Renaissance Technologies Enters Divestment Campaign Crosshairs

Sleeping Giants — the advocates that helped topple Bill O’Reilly from Fox — have mobilized to pressure investors into ditching the controversial hedge fund.

Illustration by Institutional Investor

Illustration by Institutional Investor

The online movement that undercut Breitbart News’ advertising business is back at it, this time targeting institutions invested in quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.

Sleeping Giants — initially set up to deprive Breitbart and other conservative media outlets of ad dollars after the 2016 election — announced its new campaign on Monday. The group is encouraging supporters to email or tweet at institutions’ board members and executives, and urge them to pull capital from Renaissance Technologies. The campaign arose from an article purporting to name some RenTech investors, published last week by progressive news site ThinkProgress. “These wealthy institutions are quietly financing white nationalism,” authors Judd Legum and Danielle McLean state in the headline, then profess to follow the money from public pension funds, university endowments, and charities to Renaissance Technologies and its co-CEO Robert Mercer, who in turn co-owns Breitbart News.

[II Deep Dive: What Renaissance Technologies Has That You Don’t...]

Sleeping Giants exercises grassroots networks and social media to get out its messages. For this campaign, it says it will list email addresses and Twitter accounts related to each institution named by ThinkProgress, and do so every other day.

Targeting RenTec to get at Robert Mercer risks collateral damage against decidedly non-far right stakeholders, including aforementioned public pension funds and RenTec founder Jim Simons, a major Democratic Party donor. Simons most recently donated $2,700 twice to Democrat Gareth Rhodes, an upstate New York congressional candidate, according to campaign contribution tracker OpenSecrets.

“There are no sides to this,” a spokesperson for Sleeping Giants countered, when reached by phone. “This is not a political thing. We just think that if you’re giving money to someone who is going to use it to fund white nationalism or racism or sexism — especially if you have diverse students and faculty — it feels hypocritical.”

The institutions named in ThinkProgress’s report include Michigan State University, the Public School Retirement System of Missouri, Columbia University, Los Angeles Water & Power Employees Retirement System, the Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence, National Academy of Sciences, Baltimore Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System, William Penn Foundation, American Physical Society, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Tufts Medical Center, and Furman University.

Only Michigan State — the campaign’s first target — had responded to Sleeping Giants by midday Tuesday, according to the group. The institution responded with force.

“The recent story in Think Progress” concerning Michigan State University’s investment strategy “is misleading and purposely confusing,” spokesperson Jason Cody said in a statement. “MSU is not financing any white nationalist organization or individual. We also do not have a financial position in any media outlet, Breitbart or otherwise.”

MSU hired RenTec to invest in global equities, Cody explained, and did so “based on their long-term expected performance and fit for the overall portfolio”— the same basic process by which the institution and its peers select any investment manager. “It should be noted we do not consider the personal political opinions and private activities of individual employees when making decisions.”

Michigan State’s early pushback departs from Sleeping Giants’ prior campaign results against Breitbart. More than 3,000 advertisers capitulated en masse, according to a spokesperson, and pulled their businesses from the website. Roughly 20 advertisers did the same from Bill O’Reilly’s time slot on Fox News in April, the same source said. Days later, the network ousted O’Reilly, citing a “careful review of the allegations.” MSU’s “reaction was regrettable,” the campaign representative said.

As for RenTec? A spokesperson for the hedge fund declined comment.