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Campaign season has been rough on Wall Street, with President Barack Obama demonizing Bain Capital Partners LLC when challenger Mitt Romney was its leader, and Romney himself bringing unwanted scrutiny to private equity.
Wall Street has decided overwhelmingly to back Romney so far. The Republican has collected $9.4 million from the investment and securities industry, according to the Washington- based Center for Responsive Politics. Obama has amassed $3.4 million, hurt by comments about “fat cat bankers” and an advertising campaign against Romney’s private-equity record.
“I grew up middle class, and now I’m part of the 1 percent and I shouldn’t feel bad about that,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a former Obama supporter and current Romney backer who runs hedge-fund investor SkyBridge Capital LLC. “I don’t subscribe to the president’s anti-business rhetoric -- we should be a country based on class movement, not class warfare.”
Bankers and traders may see little relief even if Romney wins. With a record U.S. deficit, rising unemployment and an anti-rich mood born of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the former Massachusetts governor may be forced to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and go back on his campaign promise to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 law meant to bring more regulation to banks.
“Given where the congressional elections are going, it’s not clear he’s going to be able to move in any direction,” said Stan Collender, a managing director at Washington-based public- relations firm Qorvis Communications and a former federal budget policy director at two international accounting firms.
“A President Romney would have the same kind of problems that a President Obama has had,” he said. “The ability to repeal Dodd-Frank will be just as limited next year as it is this year.”
The potential for continued gridlock hasn’t stopped billionaire hedge-fund managers Daniel Loeb, Paul Tudor Jones and Ken Griffin from switching their allegiances to Romney this election. Four years ago, Wall Street executives were among Obama’s biggest backers, collectively donating $16 million to his campaign.
The swings in support have been extreme. Chicago-based Griffin contributed $4,600 to Obama in 2008 and helped raise more than $50,000 for his campaign. This time he’s contributed more than $2 million to two Republican Super-PACs.
“Mitt Romney understands that the private sector is the source of economic growth and job creation,” Griffin said in November when he announced he would back Romney. “His ideas can help get America’s economy moving again and start putting people back to work.”
Obama’s campaign managers made a conscious decision not to apologize to potential donors for his criticism of private equity, even behind the scenes, according to several backers who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. The administration figured any loss in contributions from the financial-services industry could be made up with money from grassroots fundraising, Hollywood celebrities and technology- company moguls.
“Mitt Romney has actively fundraised off the fact that he would repeal Wall Street reform and let Wall Street write its own rules again, regardless of the consequences for middle class families,” said Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman. “The president believed it was necessary to take steps to ensure that the financial crisis that crashed our economy and threatened the security of the middle class isn’t repeated -- and most Americans agree with him.”
In May, the Obama campaign began a series of ads criticizing Romney’s record as a co-founder and chief executive officer of Boston-based Bain Capital.
One Web video, a mini-documentary that lasts almost six minutes, focused on SCM Office Supplies Inc. of Marion, Indiana, where 350 factory workers got fired after Bain Capital-owned American Pad & Paper LLC bought the company in 1994. The company, known as Ampad, filed for bankruptcy in 2000.
“Bain and Mitt Romney did not care about us as workers,” one former employee says in the ad.
“Through more than a generation of investing, Bain Capital has been focused on growing great companies and improving their operations,” Bain said in a statement issued through spokesman Alex Stanton. “We understand that in a political campaign some may distort our investment activity by cherry-picking a few negative situations while ignoring our overall track record.”
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, called attacks on private equity “nauseating.” Steven Rattner, who founded a buyout firm and later worked on Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, also defended the business. Former president Bill Clinton, who served as a senior adviser to investor Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Cos., said Romney’s business record is “sterling.”
Romney’s presence in the race also is bringing scrutiny to the beneficial tax treatment given to private-equity firms and to some hedge funds.
Under current law, a manager’s profits from a private- equity fund, known as carried interest, are considered capital gains and therefore taxed at 15 percent. The Private Equity Growth Capital Council, a trade group for the industry, spent about $4.65 million lobbying to keep this tax treatment, and on issues such as Dodd-Frank, even in the face of sluggish economic growth and mounting pressure to cut the U.S. deficit.
The industry group this year produced a series of six videos called “Private Equity at Work” that are designed to highlight the industry’s role in expanding companies, and it set up 49 visits this year between private equity-owned companies and members of Congress or their staffs.
Because Romney’s earnings come from funds run by Bain and other investment vehicles, his tax rate in 2010 was 13.9 percent, according to documents his campaign released earlier this year.
Both candidates have pledged to pursue broad reform of the U.S. tax code, which is likely to include a reconsideration of carried interest and capital gains, Purple Strategies LLC’s Richard Keil said.
“Regardless of who wins, if there’s any attempt at comprehensive tax reform, it’s impossible to imagine that changes to carried interest aren’t part of the original draft or an amendment,” said Keil, whose Washington-area firm was founded by a group of Republican and Democratic strategists.
Another promise Romney may not be able to keep is the repeal of the 2,300-page Dodd-Frank law that Obama signed two years ago. Since then, bankers have been fighting the regulation’s provisions, which include stricter capital requirements and the so-called Volcker Rule that bars deposit- taking banks from making wagers with their own money.
The lobbying effort was gaining traction until May, when JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) reported a $2 billion-plus trading loss from a portfolio of credit derivatives. Jamie Dimon, the bank’s CEO, was called to Washington twice to testify before Congress and the losses have prompted talk among lawmakers about capping the size of Wall Street firms.
Obama still has a few hedge-fund and private-equity managers who have come out to support him.
Tony James, president of private-equity and real estate giant Blackstone Group LP (BX), hosted Obama in May at his apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Blackstone executives including Jonathan Gray, real estate chief, and Joan Solotar, the head of external affairs, were on hand, according to people familiar with the event.
Marc Lasry, founder of Avenue Capital Group LLC, held a well-publicized party for Obama in early June. About 50 people came to his apartment, paying $40,000 for a 90-minute question- and-answer session with Obama and former President Bill Clinton. “It’s not every day you get to be in a room with two presidents,” the e-mail invitation said.
If Obama ends up winning in November, Wall Street can take comfort that there will be few surprises from the president in his second term.
“They’ve seen everything they’re going to see from Obama,” said Peter Morici, an economics professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park.
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