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.
How the election looks to backers of the Republican nominee
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in contemporary American politics is to imagine how the world looks from the other side. I’ve made no secret of why, as a Republican, I oppose Donald Trump and what he stands for. But I’ve also been talking to his supporters and advisors, trying to understand how they see and hear the same things that I do, and draw such very different conclusions. What follows isn’t a transcription—it’s a synthesis of the conversations I’ve had, and the insights I’ve gleaned, presented in the voice of an imagined Trump supporter.
“You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be. He’s playing this game in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen. And he’s winning too, in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen.
The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
Not the people—the term. How generational divisions have driven down voter turnout over the last century of American politics.
Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pundits and activists have debated how to get more Millennials involved in politics, always stressing their distinctive character. But it was actually this tendency to slice up the electorate into unique generations that drove young people from politics in the first place.
In the 19th century, children, youths, and adults “mingled freely together” at rowdy campaign rallies, lured by the holy trinity of booze, barbecue, and bonfire. Older citizens introduced young people to politics, helping to drive voter turnouts to their highest levels in U.S. history. “It’s the ‘big fellow,’” observed the Republicans canvassing in pool halls and saloons in the 1880s, who does the best job getting “the ‘little fellow”’ into politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
A church facing setbacks elsewhere finds an unlikely foothold.
At the end of 2013, in the low-slung, industrial Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a bevy of officials came to attend the ribbon cutting of a huge former hotel that had undergone a top-to-bottom, multimillion-dollar renovation. Speaking before the throngs of celebrants who blocked the flow of traffic, Taiwan’s deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior praised the group that funded the renovation and presented them, for the 10th year straight, with the national “Excellent Religious Group” award.
“For years you have dedicated your time and lives to anti-drug work and human- rights dissemination,” said the director, echoing praise offered by the mayor’s office and the president’s national-policy adviser.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a disagreement about whether or not our apartment was clean enough for guests—the type of medium-sized disagreement that likely plagues all close relationships. In the midst of it, there was a lull and, feeling exhausted all of a sudden, I got up and left the living room. In the bedroom, I immediately fell face down into the sheets. The next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later and my wife was shaking me awake. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep; I just felt so fatigued in that moment that there was nothing else I could do.
This wasn’t new for me. A few weeks earlier, I had come into conflict with an acquaintance over some money. We were exchanging tense emails while I was at my office, and I began to feel the slow oozing onset of sleep, the same tiredness that came on when, as a child, I rode in the backseat of the car on the way home from some undesired trip. A sleepiness that overtakes the body slowly but surely and feels entirely outside of your control.
A collection of books recommended by The Atlantic’s editors and writers
The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
The World Well-Being Project uses Facebook updates to correlate language with personality traits.
Do our Facebook posts reflect our true personalities? Incrementally, probably not. But in aggregate, the things we say on social media paint a fairly accurate portrait of our inner selves. A team of University of Pennsylvania scientists is using Facebook status updates to find commonalities in the words used by different ages, genders, and even psyches.
“Governments have an increased interest in measuring not just economic outcomes but other aspects of well-being,” said Andrew Schwartz, a UPenn computer scientist who works on the project. “But it's very difficult to study well-being at a large scale. It costs a lot of money to administer surveys to see how people are doing in certain areas. Social media can help with that.”