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Scaramucci brings Wall Street pitchman skills to White House
[NEW YORK] Anthony Scaramucci, the Trump administration's just-hired communications director, has a lot in common with his new boss.
Both made it in Manhattan after coming from the city's outskirts. Both enjoy the limelight, attracting attention by writing books and hosting TV shows. And both are best known within their industries for their salesmanship.
A financier with no formal public relations experience may seem like an odd choice for President Donald Trump's top spokesman.
But Mr Scaramucci is a networker, not a trader. A frequent presence on on business television, he's the glad-handing host of an annual conference in Las Vegas where some of Wall Street's biggest names mingle with political notables like Joe Biden and Ben Bernanke.
The firm he founded, SkyBridge Capital, gathers money from investors and hands it over to other hedge funds to manage. He's known on the street by the affectionate nickname "The Mooch".
Mr Scaramucci's pitch for SkyBridge was that he could get moderately well-off people into the same hedge funds as the ultra-wealthy, for a small fee. He was persuasive enough to attract almost US$12 billion in assets. Now he's taking the sales skills he learned on Wall Street to the White House, where he'll have to manage a Washington press corps that's largely turned hostile and sell an unpopular agenda to the American people.
"He's a great communicator and very charismatic, although he's stereotyped as kind of a salesman," said Robert Wolf of 32 Advisors in New York, a former senior executive at UBS Group AG and a Democratic fundraiser who was close to President Barack Obama.
"People underestimate how very smart he is."
At Mr Scaramucci's debut at the White House on Friday, the contrast between the slick financier and outgoing press secretary Sean Spicer was apparent. Mr Scaramucci, wearing a well-fitting blue suit, deflected any probing questions, made self-deprecating jokes about his vanity and height and confidently declared his "love" for the president several times. He said his job would be to let Trump be himself.
"I think he's got some of the best political instincts in the world, and perhaps in history," he said.
Mr Scaramucci spoke as if Mr Trump was listening, addressing him directly at one point. He praised the president's athleticism, claiming to have seen him throw a football through a tire with a "dead spiral" and to sink foul shots at Madison Square Garden in formal attire. He adopted some of Mr Trump's adjectives, like "tremendous" and "phenomenal" - even a "huge" that sounded as if it started with a Y.
Mr Scaramucci, 53, grew up in Port Washington, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, about 10 miles from Mr Trump's boyhood home in Jamaica Estates. His father worked at a sand and gravel company and his mother kept house. After Tufts University in Massachusetts and Harvard Law School, Mr Scaramucci got a job at Goldman Sachs, where he floundered as an investment-banking analyst, got fired, then re-hired and thrived as a stock salesman.
"He was very hungry, and I thought he could shine in an area where he could use his people skills," his former boss at Goldman, Michael Fascitelli, told Bloomberg in 2011.
Mr Scaramucci left Goldman to start a hedge fund, sold it, then founded SkyBridge in 2005. It's a fund-of-funds, meaning rather than manage money itself, the firm picks hedge funds for investors. It takes a fee on top of those charged by the underlying hedge funds.
The business model has fallen out of favour due to high fees and poor performance. SkyBridge's multi-strategy fund has lagged the S&P 500, whether the comparison is over the past year, three years, five years or 10 years. It has gained about 6 per cent annualised since inception - less than half as much as the stock-market index.
Like Mr Trump, Mr Scaramucci is relatively new to politics, and has given money to both parties. He met with Mr Obama in early 2008 and agreed to raise money for his former Harvard Law classmate, according to Politico.
But by 2010, he'd became a spokesman for Wall Street grievances against the Obama administration, complaining to the president in a televised town hall-style meeting that "we have felt like a piñata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."
As Mr Scaramucci was channelling the Wall Street backlash, he was growing rich. He acquired a fund-of-funds business from Citigroup, adding US$1.6 billion in assets. He appeared in a CNBC special called "Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super-Rich".
While Mr Obama complained about financial "fat cats", Mr Scaramucci started Salt, a lavish annual conference in Vegas that became a celebrity-packed schmoozefest. In 2015, he opened the Hunt & Fish Club NYC, a Midtown Manhattan steakhouse adorned with 55,000 pounds of marble.
By the time Mr Obama ran for re-election, Mr Scaramucci was boasting he was "one of the top raisers" for Republican contender Mitt Romney and rubbing elbows with fellow members of the Koch brothers' elite conservative donor network.
When it comes to public policy, Mr Scaramucci has been a reliable advocate for Wall Street. After Mr Trump attacked hedge-fund managers' tax breaks on the campaign trail, Mr Scaramucci called it "anti-American".
And he's passionate opponent of the Obama era's so-called fiduciary rule, which requires brokers to work in their client's best interests when advising on retirement products.
Mr Scaramucci has warned the rule would "put financial advisers out of work". At a conference last year, he compared it to the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied black Americans citizenship.
As the Republican presidential contest kicked off in 2015, Mr Scaramucci dismissed Mr Trump as a "hack politician" and a bully and called him "an inherited money dude from Queens County".
But his preferred candidates, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, both fizzled. Once Mr Trump sewed up the nomination, Mr Scaramucci became an energetic fundraiser and ubiquitous on-air ally.
Shortly after Election Day, Mr Scaramucci put his stake in SkyBridge on the auction block while negotiating for a position in the new administration.
The transition from Wall Street to Washington proved more fraught than he'd bargained for. In January, Mr Scaramucci showed up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, telling reporters he'd joined the administration as an assistant to the president. At the same time, he announced a deal to sell SkyBridge.
But the White House job evaporated days later, after media reports in the New York Times and Bloomberg highlighted the identities of the SkyBridge buyers: A politically connected Chinese conglomerate, and a little-known investment fund linked to a Venezuelan-born banker who'd once worked closely with the Hugo Chavez regime. Analysts called the price tag high; Mr Scaramucci's 45 per cent stake was valued at about US$80 million.
After reports Mr Scaramucci would be appointed ambassador to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, he got a lower-profile job at the US Export-Import Bank. He remained a loyal advocate for Mr Trump on TV before another shot at the White House materialised this week.
He has yet to complete the sale of his firm; originally expected to close as early as May, it's still awaiting clearance by US national-security officials, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
At the briefing Friday, Mr Scaramucci said that his business interests had been vetted by the Office of Government Ethics and the White House counsel and had been found "100 per cent totally cleansed and clean".
"You want to go serve the country, and so the first thing you have to do is take on this mega opportunity cost by getting rid of all your assets," he said.
"I'm willing to do that, because I love the country."