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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why does a Houston billionaire want to cut RI pensions?

Rhode Island has long worried that its oft-lauded efforts to reduce public sector pensions was being secretly funded by Wall Street fat cats. Well, it turns out that one of the biggest financial supporters of pension reform is a former Enron energy trader who went on to make billions as a hedge fund manager.

John Arnold, a 38-year-old Houston man worth more than $3 billion, donated something less than a half million dollars to EngageRI, the shadowy non-profit that paid for much of the advertising pushing for pension cuts, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

“…a key player in the campaign to curtail pension costs in Rhode Island was financed, in large part, by a Houston billionaire who sees the state as an opening salvo in a quest to transform retirement systems nationwide,” according to the WSJ.

In 2009, Fortune Magazine called him “the second-youngest self-made multibillionaire in the U.S. — behind Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.”

Arnold, through the non-profit he started to affect pension politics across the country, has given more than $7 million to various efforts nationally, according to the WSJ. He may have funded well more than half of the anti-public sector pension ad campaign in Rhode Island all by himself, according to WPRI’s Ted Nesi, who pick up on the story last night.

According to Fortune article, Arnold and his wife have also “donated $700 million to a family foundation that gives money to charter schools run by an organization called the Kipp Academy, on whose board Arnold serves.”

A spokesman described he and his wife to the WSJ as being an “independent-minded Democrats” and said he has no financial interest in pension reform efforts. But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he made money on the misfortune of others. Here’s how the Fortune article described him:

Arnold has the brain of an economist, the experience of a veteran gas man, and the iron stomach of a riverboat gambler. Perhaps most notable, though, is his uncanny ability to extract colossal profits from catastrophic circumstances.

He began his career as a wunderkind twentysomething trader at Enron — and escaped that disaster not only with his reputation intact but also with the biggest bonus given to any employee, which he used to seed a new fund.

A few years later he earned $1 billion betting that natural-gas prices would go down just as a reputedly brilliant gas trader at Amaranth made a spectacularly disastrous bet in the opposite direction. More recently, as the commodities bubble burst in 2008, taking even more fund managers with it, Arnold foresaw the looming collapse and once again nearly doubled his money.

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.