Mitt Romney: The Man Without a Past

The candidate doesn't want to talk about Bain Capital and has reversed many of his former political stands. How will voters know who he is?

Mitt Romney bain capital.jpg
Bain Capital via the Boston Globe

Mitt Romney has an identity problem. He is running for president by making promises about America's future, but as a man who is largely without a past. Not only has Romney renounced many of his previous positions -- on abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, and the individual mandate he once championed as Massachusetts governor. He also refuses to divulge many details about what even he has said is his main qualification for the White House in a faltering economy: his successful career in "private equity" from 1984 to 1999 (or thereabouts).

What is it about the private equity world that Romney doesn't appear eager to bring up? As I explain in an article in the current issue of National Journal, "Mystery Man," Romney was basically what used to be known as a "barbarian at the gate." The term "private equity" sounds respectable, but it is a euphemism for the old leveraged buyout deals we remember from the 1980s, the era of corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens and Henry Kravis. After junk-bond king Michael Milken, who funded a lot of those takeovers, went to jail, the industry decided to rename itself in order to remove the taint.

This is Mitt Romney's true world. As the founder of Bain Capital, Romney became a brilliant LBO buccaneer who specialized in buying up firms by taking on a lot of debt, using the target firm as collateral, and then trying to make the firm profitable -- often by breaking it up or slashing jobs -- to the point where Bain and its investors could load up the firm with even more debt, which Bain would then use to pay itself off. That would ensure a profit for Bain investors whether or not the companies themselves succeeded in the long run. Often, burdened by all that debt, these bought-out companies did not succeed, costing thousands of jobs as they were downsized, sold off and shuttered. Other times they did phenomenally well, as in the case of Sports Authority and Domino's Pizza.

But job creation is irrelevant to Bain's business model, which is all about paying back investors. Nor does the long-term fate of the companies that private-equity firms buy up matter crucially to Bain's bottom line (though of course success is better). The only real risk for Bain is that these companies fail to make enough initial profit in order to permit Bain to pile on more debt and extract a payout, so that it can make back its investment quickly.

Though he started off dabbling in less profitable "venture capital," Romney quickly saw the high-return, low-risk potential of LBOs in the mid-1980s and ultimately was involved in about 100 such deals, which made him a true Wall Street tycoon. He then maximized his take further by socking away his gains in offshore shelters from Bermuda to the Caymans and using capital gains tax breaks and loopholes to reduce the rate of his 2010 tax return (the only one he's released) to 13.9 percent, a far lower rate than the one paid by middle-class Americans. Many of Wall Street's big dealmakers do the same with their profits, employing whole teams of international tax accountants.

But none of these dealmakers has ever run for president. This is perhaps the main reason for Romney's reticence: It's not just that being honest about Bain's real business pulls back the veil from the ugly heart of financial capitalism. It's also that this may be the hardest year since 1932 for a Wall Street big-shot to make a bid for the White House: The former Masters of the Universe remain unpopular because of the historic recession they did so much to create. So it's hardly a surprise that Romney won't dwell on practices that his onetime GOP primary opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, labeled "vulture" capitalism.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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