The Mooch Is His Own Aflac Duck

Illustration by QuickHoney

“If we’re not going to get one of those villas, we should certainly get the high-roller penthouse, so we can have parties after Maroon 5 and the pool party,” Anthony Scaramucci is saying into his cell phone, as the SUV taking him to a speaking engagement at Columbia University rumbles through midtown traffic. The SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, a.k.a. SALT, his company’s annual hedge-fund bacchanal in Vegas, is coming up, and he’s ironing out the details. He has already secured the No. 1 band in America along with an array of starry speakers, including the unenvisionable duo of Sarah Palin and Al Gore. “We gotta invite some Morgan Stanley brokers, we gotta invite some of the politicians,” he says into the phone. “What?” He laughs and hangs up.

“A lot of people are upset with me about Sarah Palin,” says Scaramucci, his white, even-toothed smile suggesting this couldn’t make him happier. “I am a total shit-stirrer,” he confirms. “My middle name could be Shit-stirrer, except then my initials on my shirt would be a.s.s., and I can’t have that.”

Stirring shit gets attention, and Scaramucci, the founder and managing partner of SkyBridge Capital, CNBC contributor, and all-around Wall Street booster, thinks attention is an undervalued commodity. While his peers in the hedge-fund industry only occasionally emerge, groundhoglike, to declaim somberly on the markets, “the Mooch,” as he is known, is a petite man-shaped fireball of energy, constantly orbiting the public sphere and blazing a trail through social events with a steady stream of charmingly self-effacing stories. “When Alicia Keys honored me at the Keep a Child Alive Benefit … ” or “I told Mitt Romney, I said, ‘Guv … ’ ” In addition to his frequent appearances on television, he paid to have the SkyBridge Capital logo featured in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2, and his face, still boyish at 48 and framed by a swoop of brown hair, could be glimpsed in several scenes. When Jon Stewart lampooned him as a “Jersey Shore breakout star,” after he complained to President Obama on TV that Wall Street felt like a piñata, Scaramucci was nothing short of delighted.

For him, there are advantages to being visible. Hedge funds are traditionally the province of the superrich, but Scaramucci aims to make SkyBridge—a “fund of funds” that creates portfolios of hedge-fund investments—the first company of its kind to target “the mass affluent.” That is, investors who have the $200,000 annual income or $1 million in net worth the SEC requires of “accredited investors” but aren’t connected enough to get in with a Daniel Loeb or a John Paulson. “Say there’s a dentist and he’s got a million dollars and he wants to have $50,000 in hedge funds,” says Scaramucci. “Well, he can do that through SkyBridge.”

By his estimation, at least 63 percent of SkyBridge’s 17,000 investors are of this type, but “I want to bring the industry to more and more people,” he says. He’d probably have billboards if the SEC would allow him to, which it doesn’t, at least not yet: Pending the agency’s approval, the new jobs act will lift the ban on hedge-fund advertising. “Maybe then we’ll get an Aflac duck,” he says.

Until then, it’s “guerrilla marketing.” Scaramucci speaks nearly everywhere he’s asked. (“Try not to laugh. They let me speak at the Iraqi Woman’s Chamber of Commerce.”) He’s written two books, most recently The Little Book of Hedge Funds, which extols the sexiness of alternative investing. “Mutual funds are Berlin with the Wall,” it reads, “while hedge funds are Berlin with all the swank art galleries.”

The crown jewel of this multiplatform strategy is SALT, which Scaramucci launched in 2009, in defiance of Obama’s warning Wall Street to stay away from partying while the rest of the country suffered. This year, nearly 2,000 industry participants will attend talks by Gore and Palin, as well as investors like Kyle Bass and Philip Falcone, and dance to “Moves Like Jagger” in a ballroom at the Bellagio that Scaramucci has had decorated to resemble the Feast of San Gennaro.

The car pulls up at Columbia, and Scaramucci leaps out to greet a gangly professor who’s been waiting on the corner. “Let’s go rile some kids up,” he says, slapping him on the back with an alpha confidence that causes the professor to smile like a math geek in the presence of a member of the football team.

Which Scaramucci was. Part of what makes him good at selling hedge funds to ordinary Americans is that he still acts like one of them.* “I grew up on Long Island,” Scaramucci tells the class. “Big Italian family. I was a bad student. I was chasing girls. I want you to picture this,” he says. “I had a black T-shirt. Gold chains.” He pauses, building to the crescendo. “I had a ’79 Camaro—with a power-booster.” The room erupts. One guy, inexplicably wearing bunny ears, pounds his desk.

*This article has been corrected to show that Scaramucci did not say he was part of the one percent.

Then Scaramucci gets serious, talking about how he shaped up after his father, a construction worker, paid for him to go to Tufts. He studied hard and worked his way into Harvard Law and, eventually, a job in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. He was fired a year later. “I was terrible at it,” he says. It was the first of several humbling moments that led to a revelation. “I’m not Steve Cohen, I’m not Julian Robertson, I’m not Dan Ochs,” he tells the class. “I’m actually Anthony Scaramucci. Here’s my skill set; let’s see if I can use it to be who I am.”

He was rehired at Goldman, this time in sales, then left to start a hedge fund, which he then sold to a firm called Neuberger Berman, which then sold itself to Lehman Brothers, which provided Scaramucci with enough capital to start SkyBridge. At first, the idea was for SkyBridge to be an incubator of hedge funds, but that flew out the window after the financial crisis. The down market, however, provided him with another opportunity. In 2010, he made a deal with Citigroup to purchase a funds-of-funds business worth $4 billion. “We were the canary that swallowed the elephant,” he tells the Columbia class. After the deal, employees from Citigroup approached him. “They were like, ‘We gotta tell you, we thought SkyBridge was huge,’ ” he says. “ ‘We saw the movie, we see you on television.’ ” He pauses to let the students take this in. “Because I projected something.

Think big,” he commands. “Look at Starbucks. This is a guy selling crushed beans, and you pour some water on them, and you slap a mermaid on the front of the cup. It’s crazy. He’s charging a higher price because he’s offering an experience. You walk in, nice tunes, you got the mug, you get the French press. Look at me,” he adds, striking a pose. “I’m like, quasi Euro.” The class cracks up.

This is a common reaction. “Right from the minute you meet Scaramooch he charms you,” says Woody Johnson, the Jets owner and a fellow co-chair of Mitt Romney’s National Finance Committee. “He’s talking about Italian food and his mother and saying funny things. It’s disarming.” But not everyone finds him so lovable. Last year, Felix Salmon of Reuters assailed Scaramucci in a blog post for his “fake it till you make it” techniques, and called the concept of popularizing hedge-fund investing “sleazy” and “dangerous.”

Scaramucci didn’t mind the first charge. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘All Americans are self-invented,’ ” he tells me. But the other accusations rankled. Livid, he called Reuters, which suggested the pair do a video interview. “In five minutes, he was on his heels,” Scaramucci says after class at a Starbucks across the street from Columbia.

Salmon denies being bowled over. “To the extent that I was smiling,” he says, “I was smiling out of fear.” Not for himself, but for humanity. “He is putting people into hedge funds that really shouldn’t be invested in hedge funds,” says Salmon. “He has this extremely expensive smile and very good hair, and they trust him. And to the degree that he’s accomplishing it, he’s hurting America.”

The main arguments against hedge funds for small investors is that their bets are too risky for those with something to lose: They lock up your money for at least 90 days, and you may never see it again. Or, Scaramucci points out, you could see a lot more of it. “I’m not saying people should invest their life savings. But 5 percent?”

This year, SkyBridge clients haven’t lost money, but they haven’t seen the kinds of eye-popping returns they read about in the Journal, either. This is partly because of the onerous cost structure of funds-of-funds. For the privilege of investing with guys with recognizable stipple portraits, SkyBridge charges a 1.5 percent annual fee, and passes along a one-time broker placement fee of 3 percent. This is on top of the 2 percent annual fee and 20 percent profit commission charged by each hedge fund in the fund. As critics like Warren Buffett have pointed out, funds-of-funds rarely outperform the market. Over the past three years, SkyBridge’s Series G fund has consistently beat the HFRI fund-of-fund composite index but also fared 48 percent poorer than the S&P 500.

“All the risks are in there,” Scaramucci says at Starbucks. “It’s not like we’re selling it to people off the street. You have to have a million dollars.” He’s still steamed up about the whole Felix Salmon thing. “He was trying to say I’m a snake-oil salesman, that I’m sleazy,” he says. “That sucks. I don’t view myself that way. We’re creating an experience.” He takes a slurp of his iced coffee. “There were scathing articles about Steve Jobs throughout his career,” he remembers. “A lot of people didn’t like Amelia Earhart flying an airplane or Hillary Clinton running for president. I’m going to have a SALT conference and television show and a book and a movie, and a this and a that, and people are going to be like, ‘Hey I want to be an investor in SkyBridge, they’re going to put me in the know.’ ” He shakes his cup.

“Crushed beans. Hot water. Mermaid.”

The Mooch Is His Own Aflac Duck