During the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney returned to one of the original themes of his campaign – namely that his financial experience at Bain Capital qualifies him to solve the problems of a nation plagued by unemployment and debt. Ridiculed and reviled in millions of dollars of advertising by his political rivals, from Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry to President Obama, Romney’s private sector career remains his central argument for electing him on November 6.
Today Peter A. Joseph, a respected and experienced figure in the private equity business as well as a civic activist, scrupulously debunks that argument on the New York Times website.
Over the past three decades, Joseph founded two private equity firms, gaining considerable insight into Romney’s success at Bain as well as the differences between political leadership and investment savvy. While not unsympathetic to the pressures Romney faced at Bain or his industriousness in overcoming them, Joseph says those financial triumphs have no special relevance to the Oval Office.
The role of the private-equity financier, he notes, has very little to do with being a “job creator”:
A businessman seeking to optimize profitability will look to lower labor costs by reducing headcount, whether through technology, outsourcing, or rationalization. This is right out of the basic playbook. It is not the mission of the financier to create jobs. In fact, his mission is often to do just the opposite.
Joseph gently tweaks Romney for indulging in harsh anti-government rhetoric when so much of his and Bain’s wealth derive from investing the pensions of teachers, cops, firefighters and other public-sector employees. (He might also have noted Romney’s venomous hatred of the very unions whose contractual power enabled him to get his hands on their accumulated assets.) He also suggests that Bain and other private-equity outfits have ripped off their clients, including the workers, through inflated fees:
Romney constantly derides big government, but government is made up of individuals, whose pension funds helped make him and Bain unimaginably rich. There is no doubt that these pension funds sought the higher returns offered by private-equity investing. But as the private equity business grew, the public pension funds and other capital providers have gotten the short end of the stick. They have not completely shared in the value of the franchise that is created in part by their investment in the industry. It seems odd to hear Romney criticize big government without any acknowledgment that he has made much of his fortune managing the retirement funds of many public employees.
Joseph concludes by contrasting the qualifications of a private-equity financier with what is required from a president of the United States, which don’t have much in common:
Romney’s financial success is admirable and enviable, but it came by following the mantra of increasing cash flow, cutting jobs and minimizing taxable income. Though the Obama campaign has tried to exploit this with millions of dollars in anti-Bain ads, the real issue is how Romney’s experience relates to a president’s need to balance budgetary responsibility with the heavy lifting required to address our collective concerns, our common obligations. We have heard a lot about pragmatism and practicality, but I can assure you that compassion and broader social concerns rarely make it into an investment memo. If Romney really wants to push his Bain experience, Americans will have to decide whether the answers to the problems facing them are best provided by a financier president.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, October 19, 2012
Nobody with the bad manners to ask the question would be likely to get the opportunity at the upcoming presidential debate, but someday—especially if Mitt Romney enters the Oval Office —someone will ask about his son Tagg’s privte equity firm.
Like the businesses operated by the first President Bush’s sons three decades ago, Tagg Romney’s Solamere Capital is rife with potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest. Founded in 2008, by eldest son Tagg and his father’s chief fundraiser Spencer Zwick, Solamere is a “fund of funds” representing more than a dozen private equity outfits, including Mitt’s Bain Capital.
What Solamere’s partnerships and investments also show is the stunning reliance of these rugged millionaire individualists on government contracts and programs. Their financial addiction to federal funds is almost amusing, especially given Romney’s infamous remarks about the “47 percent” who supposedly pay no taxes and depend on government largesse to meet all their needs.
Reporter Lee Fang closely scrutinizes those issues and Solamere’s incestuous connections with the Romney presidential campaign in the current issue of The Nation, with the support of the Investigative Fund (where National Memo editor-in-chief Joe Conason serves as editor-at-large).
Consider the man who hosted the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser where Romney made those comments in his huge, luxurious Boca Raton home. Marc Leder’s Sun Capital private equity firm is a partner in Solamere—and also owns part of the Scooter Store, a company that markets motorized wheelchairs, which Medicare beneficiaries buy with federal funds. Unfortunately the growth of the motorized scooter industry has relied heavily on as much as $500 million annually in improper and even fraudulent Medicare billing.
The Affordable Care Act—which Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal—contains a section requiring stringent reform of the motorized wheelchair benefit to prevent fraud. Would President Romney restore that reform to save Medicare funds even if his son’s business would suffer?
Another health sector suffering from rampant fraud is pediatric dentistry, with scandals in several states that involve very expensive, totally unnecessary treatments of poor children that are paid for by Medicaid—and earn huge profits for “dental management companies” owned by private equity firms. If Solamere is earning huge profits from dental mismanagement, would a Romney administration’s Medicaid agency crack down—or turn a blind eye?
Aside from exploiting Medicare and Medicaid, the private equity industry sees major profit opportunities in education—and in particular the for-profit colleges whose dubious practices and educational failures have become controversial in recent years. As Fang recalls, Mitt Romney himself promoted a for-profit institution called Full Sail University during a town hall event in New Hampshire last year, claiming that it could help students “hold down the cost of their eduation.”
Full Sail is actually the third most expensive college in the country—and happens to be owned by TA Associates, a private equity operation associated with the Romney financial empire. Would a Romney administration continue the current efforts to reform the for-profit colleges? Or would it coddle an industry that is becoming notorious for ripping off students and leaving them in debt and unemployed, after sucking down their federal loan funds?
Fang’s reporting may provide an instructive preview of the years to come in a Romney administration, with various Bush-like sons cashing in on White House connections. But the story of Solamere also suggests the hollowness of Romney’s anti-government rhetoric. More and more, the most apt description of private equity is “no, you didn’t build that.”
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, October 16, 2012
A month ago, conventional wisdom had it that the Bain attacks on Mitt Romney were somehow failing terribly — notwithstanding the fact that they’ve been key parts of every other campaign Democrats and Republicans have run against Romney going all the way back to 1994. And yet all of a sudden, the Obama campaign is going full outsource/Bain attack on Romney at every opportunity. So they think it’s working great. New polling suggests they may be on to something. And in the most telling development, in the days leading up to the surprise Supreme Court ruling, the Romney campaign itself is mounting a mammoth pushback, signaling more clearly than anything that they think it’s working too.
So what happened?
Consider three basic factors. First, round one of the Bain Wars was almost entirely hashed out in what you might call the Acela corridor — an insular community, overwhelmingly affluent and educated, and decidedly not the audience for the message or the folks who find themselves on the receiving end of capitalism’s creative destruction.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) visited TPM’s DC offices last week as part of our Newsmaker interview series and said basically: trust me, this message worked in Ohio. Maybe he was right all along. I suspect he was.
But there was another rhetorical dimension. ‘Private equity’ is a weird phrase. Most people have no idea what it does or doesn’t mean. And the Romney campaign through it’s surrogates was able to hit its opponents with something like ‘Hey, it’s poor form to be going all Nation magaziney and pretending that private equity isn’t awesome!’
And within that community, it worked. Thus Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, and a lot of other Democrats. ‘Private equity’ means a lot of different things. My own sense is that some parts of it are incredibly destructive while others create efficient allocations of capital. But who cares what I think? Wherever you come down on that question there’s simply no question that private equity is at the tip of the the spear of creative destruction in our society. So in a country where everybody gets to vote, it’s sort of crazy to think criticizing something like that would somehow be beyond the pale like attacking the Pope or crapping on motherhood and apple pie. But there it was.
‘Outsourcing’ though and ‘Offshoring’ — these are just more graspable words, more concrete concepts. Everybody understands them. Everybody knows what they mean. I’m pretty sure the Romney campaign wants to say something like, ‘C’mon, our whole economy today is based on stuff like this and we all know it and everybody accepts it so don’t pretend otherwise.’ But they can’t. And what really got them all boxed up was when they got themselves into this ridiculous debate over whether Mitt’s an ‘outsourcer’ or an ‘offershorer’. As I said Monday, that’s an argument you lose by winning. Or lose by losing. Whichever way, you lose.
Even really smart strategists manage sometimes to charge into a brown paper bag like this. But this was a bad move because it opened Romney up to that most lethal political weapons: ridicule and mockery. The Obama camp seemed to get this early and just decided to drive a freight train right through him. Holding out for this distinction seemed incredibly stupid and more than that wildly out of touch since the difference is basically immaterial to people who lose their jobs as a result of it. And, as always, weakness which invites attacks.
In a country afflicted for decades by loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and chronically stagnant working class and middle class wages it’s crazy to think that Romney’s history as a private equity king — especially one working the lower tiers of the private equity world — wouldn’t be a liability for a lot of voters. But it was something that DC reporters were best positioned to miss.
By: Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo, July 2, 2012
Is asking voters to compare Romney’s vulture capitalism to Solyndra a good idea? The Romney campaign and its cohorts seem to think so. Within the past few days, American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s super PAC, released an ad that counters Obama’s attacks on Bain by highlighting Solyndra, a bankrupt solar panel company that had been given a government-backed loan guarantee, as well as the auto industry bailout. George Will made the Bain-Solyndra comparison on This Week; Paul Ryan did the same on Fox News Sunday; Michael Barone piled on in National Review Online.
The underlying argument is that the White House has been making the same risky bets as a private equity firm, bets that produced their own failures. (The grim-voiced narrator of the Crossroads ad, which is captioned, “President Obama is playing Wall Street games with our money,” asks, “Obama’s attacking private equity. But what’s his record on public equity investing?”)
It’s not the smartest response in the world. First off, Romney allies typically explain away Bain’s failures as just the way capitalism works—sometimes, bad companies are swallowed by the market. Solyndra, whose solar technology was priced out of the market by cheaper Chinese solar panels, is a pretty classic example of this, and by citing its Adam Smithian demise in response to attacks on Bain, Romney allies have diminished their ability to dismiss Bain’s loser companies as just the natural cycle of capitalism.
But the larger risk of this approach is that comparing any of Bain’s failures to Solyndra asks voters to examine private equity alongside public stimulus. The former is a game in which a tiny group of stakeholders set out to create as much value as possible for themselves: buying companies, often loading them up with debt they can’t bear, and extracting exorbitant fees for themselves before they reintroduce the company to the public and it either fails or succeeds. It’s essentially a no-risk racket, one Timothy Noah describes in fuller detail here.
Then there’s government stimulus, which is aimed at benefitting the public, and which the Obama administration has distributed with considerable success. Take the Department of Energy loan guarantee program through which the administration backed Solyndra. That program has been hugely effective for shoring up projects that the private market underinvested in. A recent, independent audit (pdf) by the former national finance chairman for John McCain found that it was due to come in about $2 billion under budget, and had subsidized mainly low-risk, critical electricity projects. The American Crossroads ad goes a step further and offers, as a comparison with Bain Capital’s failures, the government’s auto bailout, which an independent group found saved 1.45 million jobs, when no private equity dollars could be found to do the same.
On balance, the White House seems to be playing Wall Street games—if that’s what you want to call massive investment in underfunded public infrastructure—pretty decently, and in a manner that produces more value for the public than private equity firms. Bain and Solyndra are really nothing alike. And by insisting that they are, Romney boosters have given Obama’s campaign an opening to brag about what American Crossroads is calling Obama’s public equity presidency—and all its successes.
BY: Molly Redden, The New Republic, May 30, 2012
We’re asking the wrong questions about private equity.
The debate over Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital has moved through a number of phases, from “Did Mitt Romney do awful things at Bain Capital?” to “Should the Obama campaign be criticizing Mitt Romney for what he did at Bain Capital?” and now, “Is private equity a good thing or a bad thing?” Shockingly, people in the private equity business think the answer to the last is that it’s quite good. The predominant opinion from other people is that it’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, which from what I can tell it’s a pretty good summation of Romney’s PE career. At times, he helped start companies that went on to thrive, or helped companies perform better and survive. And at other times, he acted as what Rick Perry called a “vulture capitalist.”
But while it may be an interesting discussion for economists and economic writers to mull over, “Is private equity good or bad?” really isn’t a question we need to answer in the context of this presidential campaign. The question we need to answer is, “Does running a successful private equity firm mean you’ll be a successful president?” Mitt Romney’s answer to this question is, “Yes, because running a successful private equity firm means you know how to create jobs.” Barack Obama’s answer to this question is, “No, because being president is nothing like running a private equity firm. And also, Mitt Romney is a jerk for profiting while all those people got pink slips.”
It would actually help us understand this better if Mitt Romney talked more specifically about what exactly he learned at Bain that he’ll bring to the Oval Office. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get into much detail about his time there. If you asked him the question, he’d almost certainly say he learned that taxes should be cut and regulations should be scaled back, and that will create jobs. In other words, he’d repeat the standard Republican economic arguments, which really tells us nothing. But maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Maybe there are some surprising insights about the working of the economy that he could only have gleaned at Bain. If there are, he hasn’t shared them yet.
And that’s really the rub. President Obama is right when he says that the presidency is a very different job from being a private equity CEO. Just when it comes to the economy, creating the right conditions for widely shared growth is not only a matter of wanting to do the correct things, it’s also about being able to accomplish them–convincing Congress to go along with your agenda, insuring that it’s implemented properly, balancing the competing interests that press on a president, and so on. Romney says he knows what to do because of his time at Bain (even if the substance of what he wants to do is the standard Republican wish list) but he hasn’t explained how his time at Bain taught him how to do it. He might argue that he learned that being governor of Massachusetts. But he almost never talks about his time as governor—it’s his time in the private sector that he says is the reason he can be a good president. And that’s not even mentioning all the other aspects of the presidency, like foreign policy, that I assume not even he would claim you prepare for by buying and selling companies.
Chances are slim that Romney is going to get too far into the details of what a private equity firm like Bain does, because the picture is mixed. Yes, he can point to some successes, companies Bain helped build or saved from decline. But that means he’ll also be asked about the failures. And as Tim Noah explains, the whole genius of private equity is that guys like Mitt Romney win either way. If the company they buy succeeds, they’ll get spectacularly rich. But if the company fails, they’ll still get rich, because the money they used to buy it was borrowed, and they were raking in huge management fees all along the way. That’s a story Romney would rather not tell. So he’ll stick to simple assertions, like “I know how the economy works.” Which leave us not knowing what he really knows, or doesn’t.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 23, 2012