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Steven Mnuchin: Banker with talent for reinvention

Steven Mnuchin made his fortune by swooping in to buy IndyMac, one of the biggest casualties of the mortgage crisis, then selling it for more than twice what he paid five years later.

But to Kevin Stein, deputy director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, a housing advocacy group, it sticks in the craw to see him nominated by Donald Trump to serve as the 77th US Treasury secretary.

The Pasadena-based bank that Mr Mnuchin chaired, renamed OneWest, foreclosed on 36,000 homes in California alone between 2009 and 2014, he notes. In non-white neighbourhoods in California, the bank foreclosed about nine times more frequently than it made home loans.

“We’re distressed to see that someone who ran a very problematic bank, that inflicted distress on thousands of working families, would be named to such a high and important post,” says Mr Stein.

For those reasons, analysts say that Mr Mnuchin — pronounced mi-NOO-chin — could be set for a bumpy ride in his nomination hearings. Several senators have already weighed in, pointing out the incongruity of Mr Trump promising to lessen the influence of Wall Street over Washington — and then nominating a tycoon like Mr Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs before striking out on his own.

Mr Mnuchin’s talk of easing the regulatory burden on banks by rolling back parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Reform Act is particularly worrying, says Greg Smith, a former Goldman executive who quit the bank in very public fashion in 2012, and is now running a wealth-management company called Blooom.

“A financial system with fewer protections will be a nightmare for regular Americans.”

Mr Mnuchin started his career in the early 1980s as a trainee at Salomon Brothers and then followed in the footsteps of his father, who spent his entire career at Goldman. He rose to head Goldman’s mortgage department and became the bank’s chief information officer in 1999. He left in 2002 and two years later founded Dune Capital with $1bn in backing from George Soros, the billionaire investor and Democratic party donor.

Since then Mr Mnuchin’s Dune has got deep into the movie business, scoring hits such as Avatar and X-Men for 20th Century Fox. More recently, Dune struck a deal with RatPac Entertainment, founded by the Hollywood producer Brett Ratner and James Packer, son of the late Australian billionaire Kerry, to invest in Warner Brothers films. It has landed some hits, such as Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, but has also backed big flops like Pan and Jupiter Ascending.

Mr Mnuchin also took a hands-on role as the co-chairman of Relativity Media, a controversial Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh, who claimed to have invented a formula that reduced the risk attached to film investment. Mr Kavanaugh had previously attracted investment from Elliott Associates, the New York hedge fund run by Paul Singer, and Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate and Democratic donor.

In the summer of June 2015, Relativity filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after missing payments to lenders and running up as much as $1bn in liabilities. Mr Mnuchin had already left the company, having quit a few weeks before the filing; tens of millions of dollars, which had been loaned to Relativity by OneWest, the bank Mr Mnuchin chaired, was also repaid before the filing. The withdrawal put cash-strapped Relativity under severe pressure.

“There was significant panic when the money was swept out of the account,” says one person close to the company.

Mr Mnuchin, 53, had three children with his second wife, Heather, a music-industry executive, who he divorced in 2014. He is now engaged to Louise Linton, a 35 year-old actress from Scotland who has appeared in a string of low-budget movies.

Ms Linton caused a minor social media storm over the summer, after she self-published In Congo’s Shadow: One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa, a book about her gap year. The Zambian High Commission in London complained of her portrayal of a “savage,” war-torn country, prompting Ms Linton to issue an apology, pull the book from shelves and restrict access to her Twitter account.

The couple made their on-screen debut in Rules Don’t Apply, a Warren Beatty period piece released this month. Ms Linton has a minor part and Mr Mnuchin plays a “Merrill Lynch executive,” according o IMDb.

As he limbers up for a new role at Treasury, Mr Mnuchin’s capacity for reinvention should not be underestimated, says Chris Whalen, senior managing director at Kroll Bond Rating. Mr Whalen is close to Stephen Bannon, another ex-Goldman executive now serving as chief strategist to Mr Trump.

“People like this are very good at remaking themselves when they need to,” he says. “It’s an important talent.”

Via FT