At first sight, his name was buried in the Paradise Papers. Research into financial elites' offshore transactions revealed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross's shady involvement with the Kremlin. This report dominated the news for the first few days after its publication. But the fact that reclusive hedge fund manager Robert Mercer also had a network of companies in Bermuda, thus avoiding tax payments in the U.S. totaling several million dollars, almost got lost, even though Mercer's current influence on U.S. politics is at least as strong as that of the secretary of commerce.
The 71-year-old CEO of Renaissance Capital, a large, secretive U.S. hedge fund, has become one of the most important names in politics. He has spent an estimated $62 million so far through its organizations, in particular the Mercer Family Foundation, to influence U.S. politics. The financier, who detests government and expert opinions, supported a conference in Wyoming where speakers were advocating for the reintroduction of the gold standard, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations fighting mandatory school attendance.
He first appeared in the limelight a year ago. Mercer's money had initially supported the candidacy of Ted Cruz, but he soon switched to Donald Trump and helped him move into the White House with a war chest filled to the brim. Trump himself knew how important this support was: In December, the newly elected president personally thanked Mercer at an event at his estate on Long Island. Experts say the hedge fund manager is to the libertarian anti-establishment what industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch are to the Republicans and what investor George Soros is to the Democrats.
Mercer made his fortune late in life. For a long time, the computer scientist tinkered with systems that were supposed to automate language translations for industry giant IBM before Renaissance made him a job offer when he was in his late 40s. While he was there, Mercer and his colleagues fine-tuned algorithms that were meant to improve the predictability of financial transactions. The calculations were based on a variety of factors, including weather forecasts, which were then translated into decisions about investments. Mercer's money has also been channeled into Cambridge Analytica, the data company that promises accurate ads on Facebook and claims to have helped Trump and Brexit succeed. The company is currently under investigation by two congressional committees for potential collaboration with Russian officials.
For Renaissance, the calculation methods have paid off. The hedge fund manages more than $50 billion and generates returns of almost 40 percent. For a long time now, Renaissance has been accumulating money exclusively for its own employees and has been closed to outsiders. In the Paradise Papers, the British newspaper, The Guardian, uncovered the fact that the company chose Bermuda as the location for the highly profitable employee pension funds, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. In recent years, the complicated network of companies has attracted the attention of the U.S. tax authorities. The IRS is accusing Renaissance of evading roughly $6.8 billion in taxes.
At the beginning of November, Mercer announced his surprise resignation from Renaissance's management. In an open letter, the 71-year-old explained his decision as resulting from the immense media attention he received in the previous year, at the same time eliminating "misinformation" about his political leanings.
What was more important than his resignation, however, came further down in his letter: He wanted to sell his stakes in the far-right platform Breitbart to his daughters. At the same time, he was publicly distancing himself — an unusual step for him — from its controversial central figure, Steve Bannon. From time to time, he and Bannon discussed politics. "However," Mercer clarifies, "I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically. Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon's."
It is Unlikely Mercer Will Withdraw
The announcement caused relief among his political opponents. Ever since Mercer and Bannon met five years ago, the hedge fund manager has become one of the most influential financiers behind Bannon's attempts to shake up the Washington establishment. Not only did he invest millions of dollars in Breitbart and save the website, Mercer's daughter Rebekah and Bannon are running the movie production company Glittering Steel, which produces campaign ads and distributes films challenging the science behind climate change.
Bannon's think tank, Government Accountability Institute, which according to its website is committed to fighting nepotism and the misuse of tax money, has been temporarily financed in part by Mercer's foundation. Just before the election in May 2015, GAI published a book about alleged transactions the Clinton Foundation made with foreign governments. Later on, the editor had to publicly retract many of the accusations, but by then, the rumors had long been in the mainstream media.
Most recently, Republicans in Congress especially feared the combination of ideology and wealth. Since Bannon's resignation from his position in the White House, he has been backing ideologically like-minded candidates all over the country with an aim to remove from office the conservative Washington establishment during next year's congressional elections. Without Mercer's support, Bannon would be struggling to come up with the finances necessary for expensive campaigns. Josh Holmes, Mitch McConnell's former chief of staff, declared that Mercer's decision to distance himself publicly from Bannon was unequivocal proof of Bannon's toxicity. Bannon recently made McConnell's removal from office his main goal.
It is unlikely Mercer will withdraw. Several U.S. media outlets report that it was mainly Renaissance founder Jim Simons who urged Mercer to resign. The billionaire Democrat feared for the reputation of his hedge fund if Mercer continued to act as financier of the Bannon revolution. Quoting two unnamed sources, Bloomberg magazine wrote last week that the announcement to withdraw from the day-to-day business of Renaissance was part of a plan to position himself for an offensive in time for congressional midterm elections in 2018. Quoting a source close to Mercer, "Bob" will continue to fight for his convictions.