Another Great Article by Matt Taibbi – Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital
Must read highlights of this incredibly well written piece below:
“Everyone knows that he is fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a “turnaround specialist,” a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm. But what most voters don’t know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back. This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America’s top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.”
“The result has been a brilliant comedy: A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician in America more pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself. If Romney pulls off this whopper, you’ll have to tip your hat to him: No one in history has ever successfully run for president riding this big of a lie. It’s almost enough to make you think he really is qualified for the White House.”
“Mitt Romney – a man whose own father built cars and nurtured communities, and was one of the old-school industrial anachronisms pushed aside by the new generation’s wealth grab – has emerged now to sell this make-nothing, take-everything, screw-everyone ethos to the world. He’s Gordon Gekko, but a new and improved version, with better PR – and a bigger goal. A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.”
“Willard “Mitt” Romney’s background in many ways suggests a man who was born to be president – disgustingly rich from birth, raised in prep schools, no early exposure to minorities outside of maids, a powerful daddy to clean up his missteps, and timely exemptions from military service. In Romney’s bio there are some eerie early-life similarities to other recent presidential figures. (Is America really ready for another Republican president who was a prep-school cheerleader?) And like other great presidential double-talkers such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Romney has shown particular aptitude in the area of telling multiple factual versions of his own life story.
“I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there,” he claimed years after the war. To a different audience, he said, “I was not planning on signing up for the military. It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam.”
“Like John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, men whose way into power was smoothed by celebrity fathers but who rebelled against their parental legacy as mature politicians, Mitt Romney’s career has been both a tribute to and a repudiation of his famous father. George Romney in the 1950s became CEO of American Motors Corp., made a modest fortune betting on energy efficiency in an age of gas guzzlers and ended up serving as governor of the state of Michigan only two generations removed from the Romney clan’s tradition of polygamy. For Mitt, who grew up worshipping his tall, craggily handsome, politically moderate father, life was less rocky: Cranbrook prep school in suburban Detroit, followed by Stanford in the Sixties, a missionary term in which he spent two and a half years trying (as he said) to persuade the French to “give up your wine,” and Harvard Business School in the Seventies. Then, faced with making a career choice, Mitt chose an odd one: Already married and a father of two, he left Harvard and eschewed both politics and the law to enter the at-the-time unsexy world of financial consulting.”
“The reality is that toward the middle of his career at Bain, Romney made a fateful strategic decision: He moved away from creating companies like Staples through venture capital schemes, and toward a business model that involved borrowing huge sums of money to take over existing firms, then extracting value from them by force. He decided, as he later put it, that “there’s a lot greater risk in a startup than there is in acquiring an existing company.” In the Eighties, when Romney made this move, this form of financial piracy became known as a leveraged buyout, and it achieved iconic status thanks to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Gekko’s business strategy was essentially identical to the Romney–Bain model, only Gekko called himself a “liberator” of companies instead of a “helper.”
“Here’s how Romney would go about “liberating” a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent. When an LBO is done without the consent of the target, it’s called a hostile takeover; such thrilling acts of corporate piracy were made legend in the Eighties, most notably the 1988 attack by notorious corporate raiders Kohlberg Kravis Roberts against RJR Nabisco, a deal memorialized in the bookBarbarians at the Gate.”
“Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.”
“But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.
“Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.”
“That interest,” says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “just sucks the profit out of the company.”
“Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.
This business model wasn’t really “helping,” of course – and it wasn’t new. Fans of mob movies will recognize what’s known as the “bust-out,” in which a gangster takes over a restaurant or sporting goods store and then monetizes his investment by running up giant debts on the company’s credit line. (Think Paulie buying all those cases of Cutty Sark in Goodfellas.) When the note comes due, the mobster simply torches the restaurant and collects the insurance money. Reduced to their most basic level, the leveraged buyouts engineered by Romney followed exactly the same business model. “It’s the bust-out,” one Wall Street trader says with a laugh. “That’s all it is.”
Private equity firms aren’t necessarily evil by definition. There are many stories of successful turnarounds fueled by private equity, often involving multiple floundering businesses that are rolled into a single entity, eliminating duplicative overhead. Experian, the giant credit-rating tyrant, was acquired by Bain in the Nineties and went on to become an industry leader.
But there’s a key difference between private equity firms and the businesses that were America’s original industrial cornerstones, like the elder Romney’s AMC. Everyone had a stake in the success of those old businesses, which spread prosperity by putting people to work. But even private equity’s most enthusiastic adherents have difficulty explaining its benefit to society. Marc Wolpow, a former Bain colleague of Romney’s, told reporters during Mitt’s first Senate run that Romney erred in trying to sell his business as good for everyone. “I believed he was making a mistake by framing himself as a job creator,” said Wolpow. “That was not his or Bain’s or the industry’s primary objective. The objective of the LBO business is maximizing returns for investors.” When it comes to private equity, American workers – not to mention their families and communities – simply don’t enter into the equation.
Take a typical Bain transaction involving an Indiana-based company called American Pad and Paper. Bain bought Ampad in 1992 for just $5 million, financing the rest of the deal with borrowed cash. Within three years, Ampad was paying $60 million in annual debt payments, plus an additional $7 million in management fees. A year later, Bain led Ampad to go public, cashed out about $50 million in stock for itself and its investors, charged the firm $2 million for arranging the IPO and pocketed another $5 million in “management” fees. Ampad wound up going bankrupt, and hundreds of workers lost their jobs, but Bain and Romney weren’t crying: They’d made more than $100 million on a $5 million investment.”
Then in 2000, right before Romney gave up his ownership stake in Bain Capital, the firm targeted KB Toys. The debacle that followed serves as a prime example of the conflict between the old model of American business, built from the ground up with sweat and industry know-how, and the new globalist model, the Romney model, which uses leverage as a weapon of high-speed conquest.
In a typical private-equity fragging, Bain put up a mere $18 million to acquire KB Toys and got big banks to finance the remaining $302 million it needed. Less than a year and a half after the purchase, Bain decided to give itself a gift known as a “dividend recapitalization.” The firm induced KB Toys to redeem $121 million in stock and take out more than $66 million in bank loans – $83 million of which went directly into the pockets of Bain’s owners and investors, including Romney. “The dividend recap is like borrowing someone else’s credit card to take out a cash advance, and then leaving them to pay it off,” says Heather Slavkin Corzo, who monitors private equity takeovers as the senior legal policy adviser for the AFL-CIO.
Bain ended up earning a return of at least 370 percent on the deal, while KB Toys fell into bankruptcy, saddled with millions in debt. KB’s former parent company, Big Lots, alleged in bankruptcy court that Bain’s “unjustified” return on the dividend recap was actually “900 percent in a mere 16 months.” Patnode, by contrast, was fired in December 2008, after almost four decades on the job. Like other employees, he didn’t get a single day’s severance
In the end, Bain never bothered to come up with a plan for how KB Toys could meet the 21st-century challenges of video games and cellphone gadgets that were the company’s ostensible downfall. And that’s where Romney’s self-touted reputation as a turnaround specialist is a myth. In the Bain model, the actual turnaround isn’t necessary. It’s just a cover story. It’s nice for the private equity firm if it happens, because it makes the acquired company more attractive for resale or an IPO. But it’s mostly irrelevant to the success of the takeover model, where huge cash returns are extracted whether the captured firm thrives or not.”
“In the Eighties, when Romney and Bain were cutting their teeth in the LBO business, the primary magic trick involved the junk bonds pioneered by convicted felon Mike Milken, which allowed firms like Bain to find easy financing for takeovers by using wildly overpriced distressed corporate bonds as collateral. Junk bonds gave the Gordon Gekkos of the world sudden primacy over old-school industrial titans like the Fords and the Rockefellers: For the first time, the ability to make deals became more valuable than the ability to make stuff, and the ability to instantly engineer billions in illusory financing trumped the comparatively slow process of making and selling products for gradual returns.”
Romney was right in the middle of this radical change. In fact, according to The Boston Globe – whose in-depth reporting on Romney and Bain has spanned three decades – one of Romney’s first LBO deals, and one of his most profitable, involved Mike Milken himself. Bain put down $10 million in cash, got $300 million in financing from Milken and bought a pair of department-store chains, Bealls Brothers and Palais Royal. In what should by now be a familiar outcome, the two chains – which Bain merged into a single outfit called Stage Stores – filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000 under the weight of more than $444 million in debt. As always, Bain took no responsibility for the company’s demise. (If you search the public record, you will not find a single instance of Mitt Romney taking responsibility for a company’s failure.) Instead, Bain blamed Stage’s collapse on “operating problems” that took place three years after Bain cashed out, finishing with a $175 million return on its initial investment of $10 million.
But here’s the interesting twist: Romney made the Bealls-Palais deal just as the federal government was launching charges of massive manipulation and insider trading against Milken and his firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert. After what must have been a lengthy and agonizing period of moral soul-searching, however, Romney decided not to kill the deal, despite its shady financing. “We did not say, ‘Oh, my goodness, Drexel has been accused of something, not been found guilty,’ ” Romney told reporters years after the deal. “Should we basically stop the transaction and blow the whole thing up?”
In an even more incredible disregard for basic morality, Romney forged ahead with the deal even though Milken’s case was being heard by a federal district judge named Milton Pollack, whose wife, Moselle, happened to be the chairwoman of none other than Palais Royal. In short, one of Romney’s first takeover deals was financed by dirty money – and one of the corporate chiefs about to receive a big payout from Bain was married to the judge hearing the case. Although the SEC took no formal action, it issued a sharp criticism, complaining that Romney was allowing Milken’s money to have a possible influence over “the administration of justice.”
“After Milken and his junk bond scheme crashed in the late Eighties, Romney and other takeover artists moved on to Wall Street’s next get-rich-quick scheme: the tech-Internet stock bubble. By 1997 and 1998, there were nearly $400 billion in leveraged buyouts a year, as easy money once again gave these financial piracy firms the ammunition they needed to raid companies like KB Toys. Firms like Bain even have a colorful pirate name for the pools of takeover money they raise in advance from pension funds, university endowments and other institutional investors. “They call it dry powder,” says Slavkin Corzo, the union adviser.
After the Internet bubble burst and private equity started cashing in on Wall Street’s mortgage scam, LBO deals ballooned to almost $900 billion in 2006. Once again, storied companies with long histories and deep regional ties were descended upon by Bain and other pirates, saddled with hundreds of millions in debt, forced to pay huge management fees and “dividend recapitalizations,” and ridden into bankruptcy amid waves of layoffs. Established firms like Del Monte, Hertz and Dollar General were all taken over in a “prairie fire of debt” – one even more destructive than the government borrowing that Romney is flogging on the campaign trial. When Hertz was conquered in 2005 by a trio of private equity firms, including the Carlyle Group, the interest payments on its debt soared by a monstrous 80 percent, forcing the company to eliminate a third of its 32,000 jobs.
In 2010, a year after the last round of Hertz layoffs, Carlyle teamed up with Bain to take $500 million out of another takeover target: the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. Dunkin’ had to take out a $1.25 billion loan to pay a dividend to its new private equity owners. So think of this the next time you go to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee: A small cup of joe costs about $1.69 in most outlets, which means that for years to come, Dunkin’ Donuts will have to sell about 2,011,834 small coffees every month – about $3.4 million – just to meet the interest payments on the loan it took out to pay Bain and Carlyle their little one-time dividend. And that doesn’t include the principal on the loan, or the additional millions in debt that Dunkin’ has to pay every year to get out from under the $2.4 billion in debt it’s now saddled with after having the privilege of being taken over – with borrowed money – by the firm that Romney built.”
If you haven’t heard much about how takeover deals like Dunkin’ and KB Toys work, that’s because Mitt Romney and his private equity brethren don’t want you to. The new owners of American industry are the polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country, commercial titans who longed to leave visible legacies of their accomplishments, erecting hospitals and schools and libraries, sometimes leaving behind thriving towns that bore their names.
The men of the private equity generation want no such thing. “We try to hide religiously,” explained Steven Feinberg, the CEO of a takeover firm called Cerberus Capital Management that recently drove one of its targets into bankruptcy after saddling it with $2.3 billion in debt. “If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper and a picture of his apartment, we will do more than fire that person,” Feinberg told shareholders in 2007. “We will kill him. The jail sentence will be worth it.”
Which brings us to another aspect of Romney’s business career that has largely been hidden from voters: His personal fortune would not have been possible without the direct assistance of the U.S. government. The taxpayer-funded subsidies that Romney has received go well beyond the humdrum, backdoor, welfare-sucking that all supposedly self-made free marketeers inevitably indulge in. Not that Romney hasn’t done just fine at milking the government when it suits his purposes, the most obvious instance being the incredible $1.5 billion in aid he siphoned out of the U.S. Treasury as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake – a sum greater than all federal spending for the previous seven U.S. Olympic games combined. Romney, the supposed fiscal conservative, blew through an average of $625,000 in taxpayer money per athlete – an astounding increase of 5,582 percent over the $11,000 average at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. In 1993, right as he was preparing to run for the Senate, Romney also engineered a government deal worth at least $10 million for Bain’s consulting firm, when it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. (See “The Federal Bailout That Saved Romney”)
But the way Romney most directly owes his success to the government is through the structure of the tax code. The entire business of leveraged buyouts wouldn’t be possible without a provision in the federal code that allows companies like Bain to deduct the interest on the debt they use to acquire and loot their targets. This is the same universally beloved tax deduction you can use to write off your mortgage interest payments, so tampering with it is considered political suicide – it’s been called the “third rail of tax reform.” So the Romney who routinely rails against the national debt as some kind of child-killing “mortgage” is the same man who spent decades exploiting a tax deduction specifically designed for mortgage holders in order to bilk every dollar he could out of U.S. businesses before burning them to the ground.”
Because minus that tax break, Romney’s debt-based takeovers would have been unsustainably expensive. Before Lynn Turner became chief accountant of the SEC, where he reviewed filings on takeover deals, he crunched the numbers on leveraged buyouts as an accountant at a Big Four auditing firm. “In the majority of these deals,” Turner says, “the tax deduction has a big enough impact on the bottom line that the takeover wouldn’t work without it.”
Thanks to the tax deduction, in other words, the government actually incentivizes the kind of leverage-based takeovers that Romney built his fortune on. Romney the businessman built his career on two things that Romney the candidate decries: massive debt and dumb federal giveaways. “I don’t know what Romney would be doing but for debt and its tax-advantaged position in the tax code,” says a prominent Wall Street lawyer, “but he wouldn’t be fabulously wealthy.”
“Essentially, Romney got rich in a business that couldn’t exist without a perverse tax break, and he got to keep double his earnings because of another loophole – a pair of bureaucratic accidents that have not only teamed up to threaten us with a Mitt Romney presidency but that make future Romneys far more likely. “Those two tax rules distort the economics of private equity investments, making them much more lucrative than they should be,” says Rebecca Wilkins, senior counsel at the Center for Tax Justice. “So we get more of that activity than the market would support on its own.”
“Romney is the frontman and apostle of an economic revolution, in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, and Cayman Islands partnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart. The entire purpose of the business model that Romney helped pioneer is to move money into the archipelago from the places outside it, using massive amounts of taxpayer-subsidized debt to enrich a handful of billionaires. It’s a vision of society that’s crazy, vicious and almost unbelievably selfish, yet it’s running for president, and it has a chance of winning. Perhaps that change is coming whether we like it or not. Perhaps Mitt Romney is the best man to manage the transition. But it seems a little early to vote for that kind of wholesale surrender.”