Mitt Romney: The Great Deformer

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Is Romney really a job creator? Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, takes a scalpel to the claims.

Bain Capital is a product of the Great Deformation. It has garnered fabulous winnings through leveraged speculation in financial markets that have been perverted and deformed by decades of money printing and Wall Street coddling by the Fed. So Bain’s billions of profits were not rewards for capitalist creation; they were mainly windfalls collected from gambling in markets that were rigged to rise.

Nevertheless, Mitt Romney claims that his essential qualification to be president is grounded in his 15 years as head of Bain Capital, from 1984 through early 1999. According to the campaign’s narrative, it was then that he became immersed in the toils of business enterprise, learning along the way the true secrets of how to grow the economy and create jobs. The fact that Bain’s returns reputedly averaged more than 50 percent annually during this period is purportedly proof of the case – real-world validation that Romney not only was a striking business success but also has been uniquely trained and seasoned for the task of restarting the nation’s sputtering engines of capitalism.

Except Mitt Romney was not a businessman; he was a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped, and stripped businesses. He did not build enterprises the old-fashioned way – out of inspiration, perspiration, and a long slog in the free market fostering a new product, service, or process of production. Instead, he spent his 15 years raising debt in prodigious amounts on Wall Street so that Bain could purchase the pots and pans and castoffs of corporate America, leverage them to the hilt, gussy them up as reborn “roll-ups,” and then deliver them back to Wall Street for resale – the faster the better.

That is the modus operandi of the leveraged-buyout business, and in an honest free-market economy, there wouldn’t be much scope for it because it creates little of economic value. But we have a rigged system – a regime of crony capitalism – where the tax code heavily favors debt and capital gains, and the central bank purposefully enables rampant speculation by propping up the price of financial assets and battering down the cost of leveraged finance.

So the vast outpouring of LBOs in recent decades has been the consequence of bad policy, not the product of capitalist enterprise. I know this from 17 years of experience doing leveraged buyouts at one of the pioneering private-equity houses, Blackstone, and then my own firm. I know the pitfalls of private equity. The whole business was about maximizing debt, extracting cash, cutting head counts, skimping on capital spending, outsourcing production, and dressing up the deal for the earliest, highest-profit exit possible. Occasionally, we did invest in genuine growth companies, but without cheap debt and deep tax subsidies, most deals would not make economic sense.

In truth, LBOs are capitalism’s natural undertakers – vulture investors who feed on failing businesses. Due to bad policy, however, they have now become monsters of the financial midway that strip-mine cash from healthy businesses and recycle it mostly to the top 1 percent.

The waxing and waning of the artificially swollen LBO business has been perfectly correlated with the bubbles and busts emanating from the Fed – so timing is the heart of the business. In that respect, Romney’s tenure says it all: it was almost exactly coterminous with the first great Greenspan bubble, which crested at the turn of the century and ended in the thundering stock-market crash of 2000-02. The credentials that Romney proffers as evidence of his business acumen, in fact, mainly show that he hung around the basket during the greatest bull market in recorded history.

Needless to say, having a trader’s facility for knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em has virtually nothing to do with rectifying the massive fiscal hemorrhage and debt-burdened private economy that are the real issues before the American electorate. Indeed, the next president’s overriding task is restoring national solvency – an undertaking that will involve immense societywide pain, sacrifice, and denial and that will therefore require “fairness” as a defining principle. And that’s why heralding Romney’s record at Bain is so completely perverse. The record is actually all about the utter unfairness of windfall riches obtained under our anti-free market regime of bubble finance.

RIP VAN ROMNEY

When Romney opened the doors to Bain Capital in 1984, the S&P 500 stood at 160. By the time he answered the call to duty in Salt Lake City in early 1999, it had gone parabolic and reached 1270. This meant that had a modern Rip Van Winkle bought the S&P 500 index and held it through the 15 years in question, the annual return (with dividends) would have been a spectacular 17 percent. Bain did considerably better, of course, but the reason wasn’t business acumen.

The secret was leverage, luck, inside baseball, and the peculiar asymmetrical dynamics of the leveraged gambling carried on by private-equity shops. LBO funds are invested as equity at the bottom of a company’s capital structure, which means that the lenders who provide 80 to 90 percent of the capital have no recourse to the private-equity sponsor if deals go bust. Accordingly, LBO funds can lose 1X (one times) their money on failed deals, but make 10X or even 50X on the occasional “home run.” During a period of rising markets, expanding valuation multiples, and abundant credit, the opportunity to “average up” the home runs with the 1X losses is considerable; it can generate a spectacular portfolio outcome.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Bain Capital during Mitt Romney’s tenure. The Wall Street Journal examined 77 significant deals completed during that period based on fundraising documents from Bain, and the results are a perfect illustration of bull-market asymmetry. Overall, Bain generated an impressive $2.5 billion in investor gains on $1.1 billion in investments. But 10 of Bain’s deals accounted for 75 percent of the investor profits.

Accordingly, Bain’s returns on the overwhelming bulk of the deals – 67 out of 77 – were actually lower than what a passive S&P 500 indexer would have earned even without the risk of leverage or paying all the private-equity fees. Investor profits amounted to a prosaic 0.7X the original investment on these deals and, based on its average five-year holding period, the annual return would have computed to about 12 percent – well below the 17 percent average return on the S&P in this period.

By contrast, the 10 home runs generated profits of $1.8 billion on investments of only $250 million, yielding a spectacular return of 7X investment. Yet it is this handful of home runs that both make the Romney investment legend and also seal the indictment: they show that Bain Capital was a vehicle for leveraged speculation that was gifted immeasurably by the Greenspan bubble. It was a fortunate place where leverage got lucky, not a higher form of capitalist endeavor or training school for presidential aspirants.

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Former Congressman David A. Stockman was Reagan’s OMB director, which he wrote about in his best-selling book, The Triumph of Politics. He was an original partner in the Blackstone Group, and reads LRC the first thing every morning.

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