Mercer's Backing of Breitbart Draws Campaign Against Renaissance

  • Sleeping Giants group urges Michigan State to divest
  • University calls claims of link to racism ‘misleading’

A group that says it’s opposed to racist news sites is urging universities and pension funds to pull their money from Renaissance Technologies because one of the hedge fund firm’s leaders is a financial backer of Breitbart News.

Sleeping Giants, whose members are anonymous, began the campaign Monday by targeting Michigan State University, which has about $50 million invested in a Renaissance fund. The group said in a statement on Twitter that it aims to draw a connection between investments in Renaissance and “hate speech and bigotry.”

The statement pointed out that Robert Mercer, one of the firm’s co-chief executive officers, has a personal investment in Breitbart. The news site, whose executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, has been criticized for being too closely aligned with racist elements in the so-called alt-right.

Renaissance and Mercer declined to comment, and spokesmen for Breitbart didn’t respond to inquiries. Michigan State, based in East Lansing, said in a statement that any attempt to connect its investments “to financing white nationalism is misleading and irresponsible.”

Breitbart has denied encouraging bigotry and last year threatened to sue a news outlet that described it as white nationalist. “Breitbart News rejects racism in all its varied and ugly forms,” it said in a statement at the time. “Always has, always will.”

Renaissance Scientists

Renaissance, with more than $50 billion under management, is one of the most successful money managers in the country, employing a team of scientists in East Setauket, Long Island, who use computers to detect market patterns. Its Renaissance Institutional Equities Fund has returned an annualized 10.3 percent since its creation in 2005 and is up almost 13 percent this year.

The links between Renaissance and Breitbart are indirect. Mercer, who spent more than $2 million on pro-Trump advertising last year, has a personal investment in the site. Renaissance mostly invests in publicly traded stocks and other liquid instruments.

Outside investors such as Michigan State pay Renaissance fees for managing their money. But not all those fees go to Mercer. Renaissance’s founder, billionaire former mathematics professor James Simons, is a prominent Democratic Party donor who spent millions of dollars backing Hillary Clinton in the last election. The other co-CEO, Peter Brown, has also given to Democrats.

It’s unclear how withdrawals would affect the earnings of Renaissance managers. The firm’s crown jewel is the Medallion Fund, open only to employees, which boasts one of the best track records in investing history, returning an annualized 40 percent after fees over almost three decades. Even if outside investors departed, Renaissance’s owners could keep multiplying their own money through Medallion. Simons’s net worth alone is estimated at $15.7 billion.

‘Exemplary Returns’

Sleeping Giants formed after last November’s election and has pressured companies to stop advertising on Breitbart. It says more than 3,000 advertisers have dropped the news site.

To target Michigan State, Sleeping Giants published email addresses and Twitter handles of 12 officials there and urged supporters to contact them. The group said it will focus on other institutions with Renaissance stakes in coming weeks.

Other investors in Renaissance’s Institutional Equity fund include the Public School & Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri, the Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence and the Los Angeles Water & Power Employees’ Retirement Plan, according to disclosures from those organizations.

More than a dozen people have contacted Michigan State, said Jason Cody, a spokesman for the university. The school’s endowment is valued at $2.7 billion. Michigan State said last year it was investing in Renaissance after suffering poor performance with other managers.

“They have done a very good job for us, and it is a strategy that is not very common,” Steve Yoakum, the Missouri fund’s executive director, told ThinkProgress.org last week in response to that group’s questions about its Renaissance investment. “They have really given us exemplary returns for us since we started.”

— With assistance by Janet Lorin, Mary Romano, and Katherine Burton

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