Private Equity: Parasite or Pollinator?

July 21, 2012 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

In the wild, there exist both parasitic and symbiotic relationships. In the case of blood thirsty ticks that feed off deer, this parasitic relationship differs from the symbiotic association of nectar-sucking bees and pollen-hungry flowers. These are merely a few examples, but suffice it to say, these same intricate interactions occur in the business world as well.

Our economy is a complex jungle of relationships, spanning governments, businesses, consumers, investors, and many intermediaries, including private equity (PE) firms. With the November election rapidly approaching, more attention is being placed on how private equity firms fit into the economic food chain. Figuring out whether PE firms are more like profit-sucking parasites or constructive job creating mechanisms has moved to the forefront, especially given presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s past ties to Bain Capital, a successful private equity firm he founded in 1984.

Currently it is politically advantageous to portray PE professionals as greedy, job-cutting outsourcers – I’m still waiting for the political ad showing a PE worker clubbing a baby seal or plucking the legs off of a Daddy Long Legs spider. While I’d freely admit a PE pro can be just as gluttonous as an investment banker, hedge fund manager, or venture capitalist, simplistic characterizations like these miss the beneficial effects these firms provide to the overall economy. Capitalism is the spine that holds our economy together and has allowed us to grow into the greatest superpower on the planet. Private equity is but a small part of our capitalistic ecosystem, but plays a valuable role nonetheless.

While there are many perspectives on the role of private equity in our economy, here are my views on a few of the hot button issues:

Job Creation: Although I believe PE firms are valuable to our economy, I think it is a little disingenuous of Romney and his supporters to say Bain was a net “job creator” to the tune of 100,000+ jobs during his tenure. The fact of the matter is PE firms’ priority is to create profitable returns for its investors, and if that requires axing heads, then so be it – most PE firms have no qualms doing precisely that. Romney et al point to successes like Staples Inc. (SPLS), Dominos Pizza Inc. (DPZ) and Sports Authority, Inc., where profitability and success ultimately led to job expansion. From my viewpoint, I believe these examples are more the exception than the rule. Not surprisingly, any job losses executed in the early years of a PE deal will eventually require job additions if the company survives and thrives. Let’s face it, no company can cut its way to prosperity in perpetuity.

Competitveness: Weak, deteriorating, or bankrupt companies cannot and will not hire. Frail or mismanaged companies will sooner or later be forced to cut jobs on their own –the same protocol applied by opportunistic PE vultures swarming around. While PE firms typically focus on bloated or ineffective companies, I think the media outlets overemphasize the cost-cutting aspects of these deals. Sure, PE companies cut jobs, outsource functions, and cut benefits in the name of profits, but that alone is not a sustainable strategy. Trimming fat, by replacing complacent management teams, investing in modern software/equipment, expanding markets, and implementing accountability are all paramount factors in making these target companies more efficient and competitive in the long-run.

Financial Markets-Arbiter: At the end of the day, I think the IPO/financial markets are the final arbiters of how much value PE firms create, not only for investors, but also for the economy overall. If greedy PE firms’ sole functions were to saddle companies with massive debts, cut heads off, and then pay themselves enormous dividends, then there would never be a credible exit strategy for investors to cash out. If PE firms are correctly performing their jobs, then they will profitably create leaner more efficient durable companies that will be able to grow earnings and create jobs over the long-term. If they are unsuccessful in this broad goal, then the PE firm will never be able to profitably exit their investment via a corporate sale or public offering.

Bain Banter: Whether you agree with PE business practices or not, it is difficult to argue with the financial success of Bain Capital. According to a Wall Street Journal article, Bain Capital deals between 1984 – 1999 produced the following results: 

“Bain produced about $2.5 billion in gains for its investors in the 77 deals, on about $1.1 billion invested. Overall, Bain recorded roughly 50% to 80% annual gains in this period, which experts said was among the best track records for buyout firms in that era.”

 

Critics are quick to point out the profits sucked up by PE firms, but they neglect to acknowledge the financial benefits that accrue to the large number of pension fund, charity, and university investors. Millions of middle-class American workers, retirees, community members, teachers, and students are participating in those same blood sucking profits that PE executives are slurping down.

Even though I believe private equity is a net-positive contributor to competiveness and economic growth in recent decades, there is no question in my mind that these firms participated in a massive bubble in the 2005-2007 timeframe. Capital was so cheap and abundant, prices on these deals escalated through the roof. What’s more, the excessive amounts of leverage used in those transactions set these deals up for imminent failure. PE firms and their investors have lost their shirts on many of those deals, and the typical 20%+ historical returns earned by this asset class have become long lost memories. Attractive returns do not come without risk.

With the presidential election rhetoric heating up, the media will continue to politicize, demonize and oversimplify the challenges surrounding this asset class. Despite its shortcomings, private equity will continue to have a positive symbiotic relationship with the economy…rather than a parasitic one.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in SPLS, DPZ, Sports authority, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

Entry filed under: Politics, Themes - Trends. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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