Private Equity 101

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 14, 2012

Jonathan Macey explains the value of private equity, and why it is getting a bum rap from anti-Romney types:

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.

[. . .]

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.

Read it all. Obviously, the distortions of private equity’s role in the economy won’t stop anytime soon, but here’s hoping that more accurate information–plus the fact that some of Mitt Romney’s critics on this score are hypocrites–will help counter some of the falsehoods that are out there.

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