The Case Against Private Equity Firms

James Surowiecki has a brief but illuminating post about private-equity firms. He explains that while some private-equity firms do make the companies that they purchase better off, they do so by gaming the system:

Given the weak job market, it makes sense that the attacks have focussed on layoffs. But the real problem with leveraged-buyout firms isn’t their impact on jobs, which studies suggest isn’t that substantial one way or the other. A 2008 study of companies bought by private-equity firms found that their job growth was only about one per cent slower than at similar, public companies; there was more job destruction but also more job creation. And, while private-equity firms are not great employers in terms of wage growth, there’s not much evidence that they’re significantly worse than the rest of corporate America, which has been treating workers more stingily for about three decades.

The real reason that we should be concerned about private equity’s expanding power lies in the way these firms have become increasingly adept at using financial gimmicks to line their pockets, deriving enormous wealth not from management or investing skills but, rather, from the way the U.S. tax system works. Indeed, for an industry that’s often held up as an exemplar of free-market capitalism, private equity is surprisingly dependent on government subsidies for its profits. Financial engineering has always been central to leveraged buyouts. In a typical deal, a private-equity firm buys a company, using some of its own money and some borrowed money. It then tries to improve the performance of the acquired company, with an eye toward cashing out by selling it or taking it public. The key to this strategy is debt: the model encourages firms to borrow as much as possible, since, just as with a mortgage, the less money you put down, the bigger your potential return on investment. The rewards can be extraordinary: when Romney was at Bain, it supposedly earned eighty-eight per cent a year for its investors. But piles of debt also increase the risk that companies will go bust.

This approach has one obvious virtue: if a private-equity firm wants to make money, it has to improve the value of the companies it buys. Sometimes the improvement may be more cosmetic than real, but historically private-equity firms have in principle had a powerful incentive to make companies perform better. In the past decade, though, that calculus changed. Having already piled companies high with debt in order to buy them, many private-equity funds had their companies borrow even more, and then used that money to pay themselves huge “special dividends.” This allowed them to recoup their initial investment while keeping the same ownership stake. Before 2000, big special dividends were not that common. But between 2003 and 2007 private-equity funds took more than seventy billion dollars out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.

As a result, private-equity firms are increasingly able to profit even if the companies they run go under—an outcome made much likelier by all the extra borrowing—and many companies have been getting picked clean.

I also highly recommend reading venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s post “Why Taxing Carried Interest as Ordinary Income Is Good Policy.”

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