One of the oldest tactics in a political campaign is to try and turn an opponent’s biggest asset into a big liability. One of Mitt Romney’s supposed big pluses is that he’s a “conservative businessman” who knows how to fix the U.S. economy. But now Newt Gingrich (or at least his SuperPac) is launching an expensive attack to rebrand Romney as a Gordon Gekko whose “business success comes from raiding and destroying businesses.”
Well, the Wall Street Journal has just published its investigation into Romney’s record at Bain Capital. The paper “examined 77 businesses Bain invested in while Mr. Romney led the firm from its 1984 start until early 1999, to see how they fared during Bain’s involvement and shortly afterward.” And here is what it found:
– 22 percent either filed for bankruptcy reorganization or closed their doors by the end of the eighth year after Bain first invested, sometimes with substantial job losses.
– An additional 8 percent ran into so much trouble that all of the money Bain invested was lost.
– Ten deals produced more than 70 percent of the dollar gains.
– Bain produced about $2.5 billion in gains for its investors in the 77 deals, on about $1.1 billion invested.
– Overall, Bain recorded roughly 50 percent to 80 percent annual gains in this period, which experts said was among the best track records for buyout firms in that era.
– Academic research has shown that buyout firms during this era exited their deals on average after 5½ years, but in a large percentage of cases were still involved beyond seven years. … If the Journal analysis were limited to bankruptcies and closures occurring by the end of the fifth year after Bain first invested, the rate would move down to 12 percent. That measure would exclude several cases that have brought Mr. Romney political criticism, where businesses filed for bankruptcy seven or eight years after Bain’s investment.
So what does it all mean? Well, Romney was really good at what he did. And what he did, initially, was venture capital, providing dough to promising young firms. Then he shifted to private equity, which is a) using investor money and debt to take over a business, b) attempting to improve its profitability (which may mean cutting the workforce), and c) selling the business and, as the WSJ, puts it, “extracting fees and sometimes dividends.”
That a small percentage of the Bain deals supplied most of the firm’s gains should not be surprising. Whether you are a private equity investor or a do-it-yourself stock picker, the key is letting your winners run and limiting the damage from your losers. Recall how famed Fidelity manager Peter Lynch always said he was on the hunt for “ten-baggers”—stocks where he could make ten times his original investment. A good investor is like a good baseball hitter. A .300 average gets you on the all-star team.
See, there is something called the Pareto Principle, which states that “for many events, roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes.” So 20 percent of customers, taxpayers, and investments often produce 80 percent of sales, revenue, and profits. Bain certainly seems to be another example of the Pareto Principle at play. A few big winners such as Staples, The Sports Authority, and Domino’s may well have provided a good chunk of the firm’s profits and the “over 100,000″ jobs created (which Team Romney needs to do better at substantiating).
Of course, Romney and Bain weren’t in the game to create jobs. They were in it to make money for their investors and themselves. Then again, the same would go for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Warren Buffett, and just about every other successful entrepreneur and investor you could name. But that is the miracle of free-market capitalism. The pursuit of profits by creating value benefits the rest of society through higher incomes, more jobs, and better products and services. This isn’t “destructive creation”—like, say, crippling U.S. fossil fuel production before “clean energy” sources are viable—but “creative destruction” where innovation and efficiency sweep away the old and replace it with a more productive and wealthier society. This is one my favorite examples:
Through this constant roiling of the status quo, creative destruction provides a powerful force for making societies wealthier. It does so by making scarce resources more productive. The telephone industry employed 421,000 switchboard operators in 1970, when Americans made 9.8 billion long-distance calls. With advances in switching technology over the next three decades, the telecommunications sector could reduce the number of operators to 156,000 but still ring up 106 billion calls. An average operator handled only 64 calls a day in 1970. By 2000, that figure had increased to 1,861, a staggering gain in productivity. If they had to handle today’s volume of calls with 1970s technology, the telephone companies would need more than 4.5 million operators, or 3 percent of the labor force. Without the productivity gains, a long-distance call would cost six times as much.
Romney’s career as a free-market capitalist? No apologies necessary.