Mitt Romney's private equity record is suddenly the talk of the GOP presidential contest. What do we know about the industry he helped to create?
With Mitt Romney on the march towards the Republican presidential nomination, chances are we're all going to be hearing a lot about the world of private equity for the next 11 months. The GOP frontrunner is already getting tarred by his primary rivals for his time running Bain Capital, where he helped write the playbook on how to buy up companies, rebuild them for maximum value, and flip them for a tidy profit.
Was Romney just running a corporate chop-shop? Or was he pioneering a new way to unlock the worth in American business? Whatever the answer, the blueprint he helped design has been massively influential. In 2007, investors had plunked more than $200 billion into funds like Bain.
Academics have scrutinized the broader economic effects of private equity and what it does to companies, industries, workers, and investors. Here's a brief guide to help you answer the question: Is private equity good or bad for the economy?
Do private equity buyouts hurt workers?
Yes, then no.More workers get fired in the aftermath. Then more get hired.
In the nightmares of unions and Occupiers, a private equity buyout works something like this: A firm run by men wearing Brioni suits snaps up a helpless corporation, fires as many workers as it can, lards their new asset up with debt, and then sells it off for as much profit as possible. The employees suffer. The fat cats make bank.
The reality, as illustrated in a 2011 study from researchers at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau, is more complicated. The paper examined what happened to workers at 3,200 companies targeted in private equity acquisitions between 1980 and 2005. Companies did tend to fire more workers in the years after a buyout compared to competitors in their industry. But they also tended to hire more new workers. They also were more likely to sell off divisions or buy up new ones. As a result, companies involved in a private equity deal saw much, much more turnover -- or "job reallocation" as the academics put it -- but only a net decrease in employment of about 1% compared to other businesses.
In other words, it's creative destruction, but chronologically, it works out more like destructive creation. Employees are fired. Then new ones are hired. The chaos and change is undoubtedly brutal for those who get caught up in it, but the stereotype of massive net job losses isn't necessarily accurate.
Do private equity firms drive companies into bankruptcy?
The data isn't complete, but some indicators say no.
Some criticize private equity firms for leaving companies in worse financial shape than when they were purchased. In its recent look at Romney's record regarding 77 companies he worked with at Bain, the Wall Street Journal said that 22% of them filed for bankruptcy reorganization or closed up shop within eight years of the fund's initial investment. However, it's unclear whether those numbers are normal for private equity on the whole.
Steven Kaplan of the University Chicago and Per Stromberg of the Stockholm School of Economics reviewed a sample of more than 17,000 private equity transactions to see how funds exited the deals. Only about 6% ended in either bankruptcy or reorganization, giving them a yearly default rate that was lower overall than the average corporate bond issuer.* That feat was especially impressive, considering that many private equity firms, including Bain, specialize in turning around troubled or risky businesses.
The analysis did not include bankruptcies that occurred after a private equity firm sold off its stake. Does that matter? Depends. You might say a private equity firm can't be held responsible for what happens to a business after they cede control. But these businesses matter to private equity's record if you suspect firms are more likely to offload companies that aren't working out.
Does private equity make the whole economy more efficient?
Possibly. Industries with lots of private equity activity actually see faster growth.
Whether or not private equity helps most businesses, it seems to have a positive effect on the wider business climate. Looking at 20 industries in more than two dozen countries between 1991 and 2007, a research team from the Stockholm School, Harvard, and Columbia University found that industries with private equity activity grew 20% faster than other sectors. After running several mathematical checks, the paper concluded it was unlikely that private equity funds were simply investing in industries that were already primed for faster growth. Rather, they concluded that the lessons from private equity firms taught entire industries to be more efficient.
Do investors make money?
Not as much as you might think. They might be better off putting their money in stocks.
In 2005, The University of Chicago's Kaplan and Antoinette Schoar of MIT looked at whether investors who pour their billions into private equity got their money's worth. The answer: Not so much. Looking at data from 1980 through 2001, the researchers found that, after the managers took out their fees, investors actually made slightly less on private equity deals than they could have by investing in an S&P 500 index fund. Some funds were much more profitable than others. In the big picture, though, stocks won out.
But the fees make all the difference. Private equity firms are known to regularly take a 20% cut of profits. Lo and behold, once the researchers accounted for fees, private equity thoroughly outperformed stocks. Apparently, quite a lot of value winds up with the private equity guys, themselves.
*There was a big gap in the data, however. The research sample marked the outcome of 11% of the private equity deals as "unknown." As
Kaplan and Stromberg noted, there might have been more bankruptcies
lurking within that group of unknowns. A previous study found
that 23% of the large private equity transactions that took public
companies private during the 1980s ended in bankruptcy.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Is oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere a sign of living beings, or something more mundane?
Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.
“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.
The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.
After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe—one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it—the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters, and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.