to say can move the stock market. That is objectively, provably false.”
But others pushed back on Kelleher’s characterization. “One comment on a hearing, of course, is not going to move markets,” the former SEC counsel says. “But if the regulators ultimately do what [Kelleher’s] suggesting they do, that would move the markets. So his comment is completely beside the point.”
And Sommers says these concerns have swirled around Masters for years. “Mike Masters himself, probably seven or eight years ago, was testifying frequently in front of Congress with regards to speculation in the commodities markets,” she says. “And it was always an allegation that he was shorting the stocks of those companies while he was testifying on Capitol Hill.”
She believes some of Better Markets’s activities today look like an extension of that strategy. “It does seem to be pretty self-serving, that the issues they tackle seem to be issues that [Masters] personally profits from,” she says. “I mean, it doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter at National Review.