The abrupt dismissal of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci less than two weeks after his appointment may be linked to the outspoken financier’s China dealings.
The firing has been widely attributed to Scaramucci’s verbal tirade to a reporter in addition to orders from new chief of staff John F. Kelly. But there’s a third issue that may have played into the decision, Jim Rickards, editor of investment newsletter Strategic Intelligence, told CNBC.
The sale of Scaramucci’s hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, to HNA Capital, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, was a red flag for Washington, according to Rickards.
The acquisition, which was finalized in January and reportedly values SkyBridge at around $200 million, is currently pending approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — or CFIUS — a government panel that reviews foreign purchases of American companies for national security risks.
Officially chaired by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, CFIUS involves multiple U.S. agencies, including the defense, commerce and state departments.
Rickards, who previously worked with intelligence officials on CFIUS regarding foreign acquisitions of U.S. financial services firms, said he believes the Skybridge deal was “a sleeper story waiting to come back to haunt the White House.”
HNA’s purchase is likely to get rejected amid concerns of Chinese control over U.S. hedge funds and investment banks — a decision that wouldn’t bode well for President Donald Trump’s administration, he said.
“In some ways, the White House is probably relieved to get rid of Scaramucci because now, no matter what happens to that deal, that burden won’t be on the White House.”
“My recommendation would have been for CFIUS to turn the deal down…we had always warned ‘don’t let our adversaries such as China or Russia get plugged into the U.S. financial system’…When I was involved, this deal would have not gone through,” he said.
“In some ways, the White House is probably relieved to get rid of Scaramucci because now, no matter what happens to that deal, that burden won’t be with the White House,” Rickards continued. “Using the [New Yorker] interview was great cover to get rid of Scaramucci before the hedge fund deal and national security review blew up in his face.”
The former Export-Import Bank executive’s speedy exit won’t impact the SkyBridge-HNA deal, a spokesperson for HNA Group told CNBC. The transaction is hoped to close “by the end of the summer,” the spokesperson added.
Potential rejection of the Skybridge-HNA deal was a concern for the newly-appointed Kelly, said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science and public policy at St Mary’s College of Maryland. “Kelly is trying to create a new narrative of a White House that is more focused and on message — a White House where the staff are no longer major news stories.”
While Eberly said he doesn’t believe the deal ultimately factored into Scaramucci’s removal, he said CFIUS refusal would have been “a major embarrassment” for the White House.
Owner of Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines, HNA Group is one of many Chinese corporates under scrutiny by regulators for its global spending spree — estimated at upwards of $50 billion since 2015, according to Dealogic.
Last week, HNA’s $416 million investment into Global Eagle Entertainment was blocked amid concerns over customer data exchanged on the U.S. firm’s WiFi, Reuters reported. The Chinese firm previously received the green light for various U.S. transactions, including a 25 percent stake in Hilton and the acquisition of Ingram Micro.
Concerns over HNA’s opaque structure are also in the spotlight. Last week, HNA revealed details of its ownership structure in an attempt to clear confusion following recent allegations that relatives of top Communist Party officials held stakes in the group.
It’s not just HNA under Washington’s microscope. Broad caution on the part of CFIUS resulted in a historically high number of rejected deals this year, Reuters reported last week.
CFIUS does remain open to Chinese investment, David Dollar, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Treasury’s former economic and financial emissary to China, recently told CNBC, noting examples such as the approved Shuanghui-Smithfield deal.
Dollar did acknowledge, however, that the current wave of Chinese investment into the U.S. was “enormous,” adding that he expected around 50 deals from the mainland this year.