How Private Equity Works - Yale professor commentary

30th Jan 12

Jonathan Macey is a professor of corporate law, corporate finance and securities law at Yale Law School. He has published on his Yale website and in the Wall Street Journal the following commentary to redress the sensationalist and inaccurate claims being made about private equity in the context of the Mitt Romney campaign.

How Private Equity Works
By Jonathan Macey ’82

Mitt Romney's candidacy is subjecting the entire private-equity industry—where Mr. Romney spent most of his business career—to vicious attacks by journalists and several of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.

Newt Gingrich's political action committee is sponsoring a film called "When Mitt Romney Came to Town" that accuses Mr. Romney and his former company, Bain Capital, of taking over companies, looting them, and then tossing their workers out on the street. Jon Huntsman's attacks on his rival include the description of private equity as a business that "breaks down businesses [and] destroys jobs, as opposed to creating jobs and opportunity, leveraging up, spinning off, [and] enriching shareholders."

This is anticapitalist claptrap. Private-equity firms make significant investments in companies, mainly U.S. companies. Most of their investments are in companies that underperform industry peers. Frequently these firms are on the brink of failure.

Because private-equity firms are, by definition, equity investors, they make money only if they improve the performance of their companies. Private equity is last in line to be paid in case of insolvency. Private-equity firms don't make a profit unless their companies can meet their obligations to workers and other creditors.

The companies in which private-equity investors are able to turn a profit generally grow, rather than shrink. This is because the preferred "exit strategy" by which private-equity firms profit is to take the private companies in which they invest and enable them to go public and sell shares that will help the company grow even stronger. As for turnaround success stories, Continental Airlines, Orbitz and Snapple have all benefitted at some time from private-equity investment.

Or take Hertz. Ford sold Hertz to private-equity investors in 2009 for $14 billion. These investors were able to take the company public less than a year later at an equity valuation of $17 billion. The Hertz success story is consistent with the empirical data that indicate companies owned by private-equity firms typically outperform similar companies that do not have a private-equity investor (as measured by profitability, innovation and the returns to investors in initial public offerings).

Private-equity firms not only help corporate performance, but in the long run they lead to more employment and higher wages as well. The alternative to the leaner, smaller firms created by private equity are bankrupt firms that do not employ anybody. And private-equity firms tend to use more incentive-based pay than other firms. A 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that the companies in which private-equity firms invested had low employment growth relative to their peers, and their employment growth rose after they were acquired by a private-equity firm.

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