House Democrats are circulating a resolution accusing majority leader Eric Cantor of a salacious conflict of interest: he owns shares in a fund that takes a short position on long-dated government bonds, which in layman’s terms means Cantor stands to profit if the government defaults on its debt, and so probably shouldn’t be such a prominent negotiator in the ongoing debt ceiling talks.
It’s a juicy bit of meat, but the attack is actually pretty silly. According the resolution, which was obtained by the Huffington Post, Cantor's shares in that fund total $3,300, and it’s quite a stretch to imagine that someone who is worth as much as $7.7 million would tank the US economy in order to profit on such a paltry investment. (As Cantor’s spokesman also pointed out, his $263,000 government pension means he would lose more than he would gain if the government defaulted anyhow).
Cantor is a good target for Democrats, as he is now back in the driver’s seat of his party’s debt limit talks after House Speaker John Boehner was unable to win a large-scale deal. However, if one is to examine Cantor’s finances in search of a motive—and the finances that really matter, his campaign account and leadership PAC—a different story emerges. Cantor, much like the GOP as a whole, is so thoroughly beholden to Wall Street firms it’s hard to imagine he won't agree to a deal by August 2.
Wall Street unquestionably wants a deal done: it told House Speaker John Boehner exactly that in the spring. Master investor Warren Buffet has likened the Republican strategy to a game of Russian roulette, and Alan Greenspan says it’s an “extraordinarily dangerous” situation. Stocks for big banks and investment firms are at fifty-two-week lows, and market concerns over the debt ceiling talks are already playing a role in their poor fortune.
In the last campaign cycle, as Cantor was on his way to becoming majority leader in the House, his campaign committee and leadership PAC took in $1.2 million from securities and investment firms—the entities that could be hardest hit by tremors in the bond markets. They formed, by far, Cantor’s biggest industry support. The next-largest industry contributor, the real estate sector, gave about half that.
Many of the large financial institutions that gave money to Cantor have specifically said the debt ceiling must be raised. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said, “If anyone wants to push that button…I think they're crazy.” JP Morgan Chase is among the top twenty contributors to Cantor’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, kicking in $27,800 in the last cycle alone between the company PAC and employee contributions.
An even bigger financial backer for Cantor is KKR & Co., a major private equity firm whose employees gave Cantor $52,600 during the last cycle, making them his fifth-largest contributor. In their first-quarter performance report, KKR & Co. described serious concerns over a failure to raise the debt ceiling.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling “could also limit our ability and the ability of our funds and portfolio companies to obtain financing, and it could have a material adverse effect on the valuation of our portfolio companies and other assets held by our funds,” their statement read. “Under such circumstances, the risks we face and any resulting adverse effects on our business, financial condition and results of operations would be significantly exacerbated.”
Cantor said today that his party’s concession, their only concession, is “the fact that we are voting—the fact that we are even discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase.”
That’s the state of play most everyone agrees upon: the Republicans have constructed a devious but effective hostage situation. But given their deep financial ties to Wall Street, one wonders to what extent they’re really bluffing.