In addition to the political benefits for Obama, another interesting dynamic is that attention to Romney’s career in the financial sector is, I think, prompting some additional attention to dubious practices in that sector. John posted on Bain’s interactions with Dade International, and mistermix posted on the NYT story about how Goldman screwed Dragon Systems. But there is an even bigger issue here that I want to raise.
Let me use Ezra Klein as a foil. He writes about the founding of Bain Capital:
Bill Bain’s idea was simple. His firm, Bain & Co., was making lots of money by advising companies in exchange for fees. The fact that it was making money was proof that its staff understood what it took to make struggling companies successful. So why not eliminate the middleman? Rather than advising companies for a fee only to watch the current management reap the big profits, Bain Capital would take over troubled companies, manage them to profitability and reap the rewards itself.
That is an curious spin, and one that Romney himself might offer. According to this model, corporate raiders like Romney are just turnaround specialists. They take over “troubled” companies, and right them.
And yes, this does happen. But this is only part of the story.
“Troubled” companies have a particular meaning on Wall Street. Sure, sometimes they refer to companies that are just muddled, have over-expanded, and are badly managed. But more often, what they are talking about is companies that do not seem to providing a large enough return to shareholders — a stagnating stock price in particular. But that does not mean a company is “troubled.” It can be quite profitable, have productive and loyal employees, have satisfied customers, and cash on hand.
What players like Bain do is enforce a Wall Street preference. There is a bias against companies that seek a “quiet life.” They are shunned by institutional investors, which depresses stock prices and makes these companies “troubled” in the first place. It isn’t that they are not profitable, but rather than institutional investors don’t like them, and as a result they trade at dramatically lower P/E ratios. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that takeover targets do have weaker stock performance if you look at total returns, including dividends.
Once a company goes public, it is essentially subject to “disciplinary” takeovers if it fails to act in accordance with financial sector preferences. This is often phrased as “poorly performing managers,” but what does that really mean? That is really just about enforcing a certain conventional wisdom about what a company ought to do. But these preferences are socially problematic. Consider some of the things that seem to contribute to being a takeover target: slow growth, stable revenues, cash on hand rather than debt, generous employee compensation, conservatively-funded pension or insurance plans. (Again caveats abound. There is no simply model of predicting takeover targets.)
So, in a sense, Bain, and other buyout specialists, serve to enforce a particular type of corporate behavior that focus on expansion at the expense of predictability, risk acceptance in terms of contractual obligations to employees, and a ruthless focus on cost controls at the expense of employee loyalty and stability.
As a practical matter, it is not clear that this sort of approach is conducive to more rapid economic growth. Certainly the rise of this consensus and expansion of “disciplinary” takeovers since the 1980s has not resulted in any noticeable improvement in U.S. macroeconomic performance. And furthermore, the evidence on whether takeover targets overperform or underperform after being bought is mixed.
But what has happened is that as firms accept these practices, they become more dependent on the financial sector. They borrow more, become more active in raising money through equity sales, they run leaner by hedging through derivatives, and so on. In each case, they pay a cut to financial firms. The result has been that the financial sector’s share of corporate profits has risen dramatically since the 1980s.
Some of these companies will now be more successful, but many that move toward debt-fueled expansion will crash and burn. The financial sector wins either way. But it isn’t clear to me that corporate America in general win, and certainly workers whose pensions gets looted, and unions busted, and ride the boom and bust cycles of overtime and layoff do quite poorly.