Distressed America is Wall Street’s hottest new investment vehicle.
Hedge funds, investment banks and money managers are trying to raise tens of billions of dollars this year for so-called opportunity funds, a creation of President Trump’s 2017 tax package that is meant to steer money to poor areas by offering potentially large tax breaks.
Little noticed at first, the provision has unleashed a flurry of investment activity by wealthy families, some of Wall Street’s biggest investors and so-called impact investors who want to put money into projects ostensibly meant to help struggling Americans. The ranks of those starting such funds include Anthony Scaramucci, the New York hedge fund executive who served briefly as Mr. Trump’s communications director.
More than 80 of the funds have sprung up since January 2018, even though the Trump administration has not finalized regulations governing them. Managers of the funds are seeking to raise huge sums of money by pitching investors on a combination of outsize returns and a feel-good role in fighting poverty.
The flood of capital is raising hopes as well as concerns. Those who championed the provision, which provides for a hefty tax break on long-term investments, believe the money can help distressed towns and neighborhoods that are still feeling the effects of the financial crisis and have barely benefited from the nine-year economic expansion. Skeptics worry that the funds will mostly target real estate and other projects that probably would have attracted investment even without the tax break, and may not deliver the returns being dangled.
“I don’t think these are going to have the impact that people think they are,” said Lawrin Van Keuren, who oversees real estate investments for the money management firm controlled by the family of Fred Hayman, a founder of the luxury retailer Giorgio Beverly Hills. “We are in a wait-and-see mode.”
The provision that created the funds was added to the tax law by Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, and had been supported by Democrats and Republicans in previous legislation. They provide capital gains tax relief for investors who finance projects in about 8,700 so-called opportunity zones spread across the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Local officials selected the zones from a group of areas deemed eligible for the designation under a federal formula that factors in income and poverty levels. The federal government has not finished setting guidelines for what types of projects qualify or what information fund managers must provide to investors and to the government.
The designated areas include heavily distressed tracts in cities like Detroit and Gary, Ind. But some zones are in gentrifying areas like the old downtown section of Las Vegas and parts of Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon said it would build a huge corporate campus before reversing course last week.
The advent of the funds has spawned conferences around the country and has drawn interest from a variety of financial players. So far, most of the funds have focused on real estate investments. Some impact funds are targeting areas like the Southeast and industrial Midwest, while many of the Wall Street funds are geared toward major metropolitan areas on the East and West Coasts, particularly New York City. That has fueled concern that the tax break could help regions that already enjoy substantial investment.
Some impact investors are working with philanthropists to try to establish accountability standards for the funds that the federal government does not yet require, to address issues like the quality of jobs created in poor areas. The goal for these investors is to steer money to small businesses and other development that communities actually need, and not just to finance things that provide wealthy investors with the highest returns, like high-end hotels or condos.
“I believe it really can be a great model to demonstrate the holistic, community-informed investments that can transform these distressed communities, while earning returns,” said Jim Sorenson, an entrepreneur based in Utah. Mr. Sorenson, who hosts an annual gathering of impact investors in Salt Lake City, devoted much of this year’s meeting, in February, to discussing the potential benefits of the zones. He joined several groups in announcing an effort to create a “guiding set of principles” for making such investments.
Fran Seegull, the executive director of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance and a conference attendee, emphasized the importance of laying out such principles early.
“First movers will really shape the market,” Ms. Seegull said. “Those of us that care about community engagement, community solutions and metrics feel that it’s important to set the tone” for other investors.
The concept of opportunity-zone funds is also captivating Wall Street. Its inclusion in the tax law was celebrated by some big technology investors seeking ways to capitalize on stock market winnings while keeping their tax bills low.
The law permits an investor to roll over an unrealized capital gain — proceeds from the sale of stocks or a home, for instance — into an opportunity-zone fund. The fund can then put the money in a zone by investing in, say, a condo project or affordable-housing units.
An investor who keeps money in a such a fund for 10 years is able to exclude 15 percent of the original capital gain from taxation. And — potentially much more lucratively — the investor would not owe taxes on any gains that accrued if the investment increased in value in that time.
Firms that have started such funds or are considering doing so include the major real estate development company Starwood Capital; EJF Capital, a hedge fund based in Arlington, Va.; and the real estate investment firm GTIS Partners. The biggest opportunity-zone fund announced so far is a $5 billion fund by CIM Group, a large real estate investment firm and property manager.
The National Council of State Housing Agencies, which is tracking opportunity-zone funds, found that money managers and nonprofits had so far sought to raise over $18 billion, not including the CIM Group’s venture.
This month, the real estate company Cushman & Wakefield began seeking investors for two apartment complexes planned for opportunity zones in San Juan, P.R. The company, which projects a rate of return on investment of 29 to 37 percent over five years, said it had received expressions of interest from over 100 investors.
Joseph Douek, an investment manager who is also a member of the City Planning Commission in New York, hopes to raise $75 million for a new fund that will invest in housing developments in Brooklyn. Mr. Douek said he did not believe his roles as a fund manager and a planning commissioner member presented a conflict of interest. He said a conflict would arise only if a development project needed approval from the planning commission, something he did not expect he would need.
Potential investors are looking beyond the coasts. McNally Capital, a Chicago investment firm backed by some heirs of the Rand McNally map company, is considering financing housing developments in the South and Midwest.
One investor who has seized on the opportunity-zone-fund provision is Mr. Scaramucci, well known on Wall Street as a self-promoter who holds a glitzy annual hedge fund conference in Las Vegas. SkyBridge Capital, his investment firm, is aggressively pitching what it has billed as a $3 billion portfolio that will invest across the country.
The fund, organized as a real estate investment trust, has gotten off to a rocky start. Just weeks after it was formally started in late December, it lost one of its partners, EJF Capital. Mr. Scaramucci then brought in Westport Capital Advisors, a real estate investing firm, to manage the fund. Despite the turmoil, dozens of potential investors attended a forum this month at the Manhattan offices of the law firm K&L Gates to hear Mr. Scaramucci iscuss the benefits of opportunity zones.
An initial marketing document for Mr. Scaramucci’s fund advertises the prospect of “meaningful social benefits” from investing in opportunity zones, including job creation and reduced poverty. It also details how a hypothetical investor could earn a return over 10 years that is triple what she would get from a similar fund that did not offer the new tax advantage.
Brett Messing, SkyBridge’s president, said the projected return was “just math” that was not unique to the SkyBridge fund. He said the key to achieving number was finding the right projects to invest in.
“You’ve got to make money,” said Mr. Messing. “You have to generate gains and you have to preserve the tax benefits.”
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