How Does Private Equity Make Money? Print
Eileen Appelbaum
Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government Initiative, June 14, 2012

See article on original website

The distinguishing feature of private equity (PE) buyouts is that they are changes in the ownership and control of operating companies in the later stages of a company's history. The transactions are led by a private equity firm, and the firm sponsors PE funds that purchase operating companies for their portfolios. The PE firm is the general partner (GP) and makes all the decisions; pension funds and other investors are limited partners (LPs). Acquisition of an operating company entails extensive debt financing, with the burden of the debt falling on the acquired company, which is responsible for repaying it. The focus in this post is on the sources of gains to private equity investors from these leveraged buyouts.

Maybe most important, we begin by noting that private equity is not mainly engaged in buying up failing companies and trying to turn them around. The disproportionate emphasis in the media and by PE firms on efforts to turn around failing companies paints a distorted picture of what private equity does. Bill Clinton unfortunately bought into this view when he tried to explain what’s good about private equity on PBS NewsHour: "I’ve got a friend who buys failing companies, and he tries to turn them around. And he’s turned a bunch of them around, but not all of them. So sometimes he tried and failed. The effort was honorable. That’s a good thing."

The reality is that distressed investing makes up only a thin sliver of private equity investments, typically 1 to 2 percent of annual PE investments. Indeed, a study of 3,200 firms and 150,000 establishments found that establishments acquired in private equity buyouts had faster employment growth prior to takeover than comparable establishments not targeted by private equity. Private equity mainly acquires successful companies.

The sweet spot for private equity is a company doing okay in an industry whose fortunes are about to improve dramatically. This can be a source of PE returns, but it is the result of successfully timing the market.  Management fees that PE firms charge limited partners account for about two-thirds of the earnings of PE firms, but this affects the distribution of gains between GPs and LPs, and not the amount.  Net returns to investors of these fees are unclear. Top quartile PE funds are able to beat the S&P 500 index, but results for funds below the 75th percentile are ambiguous. Returns to large pension funds rarely exceed the stock market by more than the premium for holding illiquid assets. Our focus is on the nature of the private equity business model and what this tells us about the sources of aggregate gains to the GP and LP investors.

Several characteristics of the PE business model directly impact the operations of their portfolio companies:

  • First, private equity investments are illiquid and more highly leveraged than investments in publicly traded companies–hence, more risky. They need to yield high returns to be worth undertaking.

  • Second, the high debt that portfolio companies must service means they must quickly achieve an increased and predictable cash flow. Cutting costs by squeezing labor is the surest way to accomplish this.

  • Third, the PE model is the opposite of "patient capital." While limited partners make a long-term commitment to the PE fund, portfolio companies have only a short time to show results.

  • Fourth, asset stripping is typical in retail. When PE buys a department store chain, it typically splits it into a property company (prop-co) that owns the real estate and facilities that house the stores and an operating company (op-co) that runs the business. The op-co now must pay rent and no longer has a buffer to help it survive in volatile markets. PE sells the prop-co, making a profit on its initial investment regardless of whether the stores prosper.

Finally, PE will not undertake long-term investments in its portfolio companies unless capital markets are efficient and reward such investments with a higher price when the company is sold.

In most cases, top executives in operating companies face perverse incentives. They are handed a debt structure, asked to put up some of their own wealth, and promised great riches if they meet the targets set by the PE firm. If they fail to deliver quickly, they can expect to be fired. One study found that 39 percent of CEOs were replaced in the first 100 days and 69 percent in a four-year period. Like the hangman’s noose, this tends to focus managers’ minds on aggressive cost cutting.

Operational "value add" – the development and implementation of a business strategy that takes an operating company to the next level, and/or improvements in operations (supply chain management, modernization, process improvements, worker engagement) – harnesses the PE owners’ access to superior management skills and capital markets to improve performance. Buyouts of family-owned businesses and acquisitions of hospitals that lack funding to stay abreast of the latest technology are examples, as is distressed investing that rescues companies from bankruptcy. In these instances, private equity creates economic value as well as gains for PE investors. The evidence of these operating gains is thin, however, and even sympathetic academic studies are not persuasive. Greater transparency by this notoriously private industry would help establish how widespread such economic wealth-creating practices are.

The creation of economic value is one source of private equity gains. It is not the only source, however, and is often not the main source.

A second source of gains is a transfer from workers to PE investors, as employees at healthy companies that are performing well are laid off and those that remain are subject to an intensification of work. Wages and benefits may be reduced to increase predictable cash flow. Work may be shifted from union to non-union facilities. While such actions may be necessary in the case of distressed firms in need of a turnaround, the practice is applied far more widely.

Transfers from portfolio companies to PE owners are a third source of private equity gains. The portfolio company’s private equity shareholders may require it to issue junk bonds or may dip into its cash flow in order to pay them a dividend – a so-called dividend recapitalization. PE takes funds that should be used to improve portfolio company operations and create economic value. Often, this creates financial distress for the portfolio company and may even drive it into bankruptcy.

The op-co/prop-co model in retail also transfers assets from the portfolio company to its PE owners. The PE investors enrich themselves at the expense of the portfolio company, which receives little or none of the proceeds of the sale of the real estate assets. As a result, the risk of bankruptcy of the operating company increases. It may get into financial trouble and have to shutter some stores or close down entirely. As a result, the pace of job destruction in PE-owned retail establishments is far greater than in comparable non-PE owned establishments; over a five-year period, the difference cumulates to 12 percent.                 

A fourth source of gains is a transfer from taxpayers to private equity – what a state economic development officer termed "taxpayer financed capitalism." The leverage used to acquire the portfolio company alters its debt structure, increases its debt, and, because of the favorable tax treatment of debt compared to equity, reduces the company’s tax liabilities. Lower taxes raise the bottom line and increase the value of the company by 4 to 40 percent , thus increasing the returns to private equity without increasing economic value. In addition, the PE firm is more likely to be able to use tax arbitrage to legally avoid taxes. Some acquisitions are made for this purpose rather than to create value.

The final two sources of PE gains were identified in the first wave of leveraged buyouts in the 1980s. Shleifer and Summers identified breach of trust as a possible source of increased returns following an LBO. Stable enterprises depend on implicit contracts between shareholders and other stakeholders. Private equity can get a quick boost to a portfolio company’s bottom line by reneging on implicit contracts. This, however, undermines the trust necessary to the long-term sustainability of the portfolio company. Ackerlof and Romer identified the possibility of bankruptcy for profit. This occurs when a PE firm takes a portfolio company into bankruptcy and then buys it out of bankruptcy. The PE firm is still the owner, but the debts of the company have been slashed and its pension liabilities have been transferred to a government agency, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. The PE firm comes out ahead, but lenders take a haircut and workers receive reduced pensions.

The goal of public policy is to reduce incentives for rent-seeking activities by PE firms. There are several key policy changes that could have this effect: 

  • First, we can limit the tax deductibility of interest to remove the incentive to overleverage the acquired company. This will reduce the amount of debt placed on companies acquired by private equity. Highly leveraged companies perform poorly in volatile markets and have high rates of bankruptcy during economic downturns.

  • Second, we can raise the tax rate on capital gains received by individuals. There is no economic rationale for treating interest payments differently than dividends.

  • Third, we can tax "carried interest" – the share of the gains claimed by PE general partners, among others – as ordinary income. It is a bonus or pay for good performance and should be taxed as such.

  • Finally, we can require firms to make severance payments based on years of service when laying off workers. This would make layoffs a last resort rather than the first.