Darwin Meets Capitalism & Private Equity
A rising discontent is spreading like wildfire in the wake of a massive financial crisis that erupted in the U.S. during 2008, and is now working its way through Europe. Irresponsible governments across the globe succumbed to the deceptive allure of leverage, and as a result racked up colossal debts and gargantuan deficits. Now governments everywhere are toggling between political gridlock and painful austerity. Citizens are feeling the pain through high unemployment, exploding education costs, crumbling social safety nets, and a general decline in the standard of living.
As a result of these dramatic changes, the contributions of capitalism are being questioned by many, whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street movement attack on the top 1%, or more recently the assault on private equity’s relevancy for a presidential candidate.
Although the media may prefer to sensationalize economic stories and tell observers, “This time is different” to boost viewership, usually the truth relies more on the nuanced evolution of issues over time. If Charles Darwin were alive today, he would understand that capitalism and democracies are evolving to massive changes in globalization, technology, and emerging markets. Darwin would appreciate the fact that capitalism can’t and won’t change overnight. Whether capitalism ultimately survives or goes extinct depends on how it adapts. Or as Darwin characterizes evolution:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.
Will Capitalism Survive?
Capitalism and democracy fit like a hand in a glove, which explains why both have thrived for generations. Never mind that democracies have been around for centuries and their expansion continues unabated (see Spreading the Seeds of Democracy), nevertheless pundits feel compelled to question the sustainability of these institutions.
I guess the real response to all those experts who question the merits of capitalism is what alternative would serve us better? Would it be Socialism like we see grinding Europe to a halt? Or perhaps Communism working its wonders in North Korea and Cuba? If not that, then surely the Autocracies in Egypt and Libya are the winning formulas? The Occupy Wall Streeters may not be happy with their personal plight or the top 1%, but I don’t see them packing their bags for Greece, the Middle East or China.
There is arguably a growing disparity between rich and poor and the game of globalization is only making it more difficult for rising tides of growth to lift up our middle class. The beauty of capitalism is that money goes where it is treated best. Capitalism sucks money to the areas of the world that are the freest, most open, transparent, and practice the rule of law. Some of these components of American capitalism unquestionably eroded over the last decade or so, but the good thing is that in a democracy, citizens have the right to vote and elect growth-promoting leaders to fix problems. Growth comes from competitiveness, and competitiveness is derived from education, innovation, and pro-growth policies. Let’s hope the 2012 elections get agents of change in office.
Darwin & Private Equity
Republican Presidential primary candidate Mitt Romney has been raked over the coals for his prior professional career at private equity firm, Bain Capital. I’m convinced Charles Darwin would see private equity’s involvement as a critical factor in the process of global commerce. Businesses are like species, and only the fittest will survive.
Private equity firms prey upon weak businesses, looking to restructure and reorganize them to become more competitive. If private equity companies are bullies, then their business targets can be considered weaklings. Beating wimps into shape may not be fun to watch, but is a crucial evolutionary aspect of business. The fact of the matter is that deteriorating, uncompetitive companies cannot hire employees…only profitable, viable entities can createsustainable jobs. So our public policy officials have two choices:
• Prop up uncompetitive businesses inefficiently with tax dollars that save jobs in the short-run, but lead to bankruptcy and massive job losses in the future. Other unproductive tariffs and bailouts may garner short-term political votes, but only lead to long-term stagnancy.
• Trim fat, restructure and reorganize now – similar to the swift pain experienced from extracting a rotted tooth. Jobs may be cut in the short-run, but a long-term competitively positioned company will be able to grow and create sustainable long-term jobs.
I can’t say I agree with all of private equity practices, such as leveraged recapitalizations – the practice in which private equity companies load up the target with debt so big fat dividends can be sucked out by the principals. But guess what? By doing so the principals are only reducing their own future exit value through a potential IPO (Initial Public Offering) or company sale. Moreover, if this is such an evil practice, lenders can curb the practice by simply not giving the private equity companies the needed borrowing capacity.
Capitalism and its private equity subset have gotten quite a bad rap lately, but I believe these forces are essential aspects for the rising standards of living for billions of people across the planet. When first introduced, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was critically examined by many non-believers. Although capitalism will be forced to adapt to an ever-changing world and its merits have been questioned too, the chances of capitalism going extinct are about as likely as the extinction of Darwin’s evolutionary theory.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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Entry filed under: economy, Financial Markets, Politics. Tags: capitalism, Charles Darwin, competitiveness, democracy, jobs, Occupy Wall Street, OWS, PE, Politics, private equity, socialism, unemployment.