Giving Back Has Made This 41-Year-Old Retired Billionaire Less Popular

  • John Arnold, 41, of Houston at ease with data and controversy
  • Pension systems, bad science, drug-sentencing, organ donations

When John Arnold was a trader, he had a serene -- some would say bloodless -- way of seeing the world. He wanted the truth, the cold, hard truth, and embraced the power of an idea no one else was seeing. Then he bet nearly everything he had on it.

In 2006, Arnold’s hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, took a huge contrarian position on natural gas prices and made a fortune. In 2008, it anticipated the commodities crash.

John Arnold
John Arnold
Photographer: Brent Humphreys/Bloomberg

Three years ago, at the tender age of 38, married with three children and $4 billion richer, Arnold shut his fund and decided to spend the rest of his professional life giving away his money as counterintuitively as he had earned it. He had made millions at Enron and billions at Centaurus, zigging when others zagged. Now, that rare person who grows less popular the more he gives away, he is focusing on dilemmas dragging down the nation that no one else wants to confront.

Sitting in the Houston offices of his foundation, he explained, “I was troubled when I was trading that it’s hard to make that direct tie between the financial industry and the greater good. My life was 100 percent trying to make money in the first phase, then 100 percent trying to do good in the second.”

Contrarian Causes

Arnold and his wife, Laura, a former corporate attorney, are targeting contrarian, underappreciated causes, things like research integrity, drug-sentencing reform, organ donations and broken pension systems, an especially radioactive issue. This is partly, they say, because while a billion dollars sounds like a lot, it isn’t when applied to a multi-trillion-dollar conundrum.

“I try to look at it from supply and demand," Arnold said. "Where is the need being met today, and where is there unmet demand?’’ Of cultural facilities, research universities and hospitals that raise money briskly, he said, “I’m not saying those are bad things to fund, I just think the value of an incremental dollar to these is lower than other avenues.”

Arnold is a private man who doesn’t engage in a lot of pleasantries. He has grown a beard that disguises a trademark boyishness. He chooses his words deliberately and folds his hands together.

Pension reform appealed to Arnold the moment he first read about it. The problem is complex, seemingly unsolvable, and just about no one else was willing to get involved. And Arnold, a moderate Democrat who believes a rich country like the U.S. should provide a high safety net for its citizens, sees the stakes as being no smaller than the survival of the very governments that provide that net.

Quality of Life

“The financial health of a city or a state is directly attributable to outcomes in education and outcomes in public safety and quality of life,’’ Arnold said. “This isn’t just an accounting problem. It directly leads into all the things people care about.”

Pensions work like this: every year, employees and the government both pay into a fund, and when the employees retire the government uses that fund to pay them until they die. There are decades between the pay-in and the pay-out, so the government can invest the fund and make sure the money is there.

But problems have arisen. While employees’ contributions are taken directly out of paychecks, mayors and governors have routinely not paid their share into the system, arguing (often wrongly) that they will get a higher return than predicted. In addition, the market crash of 2008 wiped more than $1 trillion off pension funds’ assets.

A study of more than 150 state and local pensions found the total unfunded liability between $1.1 and $3.1 trillion.

Fixing Pensions

This is not a problem most philanthropists have had any interest in solving. "Fixing" pensions means, almost by definition, cutting payments to people who need and were promised them, raising retirement ages, reducing cost of living adjustments, introducing defined contribution plans for new workers and increasing how much employees must put into their retirement. The Arnolds argue that despite the pain caused, without the changes both governments and pensioners have no future.

They don’t recommend specific changes, only present states and municipalities with options. Through their advocacy organization, they support candidates and ballot initiatives, sometimes providing the vast majority of the donations in places including Phoenix and San Jose. They include legal work to defend the changes from court challenge. The Arnolds supported the overhaul of the Rhode Island pension system led by state Treasurer Gina Raimondo who they later backed in her successful gubernatorial run.

Critics say pension reform is a euphemism for denying workers what they have been promised and paid for. One Rolling Stone writer called Arnold a "ubiquitous young right-wing kingmaker."

Bailey Childers, president of the National Public Pension Coalition, a union-backed group set up in part to help counter Arnold’s influence, said, “There’s not this crisis that they want you to believe there is in states that are doing what they’re supposed to do. This is an attack on workers who have played by the rules.”

Arnold, who grew used to being unpopular as an investor, says the pension work has been worth all the criticism. He acknowledges that policy is a squishier realm than the metrics-oriented world of financial markets. Failure is a frequent, even elemental, part of success. But he finds inspiration from the recent and sudden surge of gay rights, a once unpopular cause.

“Things seem to be happening very quickly now, but only because there was 10 or 20 years of work done on these issues when progress was frustratingly slow," he said. He hopes the same will hold true for his work on pensions, that groundwork now will yield results in a decade. By finding what he calls "leverage points in the system," he figures he has "higher potential for value added."

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