Mitt Romney touts his business acumen and job-creation record as a key qualification for being the next U.S. president.
What’s clear from a review of the public record during his management of the private-equity firm Bain Capital from 1985 to 1999 is that Romney was fabulously successful in generating high returns for its investors. He did so, in large part, through heavy use of tax-deductible debt, usually to finance outsized dividends for the firm’s partners and investors. When some of the investments went bad, workers and creditors felt most of the pain. Romney privatized the gains and socialized the losses.
What’s less clear is how his skills are relevant to the job of overseeing the U.S. economy, strengthening competitiveness and looking out for the welfare of the general public, especially the middle class.
Thanks to leverage, 10 of roughly 67 major deals by Bain Capital during Romney’s watch produced about 70 percent of the firm’s profits. Four of those 10 deals, as well as others, later wound up in bankruptcy. It’s worth examining some of them to understand Romney’s investment style at Bain Capital.
In 1986, in one of its earliest deals, Bain Capital acquired Accuride Corp., a manufacturer of aluminum truck wheels. The purchase was 97.5 percent financed by debt, a high level of leverage under any circumstances. It was especially burdensome for a company that was exposed to aluminum-price volatility and cyclical automotive production.
Forty-to-one leverage is casino capitalism that hugely magnifies gains and losses. Bain Capital wisely chose to flip the company fast: After 18 months, it sold Accuride, converting its $2.6 million sliver of equity into a $61 million capital gain. That deal, which yielded a 1,123 percent annualized return, was critical to Bain Capital’s early success and led the firm to keep maximizing the use of leverage.
In 1992, Bain Capital bought American Pad & Paper by financing 87 percent of the purchase price. In the next three years, Ampad borrowed to make acquisitions, repay existing debt and pay Bain Capital and its investors $60 million in dividends.
As a result, the company’s debt swelled from $11 million in 1993 to $444 million by 1995. The $14 million in annual interest expense on this debt dwarfed the company’s $4.7 million operating cash flow. The proceeds of an initial public offering in July 1996 were used to pay Bain Capital $48 million for part of its stake and to reduce the company’s debt to $270 million.
From 1993 to 1999, Bain Capital charged Ampad about $18 million in various fees. By 1999, the company’s debt was back up to $400 million. Unable to pay the interest costs and drained of cash paid to Bain Capital in fees and dividends, Ampad filed for bankruptcy the following year. Senior secured lenders got less than 50 cents on the dollar, unsecured lenders received two- tenths of a cent on the dollar, and several hundred jobs were lost. Bain Capital had reaped capital gains of $107 million on its $5.1 million investment.
Bain Capital’s acquisition in 1994 of Dade International, a supplier of in-vitro diagnostic products, was 81 percent financed by debt. Of the $85 million in equity, about $27 million came from Bain with the rest coming from a group of investors that included Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
From 1995 to 1999, Bain Capital tripled Dade’s debt from about $300 million to $902 million. Some of the debt was used to pay for acquisitions of DuPont Co.’s in-vitro diagnostics division in May 1996 and Behring Diagnostics, a German medical- testing company, in 1997. But some was used to finance a repurchase of half of Bain Capital’s equity for $242 million -- more than eight times its investment -- and to pay its investors almost $100 million in fees.
Dade was left in a weakened financial condition and couldn’t withstand the shocks of increased debt payments when interest rates rose and revenue from Europe fell because of a decline in the value of the euro. The company filed for bankruptcy in August 2002, because of its inability to service a $1.5 billion debt load. About 1,700 people lost their jobs while Bain Capital claimed capital gains (net of its losses in the bankruptcy) of roughly $216 million, an eightfold return.
There are many other examples of this debt-fueled strategy. In the two years following the acquisition in 1993 of GS Industries, a steel mill, for $8 million, Bain Capital increased the company’s debt to $378 million on operating income of less than a 10th of that amount. Some of this was used to pay Bain Capital a $36 million dividend in 1994. That degree of leverage was excessive in light of the cyclicality and capital-intensive nature of the steel industry.
By the time the company went bankrupt in 2001, it owed $554 million in debt against assets valued at $395 million. Many creditors lost money, and 750 workers lost their jobs. The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures company retirement plans, determined in 2002 that GS had underfunded its pension by $44 million and had to step in to cover the shortfall.
Bain Capital’s acquisition of Stage Stores, a department- store chain, in 1988 was 96 percent financed by debt (mostly in junk bonds) -- an extreme level for a cyclical and very competitive low-margin business. Bain sold a large part of its stake in 1997 for a $184 million gain, three years before the company filed for bankruptcy because of its inability to service its $600 million debt.
Success, entrepreneurship, risk taking and wealth creation deserve to be celebrated when they are the result of fair play and hard work. President Barack Obama is correct in distinguishing the patient creation of value for the benefit of investors through genuine operational improvements and growth -- the true mission of private equity -- from the form of rigged capitalism that was practiced by some in the industry in the past when debt was cheap and plentiful.
While Bain Capital wasn’t alone in using financial engineering to turbo-charge its returns, it was among the most aggressive under Romney’s leadership. Enriching investors by taking leveraged bets isn’t a qualification for a job requiring long-term vision and concern for public welfare. It is appropriate to point that out to voters.
(Anthony Luzzatto Gardner works at Palamon Capital Partners, a private equity fund based in London, and was director of European affairs in the U.S. National Security Council in 1994-95. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on good news from Guantanamo, why Jamie Dimon’s bonus should be clawed back and how to put more electric cars on the road; William D. Cohan on Romney’s magical IRA; Albert R. Hunt on the candidates’ need to spell out debt-cutting plans; Stephen Marche explains why Canadians are now richer than Americans.
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