July 28 2016, 10:38 a.m.
Blackstone, the giant Wall Street private equity firm, will hold an invitation-only reception before the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The event, at the swanky Barnes Foundation art museum, includes the usual perks for attendees: free food, drink, and complimentary shuttle buses to the final night of the convention.
What’s unusual is that the host is precisely the kind of “shadow banker” that Hillary Clinton has singled out as needing more regulation in her rhetoric about getting tough on Wall Street.
But Blackstone President and Chief Operating Officer Hamilton “Tony” James doesn’t seem the least bit intimidated.
James has been a stalwart supporter of Barack Obama, holding fundraisers for him at his home, even while other Wall Street titans criticized him — in fact the co-founder of James’s own company, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, once likened Obama’s push to increase taxes on private-equity firms to a “war,” saying: “It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
Last December, James hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Hillary Clinton that featured Warren Buffett. He’s made six-figure donations to the Center for American Progress, known as Clinton’s White House in exile, and sits on CAP’s Board of Trustees. And he has made no secret of wanting to hold a high-level position in a future Democratic administration, perhaps even Treasury Secretary.
The head-scratcher here is that James runs a private equity firm, exactly the kind of “shadow bank” that Clinton has derided as a scourge to the financial system. Shadow banks are financial institutions that do bank-like activities (such as lending or investing for clients) but aren’t chartered as banks, existing outside of the traditional regulatory perimeter.
Clinton argued during the primaries with Bernie Sanders that they were more dangerous than the big banks, because of the lack of scrutiny on their risk-taking. That was the linchpin of her argument that Sanders’s plan was too myopic, and that her plan, which sought to crack down on shadow banking and deny it sources of funds, was more comprehensive.
James has not only actively engaged in defending the whole concept of shadow banking, he created the original private equity trade group, formerly known as the Private Equity Council. The group later quietly changed its name to the more innocuous-sounding American Investment Council.
In 2014, James penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed where he called shadow banking an “Orwellian term that can undermine critical thought.” It was the regulated entities, not shadow banks, that were “the source of almost all the systemic risk in the financial crisis,” he wrote. James explicitly sought to steer policymakers away from “regulations that undermine the many thousands of companies and jobs that need market-based financing to survive and grow.”
That term, “market-based financing,” is a Tony James original. He prefers it because it removes the more sinister connotations associated with the shadows. “Private equity sounds bad, but shadow banking is worse,” he told NPR.
Blackstone operates in leveraged buyouts, asset management, and real estate transactions. It is the largest real estate private equity firm in the world, holding over $103 billion in assets. After the housing bubble collapsed, Blackstone bought 43,000 single-family homes over a two-year period, at one point buying more than $100 million worth of homes per week. They converted most of these into rentals, becoming one of the largest landlords in the world.
Renters have sued Blackstone’s real estate unit, Invitation Homes, for renting out homes in shoddy condition. They’ve also been accused of jacking up rents to satisfy investors, charging as high as 180 percent of the market rent value. Nevertheless, Blackstone plans to spin off Invitation Homes with an initial public offering next year.
James’s company also benefits from taking business lines from regulated banks, such as one of the trading businesses of global firm Credit Suisse. Blackstone then runs that company without government interference; assets in the Credit Suisse group have doubled since 2013.