Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, who works for a private equity company in London, takes a close look at the way Romney operated Bain Capital. He argues that Bain’s aggressive, debt-fueled deals were all about turning around quick profits for the company while spreading any losses to employees and other stakeholders in the companies they took over.
What’s clear from a review of the public record during his management of the private-equity firm Bain Capital from 1985 to 1999 is that Romney was fabulously successful in generating high returns for its investors. He did so, in large part, through heavy use of tax-deductible debt, usually to finance outsized dividends for the firm’s partners and investors. When some of the investments went bad, workers and creditors felt most of the pain. Romney privatized the gains and socialized the losses.
He gives several examples of this:
Thanks to leverage, 10 of roughly 67 major deals by Bain Capital during Romney’s watch produced about 70 percent of the firm’s profits. Four of those 10 deals, as well as others, later wound up in bankruptcy. It’s worth examining some of them to understand Romney’s investment style at Bain Capital.
In 1986, in one of its earliest deals, Bain Capital acquired Accuride Corp., a manufacturer of aluminum truck wheels. The purchase was 97.5 percent financed by debt, a high level of leverage under any circumstances. It was especially burdensome for a company that was exposed to aluminum-price volatility and cyclical automotive production.
Forty-to-one leverage is casino capitalism that hugely magnifies gains and losses. Bain Capital wisely chose to flip the company fast: After 18 months, it sold Accuride, converting its $2.6 million sliver of equity into a $61 million capital gain. That deal, which yielded a 1,123 percent annualized return, was critical to Bain Capital’s early success and led the firm to keep maximizing the use of leverage…
Bain Capital’s acquisition in 1994 of Dade International, a supplier of in-vitro diagnostic products, was 81 percent financed by debt. Of the $85 million in equity, about $27 million came from Bain with the rest coming from a group of investors that included Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
From 1995 to 1999, Bain Capital tripled Dade’s debt from about $300 million to $902 million. Some of the debt was used to pay for acquisitions of DuPont Co.’s in-vitro diagnostics division in May 1996 and Behring Diagnostics, a German medical- testing company, in 1997. But some was used to finance a repurchase of half of Bain Capital’s equity for $242 million — more than eight times its investment — and to pay its investors almost $100 million in fees.
Dade was left in a weakened financial condition and couldn’t withstand the shocks of increased debt payments when interest rates rose and revenue from Europe fell because of a decline in the value of the euro. The company filed for bankruptcy in August 2002, because of its inability to service a $1.5 billion debt load. About 1,700 people lost their jobs while Bain Capital claimed capital gains (net of its losses in the bankruptcy) of roughly $216 million, an eightfold return.
There are many other examples of this debt-fueled strategy. In the two years following the acquisition in 1993 of GS Industries, a steel mill, for $8 million, Bain Capital increased the company’s debt to $378 million on operating income of less than a 10th of that amount. Some of this was used to pay Bain Capital a $36 million dividend in 1994. That degree of leverage was excessive in light of the cyclicality and capital-intensive nature of the steel industry.
By the time the company went bankrupt in 2001, it owed $554 million in debt against assets valued at $395 million. Many creditors lost money, and 750 workers lost their jobs. The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures company retirement plans, determined in 2002 that GS had underfunded its pension by $44 million and had to step in to cover the shortfall.
But private equity doesn’t have to work this way. Private equity funds can also buy companies and make real improvements to make them profitable and sustainable over the long run. And it appears that Bain did some of that too, like with Staples. But these deals show that what it was up to much of the time was buying a company, draining every last drop of money out of them they could get with shady actions that doomed the companies to failure, and then dumping the losses on taxpayers (through the increased cost of social services and pension costs) and other debtholders (who only got a fraction of what was owed in bankruptcy). As Gardner puts it:
Success, entrepreneurship, risk taking and wealth creation deserve to be celebrated when they are the result of fair play and hard work. President Barack Obama is correct in distinguishing the patient creation of value for the benefit of investors through genuine operational improvements and growth — the true mission of private equity — from the form of rigged capitalism that was practiced by some in the industry in the past when debt was cheap and plentiful.
While Bain Capital wasn’t alone in using financial engineering to turbo-charge its returns, it was among the most aggressive under Romney’s leadership. Enriching investors by taking leveraged bets isn’t a qualification for a job requiring long-term vision and concern for public welfare. It is appropriate to point that out to voters.
Indeed it is.