In Billions, a TV drama about fictional hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, one of the sharpest lines was supplied by a real hedge fund billionaire.
“There’s a small group who can do the math. There’s an even smaller group who can explain it. But those few who can do both? They become billionaires,” says Axelrod.
The monologue was provided to the shows creators by Marc Lasry, a pioneer in the niche world of distressed debt investments.
“I don’t think there’s been one season that Marc hasn’t touched in some way,” said Brian Koppelman, a co-creator of Billions, who calls on Lasry to sketch motives of characters and credits him for the show’s “understanding of the billionaire psyche”.
In the span of a few months, Lasry’s own life has offered inspiration for fresh plot lines, including a relatively paltry $1m investment that embroiled him in one of the year’s most embarrassing corporate flame-outs: Ozy Media.
In July, Lasry was flying high as he hoisted the NBA’s championship trophy as an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, a once-hapless basketball team that Lasry purchased with two fellow Wall Street billionaires for $550m in 2014, then turned them into champions. The following day, Lasry received private congratulations from three presidents: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Professionally, Lasry leads Avenue Capital Group, the $12bn investment company he co-founded with his sister, Sonia Gardner, in 1995. His investing success comes from esoteric financial markets, such as lending to companies that lease used aircraft, restructuring overleveraged corporate carcasses, or purchasing and flipping creditors’ claims in bankruptcies.
Lasry’s personal investments are far more prominent, even when the money is small, as was the case with Ozy.
On September 9, he became chair of Ozy, which was co-founded by charismatic former Goldman Sachs banker Carlos Watson in 2013 to target the “change generation”. Lasry’s tenure lasted just three weeks.
On September 26, The New York Times revealed that Ozy co-founder Samir Rao had impersonated a YouTube employee in a meeting with Goldman, arranged as due diligence on a prospective $40m investment. Goldman uncovered the scheme and pulled out. Ozy blamed the incident on a mental health crisis suffered by Rao.
Lasry first responded to the ordeal by saying “we fully support the way it was handled” and characterised it as “an unfortunate one-time event”. But Ozy’s claims to have racked up 50m readers and to have partnerships with YouTube and cable channel A&E were also dubious. Former insiders called the company a “Potemkin village”.
Four days later Lasry resigned. “I believe that going forward Ozy requires experience in areas like crisis management and investigations, where I do not have particular expertise,” he said.
For Lasry, the fiasco is one of the hazards of embracing a lifestyle that deliberately ventures into unfamiliar waters.
“Part of what I try to do is learn as much as I can about industries. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s not,” Lasry told the Financial Times.
He says he backed Ozy as he wanted to pick up ideas about the changing media industry, just as his brief board appointment to Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Co was about understanding the evolving film business. Lasry stepped down in 2017, after about a year, as Weinstein was swept up in a sexual harassment scandal, which Lasry says he knew nothing about.
Since 2019, the hedge fund boss has also sat on the advisory board of Tennor Holding, the investment company of Lars Windhorst, a flamboyant German financier with a history of legal trouble.
Born in Marrakesh, Morocco, and raised in a modest upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, Lasry considered becoming a UPS truck driver after graduating from Clark University in 1981.
“My wife didn’t want me to be a truck driver,” he once said of his longtime spouse Cathy, whom he met as an undergraduate and married a few years later. He enrolled in New York Law School and clerked for a judge in the US Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of New York. Learning the vagaries of bankruptcies positioned Lasry to ride a three-decade boom in distressed debt investments.
Lasry joined a specialist brokerage in 1986 that bought bank debts and trade claims, which was founded by Randall Smith, the controversial investor behind Alden Global Capital, known for gutting newspapers across America. In 1989, with the backing of billionaire Robert Bass, Lasry and his sister Gardner created their own brokerage. Six years later, they launched Avenue Capital.
“I love special situations. The more complicated it is, the better it is,” Lasry said. “You try to find niches where people don’t want to deal with it.”
Success in mining for obscure but undervalued investments allowed Lasry to pursue an ever more prominent life away from Wall Street.
In the late 1990s, he became a donor to Clinton and formed a close friendship with the president and future Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. A large backer of the Democratic party, he also held fundraisers for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. He hired Chelsea Clinton as an analyst at Avenue and invested in her husband Marc Mezvinsky’s ill-fated hedge fund.
Generosity yields access in politics. The Clintons attended Lasry’s 60th birthday party in Marrakesh. He was a guest at the White House during the Obama years when Emanuel was chief of staff and was an influential sounding board on financial issues after the crisis.
“You get a sense from talking to people, where things are going or where you believe they’re going,” said Lasry. “My job is to learn and to glean information. I do that 24 hours a day.”
With his window into Washington, Lasry thrived. “He has an uncanny ability to boil down what’s going to make an investment work, or not work,” said investor Jason Mudrick, a friend.
Assets at Avenue increased roughly 20-fold from 2000 to 2010, peaking at about $18bn, before declining in recent years as profits and capital were returned.
Lasry was considered as Obama’s pick to become ambassador to France in 2013, but the nomination was shelved, reportedly because of concern about the investor’s participation in a high-stakes poker game. Lasry disputes this, saying he withdrew because of the complexities of divesting from his hedge fund.
The year after, he turned his attention to the NBA and the auction of the Bucks. Believing that the downside was capped and the benefits of a new TV deal were undervalued, Lasry and a consortium of investors won and revitalised the team with new players and an arena. In a stroke of luck, it had just drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo, a future league star. Forbes now values the Bucks at $1.6bn.
There are many financial billionaires who own major league sports teams but are still searching for a title, so it is surprising that Lasry’s success has not earned him enemies. “I think he’s universally liked, even with the schadenfreude of Wall Street where people are hyper-competitive,” said trader Boaz Weinstein.
Lasry’s journey through politics, a gambling scandal, the highs of business and the lows of a corporate car crash, makes him a potent contributor to Billions, particularly when the writers need advice on the grittier bits of high finance.
“When we knew we wanted Axe to take on an oligarch’s money, we asked Marc what the ramifications would be. How would everybody react?” said Koppelman.
As for his own reaction to Ozy, Lasry is keen to move on. “It was a venture deal and venture always has risk,” he said, parrying away further responsibility. “In all seriousness, I wish Carlos the best of luck.”
Additional reporting by Arash Massoudi in London
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