"Barbarians at the Gate" - Making Private Equity Less Private, and Understanding Its Effects on Health Care

One good byproduct of the tumultuous everlasting 2012 campaign for the US presidency has been to shed light on a number of political and economic issues that had previously been ignored, especially those relating to the global financial crisis or great recession.  In turn, many of these issues may be relevant to our understanding of our ongoing health care dysfunction. 

The latest issue to achieve prominence was the nature of private equity firms.  Current presidential contender Mitt Romney used to work for Bain Capital, a private equity group.  As we discussed here, Bain Capital owned a variety of companies, including some important health care corporations.  More importantly, attacks on Mr Romney's record at Bain by other candidates have lead to a broader discussion of the nature of private equity.  This discussion is very relevant to health care, since private equity firms have taken over a number of important health care corporations, and more recently, have begun to take over formerly non-profit health care organizations.

Therefore, we will summarize what has become known about private equity, and then consider its implications for health care.

Understanding Private Equity as Re-Branded Leveraged Buy-Out Firms

- Private Equity Firms are Just Re-Branded Leveraged Buyout Firms

The first good statement to this effect I found was by Merrill Goozner in the Fiscal Times(1):
Private equity is actually a misnomer, since the modus operandi of those investors is no different than the leveraged buyout firms that pioneered junk-bond financing in the 1980s.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times(2):
'Being known as a leveraged-buyout-deal shop wasn't the most attractive label out there,' said Colin Blaydon, director of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. 'Private equity has a much nicer ring to it.'

In fact, according to Forbes columnist Robert Lenzer,(3) the famed investor Warren Buffet called this re-branding
'Orwellian': Buffett wrote that 'private equity' is a 'name that turns facts upside-down: A purchase of a business by these firms almost invariably results in dramatic reductions in the equity portion of the acquiree’s capital structure compared to that previously existing.'

I must admit I always thought private equity firms simply collected large amounts of capital from investors, then used the pooled capital to buy out troubled firms. I assumed that because these investors therefore had a large personal stake in these firms, they would want to increase at least their financial value. I also thought that leveraged buy-out firms ceased to exist after all the bad press they got in the 1980s. It turns out I was wrong on all counts. Probably, a lot of other peoples' beliefs about private equity were similarly wrong.

Once the equation of private equity and leveraged buyout firms is made, understanding what they do and its implications are easier.

- Leveraging the Buy-Out

The modus operandi of leveraged buyout firms is to make their purchases of troubled corporations mainly with borrowed money. As Merrill Goozner put it(1),
Private equity firms generally finance anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of their purchases with borrowed cash.

Note that,
Interest payments on those debts are treated just like any other expense, and are therefore deductible from earnings.

- Then Leveraging the Acquired Company

If this leveraging were the only leveraging done in a leveraged buy-out, the implications might not be that big, except for the acquiring firm. After all, when the leveraged buy-out firm borrows the money, it then becomes obligated to pay it back. However, then comes the tricks.

One important trick was described in the following example by economist Dean Baker on the Beat the Press blog(4),
To take a simple example, suppose a public company (let's call it Gingrich Inc.), has $1 billion a year in profits. If Gingrich Inc. paid taxes at the full 35 percent rate (fat chance), it would have $650 million [thanks Robert] a year to either keep as retained earnings or to pay out as dividends to its shareholders.

Now suppose that a PE company (we'll call it Romney Capital) steps in. The current price to earnings ratio in the stock market is around 14, so Gingrich Inc. would have a pre-takeover market value of approximately $9.2 billion (14*$650 million). Romney Capital then arranges for Gingrich Inc. to borrow $6 billion which it pays out as a dividend to itself. This means that the Romney Capital has just gotten back almost two-thirds of its investment.

A somewhat less vivid description of the process appeared in a post by Robert K Lifton on the Huffington Post(5):
Most often, in order to increase the return on capital invested by the fund, the fund will borrow a significant portion of the purchase price of the business. And sometimes, if it can, the fund will take back as a distribution immediately upon closing the purchase of the business, a portion of its investment in the purchase price, reducing its own investment and enhancing its return on the investment left in the business. This distribution may come from the company's existing cashable assets or from money that the company is caused to borrow.

Thus, it appears that while the leveraged buy-out (or private equity) firm borrowed money to finance the purchase of a company, it can almost immediately get out of its obligation to pay off that loan, by making the acquired company its own loan, and using proceeds from that to end the LBO firm's debt. The leverage, and the obligation to pay back a debt has almost magically been transferred from the LBO or private equity firm to the acquired company. That has big implications, as Lifton wrote(5):
This additional leverage also creates additional risk; if things don't go right the business will not be able to pay the carrying costs of the debt, the lender will take over the business and the fund will lose its investment. Sometimes, that results in the acquired company placed in bankruptcy proceedings either to liquidate its assets to pay off the debt or to restructure, a process Bain also experienced.

- Selling Assets to Further Reduce the Private Equity Firm's Debt

LBO firms have another trick up their collective sleeves. As Dean Baker continued his example(4),
Now suppose that the Romney Capital arranges to sell off some of Gingrich Inc.'s assets, such as real estate or a highly profitable subsidiary, and then uses the proceeds to make a payment to the Romney Capital rather than leaving the money under the control of Gingrich Inc. Such sales may allow Romney Capital to recoup the rest of its investment and possibly more.

Of course, the result is
Gingrich Inc. is then left as a highly indebted company with few assets.

In this story, Romney Capital may have earned a substantial profit on a limited investment (it recouped most of its money almost immediately when it loaded Gingrich Inc. with debt), without doing anything to improve the operation of Gingrich Inc. If Gingrich Inc. manages to stay in business and generate profits, then this will increase the return. Romney Capital may be able to resell the company and treat the whole sale price as profit.

On the other hand, if Gingrich Inc. goes bankrupt, this will primarily be a problem for creditors, since Romney Capital has already gotten its investment back. In effect, Romney Capital might have secured large gains entirely by financial engineering, while creating no value whatsoever.

Let me underscore that. The LBO model (now also the private equity model) enables the acquiring LBO firm to avoid any losses, by shifting all the risk and obligations to the acquired firms. This puts these firms at considerable jeopardy.

- Tactics to Prepare Acquired Firms for Sale

Of course, LBO/ private equity firms want to do more than not lose money. To make real money, they must be able to sell off the firms they acquire. To do so, they must make these firms, or their components, seem attractive, at least in the short term. To do this, they employ a standard set of tactics out of the generic management playbook.

So, per the LA Times(2),
layoffs are part of the playbook that elite investment firms use to squeeze cash out of struggling companies.

Also, per Lifton(5),
To increase the profits of the acquired company, the fund may reduce the number of employees, reduce pay levels or curtail work time.

In addition, per Josh Barro writing for the Forbe blog(6), other tactics can include
downsizing, increased automation, offshoring, and the like.

- The Private Equity/ Leveraged Buy-Out Version of the Anechoic Effect

It is striking that while Mitt Romney worked at Bain Capital in the last century, and private equity has been around, if not growing, since then, the current presidential campaign seems to be the first occasion which prompted any real public discussion about the nature of private equity, and its significance for the larger political economy. Thus private equity/ LBO seem to have been anechoic for a very long time (like much about how our current health care system operates seems to be anechoic.)

This version of the anechoic effect seems to have been deliberately created by the private equity/ LBO firms.

A Washington Post commentary(7) quoted Mitt Romney,
You know I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms,...

As a New York Times story(8) put it, these firms are lead by
a group of Wall Street executives who prefer to operate out of the spotlight

A story in Politico(9) called private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms
one of the most secretive redoubts of the American economy

The article went on to suggest that these firms may well have something to hide:
Josh Kosman, author of 'The Buyout of America: How Private Equity Is Destroying Jobs and Killing the American Economy.' [said] 'Most private equity firms are because once you look behind the numbers, there is much they don’t want you to see.'

Private equity companies often tend to have confidentiality agreements with their investors (Bain would not comment on what agreements it has). Several equity experts interviewed for this story thought any disclosures from Bain were likely to spook its investors.

The private equity business model is based on taking companies out of the public markets, where reporting requirements are strict and investors punishing, making changes that will hopefully make them more profitable and then selling them or taking them public through an IPO.

The part that happens behind the curtain is not always pretty, and private equity firms have learned over the years that it’s hard to tell a complicated story in the media. The goal of private equity is to keep things private.

'It’s had very little consciousness in the political realm until Romney came along because these guys are smart enough not to try to become Treasury secretaries,' said Bill Cohan, a former Wall Street banker-turned-investigative journalist who wrote 'Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came To Rule The World.'

In addition, Dean Baker suggested that the confidentiality is used to hide how private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms remove capital from acquired companies(4),
The sort of asset stripping described here, which harms creditors by taking away potential collateral for their loans, violates the law. However it is extremely difficult to prevent, especially with private equity companies that have to make few public disclosures.

Thus secrecy/ confidentiality/ deception should be regarded as one of the main tactics used by private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms.

Implications for Health Care

Mitt Romney's candidacy has generated a surprising amount of discussion about the effects of private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms on the political economy. Many are worried that despite his claims, such firms cause more job loss than job creation. In the Huffington Post(10), Robert Creamer wrote that private equity/ LBOs have contributed to the sense that ordinary people who play by the rules suffer while well-connected insiders prosper:
It just doesn't make sense to them that a relatively tiny number of people -- who don't build a product or create a service -- can make massive amounts of money, while ordinary people who work hard and play by the rules see their incomes flat-line.

Their view is simple. They create cars, or food, or houses or computers -- or they provide police protection, or care for sick people, or teach our kids. Why should they be asked to sacrifice when guys who basically gamble for a living -- as Wall Street speculators -- make incomprehensibly large sums of money?

There seems to be a good argument that the tactics used by private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms might be bad for the general political economy.

Moreover, these firms often take over health care corporations, drug and device companies, health care information technology companies, health insurance companies, for-profit hospital chains, etc. There is reason to think that their standard tactics used on such targets are likely to be particularly bad for health care.

Many health care corporations depend on a long-term view to be successes. To develop new products, drug, device, and health care IT companies must pursue research and development projects that take years. All health care companies depend on highly trained, specialized workers and professionals. To sustain these sorts of employees requires a long-term attention to their development. So private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms' short-term focus, transfer of debt and risk to the acquired companies, and emphasis on short-term generic management cutting costs techniques including lay-offs, outsourcing, etc clash with the sophisticated long-term focus these companies require.

These health care organizations often require the complex interplay of many components. Private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms' efforts to sequester and sell particular assets may disturb this complex system.

Health care quality, and successful research and development require transparency. Extreme emphasis on secrecy by private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms threatens such transparency.

Even more pointed concerns may arise when private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms endeavor to take over non-profit health care organizations. We plan to discuss these in a subsequent post.

The NY Times(g) noted that in the 1980s, leveraged buy-out firms
were branded as 'barbarians at the gate' - the title of a book [by Burrough and Helyar, link here] about the takeover of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

Now 30 years later we are finally having a conversation about the role of these firms in the greater political economy. We in health care should be having a parallel discusion about their role in our sphere. I submit that their role was not likely productive. Since health care should not merely be looked upon as a means to make money, but as a public good, we ought to be talking about how to restrain private equity/ leveraged buy-out firms from doing it more damage.


1. Goozner M. Private equity's edge: buy now, deduct taxes later.  Fiscal Times, Jan 9, 2012.  Link here.
2, Hamilton W. Private equity industry: a bad rep, but is it deserved. Los Angeles Times, Jan 12, 2012. Link here.
3. Lenzer R. Why Warren Buffet disdains the private equity crowd. Forbes, Jan 14, 2012. Link here.
4. Baker D. NPR does fluff piece for private equity. Beat the Press, Jan 13, 2012. Link here.
5. Lifton RK. Mitt Romney and Bain Capital: understanding the reality. Huffington Post, Jan 13, 2012. Link here.
6. Barro J. The discussion we should be having about Bain. Forbes, Jan 12, 2012. Link here.
7, Robinson E. Reexamining the myth of no-fault capitalism. Washington Post, Jan 16, 2012. Link here.
8. Lattman P, Lowrey A. As Romney advances, private equity becomes part of the debate. New York Times, Jan 10, 2012. Link here.
9. Hagey K. Mitt Romney's Bain Capital days: a black box. Politico, Jan 11, 2012. Link here.
10 Creamer R. Why the Bain Capital controversy is so damaging to GOP chances this fall. Huffington Post, Jan 16, 2012. Link here.
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