The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Billionaire at the center of a Wall Street fiasco gives millions to evangelical ministries

Bill Hwang, left, pictured with the evangelical leader Ravi Zacharias at a conference in Aventura, Fla., in 2019. (Laura K. Moore)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW YORK — The collapse of a billionaire’s family investment firm that has some asking whether Wall Street learned its lesson from past financial crises has sparked a different debate among some evangelical leaders over ethical investing.

Archegos Capital Management is a family office, which typically manages the money of a few wealthy families. In this case, it managed about $10 billion of Bill Hwang’s family fortune, according to Reuters. The firm used borrowed money to buy substantial stakes in media and Internet companies, including ViacomCBS. That position went south this week after Viacom’s share price dropped, prompting Wall Street firms that had invested in Archegos to demand it make up some of those losses. When Archegos could not, two banks that financed Archegos’ stock purchases warned its own investors of potential losses of billions of dollars, according to several media accounts.

While being overleveraged isn’t necessarily illegal, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a preliminary investigation into the firm’s meltdown, Bloomberg News reported; such inquiries are routine and may not lead to charges.

Using Archegos’s same Manhattan address across from Carnegie Hall, Hwang co-founded one of the nation’s largest Christian charitable foundations, the Grace and Mercy Foundation, with nearly $500 million in assets. Recent tax documents from his foundation show it is funded mainly by Hwang; he and his wife are directors. Tax records also show his charity has donated amounts ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars to more than 60 institutions, mostly evangelical ones, including giving $1.2 million to the Museum of the Bible in Washington.

Hwang, 57, was also once close to the late evangelical leader Ravi Zacharias, who was recently in the news over accusations of sexual misconduct, and they spoke together at a conference in 2019. Hwang’s foundation gave Zacharias’s ministry $255,000 in 2018.

“I cannot think of another foundation or individual that has given significant donations to as many Christian organizations as he has,” said Warren Cole Smith, who leads a group called MinistryWatch that monitors Christian ministries’ finances.

A spokesman for Hwang did not respond to a request for comment. The president of the Grace and Mercy Foundation, Sumi Kim, did not respond to a request for comment.

Smith said Hwang may not be legally guilty of wrongdoing, but his actions should still give Christians pause because they resulted in losses for investors well beyond Hwang’s family.

“That kind of risky behavior, especially with other people’s money, does have moral and ethical consequences, even if it’s not illegal,” Smith said.

Major evangelical nonprofits are trying a new strategy with the IRS that allows them to hide their salaries

Hwang is the son of a Korean pastor who immigrated to the United States as a child. He later became one of billionaire Julian Robertson’s proteges, and started the Tiger Asia hedge fund. In 2012, the SEC charged Hwang with committing insider trading at Tiger Asia. He agreed to pay $44 million to settle the charges, and he was also barred from trading or giving investment advice for at least five years starting in 2013.

According to interviews with several people who know Hwang and his foundation, Hwang has shared this story as a “come to Jesus” moment, where he would say that he had a sort of spiritual awakening after being caught by the SEC. Since then, he has been given several platforms on Christian conference stages to talk about his business mind-set.

Tony Carnes, who runs a site called A Journey through NYC religions, said he turned down a potential funding call with the foundation because he felt uncomfortable after hearing speculation that Hwang was using his foundation to make a comeback. He said while it’s okay for churches and ministries to receive money from people who might not have stellar backgrounds, he was concerned that Hwang was being heralded for his great business and ethics approach.

Carnes believes there are bigger questions Christians must ask over whether it’s ethical to take such major risks with other people’s money.

“Is capitalism only a Wild West game?” Carnes said. “It’s a shootout and see who survives? Or is it more cooperative and you make sure you look for casualties and help them? You recognize you have some limits. The limits might not legally be there, but ethically, [they are] if you care for people.”

According to tax documents, Hwang gave $5.5 million to the Fuller Foundation, a family foundation, as well as $2 million to the Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is on the board of trustees, considered to be a list of who’s who among influential evangelical leaders.

Rich Mouw, a former president of Fuller Theological Seminary and an evangelical leader, said he remembers bringing Hwang on the board of Fuller after Hwang’s investments did so well for the Fuller Foundation. Together, they traveled as friends to Japan and South Korea, and Mouw spoke at Hwang’s mother’s funeral.

“I have talked a lot with Bill about ethical and spiritual challenges in his work,” Mouw said. “I’ve always found him to be very eager to think in Christian ways.”

In a 2018 interview with the seminary, Hwang spoke about using capitalism to help society advance in investing in companies that do good for society, citing LinkedIn as an example.

The Grace and Mercy Foundation has donated to major evangelical ministries across the country, including Cru (formerly Campus Crusade), Prison Fellowship, Young Life and the Navigators. It also has helped to finance several Christian organizations in Manhattan, including Redeemer Presbyterian’s Hope for New York and the King’s College.

In total, the foundation gave out more than $16 million in grants in 2018, with many donations being likely to make up a significant portion of smaller ministries’ revenue.

One evangelical leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared it could jeopardize his relationship with Hwang, said Hwang spoke to him about his financial influence overseas. He said Hwang would talk about how he would consider his investments in a country like Cambodia and then also decide to support an orphanage or congregation as a way to support something for the “kingdom,” a reference to God’s work on Earth.

Whether Archegos’s meltdown could affect the Grace and Mercy Foundation is unclear. Tax returns from 2018 suggest Hwang’s foundation purchased shares of several private offshore entities. The foundation also received a donation of a $30 million share in Amazon that was purchased for about $10 million. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) If Hwang made the donations to his foundation, he was probably able to deduct gifts and avoid capital gains taxes, according to David Bea, a Chicago-based attorney who has worked with several religious institutions on their IRS status.

Bea said the foundation, assuming its transactions were properly separated from Archegos, should be safe from Hwang’s Wall Street dealings because Hwang and his wife are listed as directors, not owners.

The foundation gave about 3.2 percent of its funding to mostly Christian, Korean and Asian American nonprofit organizations in 2018, while most foundations in the United States are expected to meet a minimum percentage of 5 percent, according to Bea.

In 2014, Hwang also brought on board Andy Mills, a leader in evangelical institutions such as Focus on the Family and the King’s College. Mills has been executive chairman and co-chief executive officer at Archegos, as well as vice chairperson of Hwang’s foundation. Mills did not respond to calls requesting comment.

Hwang is among several wealthy Christian philanthropists in the United States who carry financial influence through foundations such as the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the H.E. Butt Foundation and the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation. But what’s unusual about Hwang is that he has flown largely under the radar even though his finances have touched so many evangelical institutions nationwide.

Hwang is passionate about having the Bible read out loud for people to listen to publicly. Each week, his foundation would host a live session in Manhattan where ministry leaders around the city would gather to hear the Bible read.

Doug Birdsall, honorary co-chair of Lausanne Movement, an international network of evangelicals that has been a recipient of Hwang’s generosity, said that when Birdsall lived in New York in 2013, they worshiped together at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by pastor Tim Keller. Hwang gave Lausanne $75,000 in 2018, according to tax records. Birdsall said he admires Hwang for his attitude toward money, pointing to an interview posted on YouTube in 2018 in which Hwang said, “I do it because I like God more than I like money.”

Birdsall still has a lot of admiration for Hwang, as well as sympathy for what happened on Wall Street.

“Bill obviously has a high tolerance for risk,” Birdsall said. “They say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. He’s had setbacks but they’ve been compensated by his success. I haven’t heard anything about illegal or foolish activity. It’s a matter of, it was a risk … and he lost.”

Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

This story has been updated. An earlier version of this story included International Justice Mission in a list of institutions that received money from the foundation. IJM considers itself a non-sectarian community of faith.