Billionaire Facebook investor's anti-immigrant heresy
Insiders at Clarium Capital, the $5.3 billion hedge fund run by Facebook investor Peter Thiel, are buzzing about their boss's $1 million donation to NumbersUSA, an anti-immigrant group. The donation is an open secret within Clarium, and it has enraged several staff members who joined Clarium because they believed Thiel shared their libertarian ideals. When I asked Thiel if he'd made the donation, an underling passed on a nondenial saying the company didn't comment on "gossip and heresy." A typo — he meant to say "hearsay" — but a suggestive one. Thiel has fallen under the sway of Robertson "Rob" Morrow III, a Christian right-wing thinker who has personally donated to NumbersUSA, and persuaded Thiel to make his own, much larger donation.Morrow is a controversial figure within Clarium, a hedge fund Thiel founded after leaving PayPal, the payments company he cofounded and sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. Morrow was once chief investment officer at the San Francisco-based company, but was pushed out of Thiel's inner circle after he had a nervous breakdown on the trading floor. Morrow slowly worked his way back into Thiel's good graces, and was assigned to run the company's then-small New York office. Recently, his influence over Thiel and Clarium has grown. Earlier this year, Morrow wrote a paper called "The Bull Market in Politics." His thesis was that "government influence — over trade policy, social programs, decisions of war and peace — becomes much more important" to investors. One key policy area: immigration, where Morrow thinks there is a rising consensus for restrictions. A politically driven drop in immigration has broad economic implications, especially on the housing market; with less population growth, housing prices will continue to suffer for much longer than most anticipate. But Morrow is not merely forecasting the market. He has cajoled his influential boss to spend money to make his forecast a reality. A NumbersUSA spokesman called me to deny that Thiel had made a donation. But the money trail out of Clarium is clear, insiders say, and it would be a simple matter for Thiel to have arranged to make his donation through a third party like DonorsTrust, a conservative foundation through which charitable grants can be directed. The reason why Thiel would want his donation to be anonymous is simple: Even while he's betting against immigration with his hedge fund, he's making money off of immigrant-run startups in Silicon Valley. However Thiel is getting the money to NumbersUSA, it has specific goals: upgrading NumbersUSA's computer system; hiring a full-time fundraiser to solicit large donations from the wealthy; and hiring Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research to run focus groups on public attitudes toward immigration. So Thiel, like many wealthy sorts, is getting into politics. What's interesting about this is his shift from outspoken Libertarian. At PayPal, he had ambitions of using his payments startup to undermine illiberal economies and create a new world financial order. Many of his employees, first at PayPal and then at Clarium, were attracted by this powerful (if outlandish) vision. That he's now fallen under the sway of a right-wing Christian conservative is a bit crushing to the true believers Thiel attracted to his cause. Thiel once aimed to overturn the system. Now he just wants to work within it. As much as his anti-immigration views render him noxious to the Northern California mainstream, his turning away from an embrace of freedom make him an enemy to the rebellious thinkers he's hired.