Mitt Romney, Bain Capital and American ‘Creative Destruction’

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Mitt Romney, Bain Capital and American ‘Creative Destruction’

Could a private equity president save America?

Venture capitalists are really vulture capitalists, says former presidential candidate Rick Perry. And Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital was a venture/vulture capitalist. Such firms swoop down on sick companies, devour them, and leave only bones and lost jobs behind. Getting rich off destruction is deplorable, Perry said.

Are venture capitalist/private equity firms really devouring America? This might be a good time to ask that question, since one of the men who might be president was an innovator in this industry that has become increasingly influential in American-style capitalism.

According to Mitt Romney, venture capitalism is what makes America’s economy so dynamic. “The reality is in the private sector that there are some businesses that are growing and thriving, and we were fortunate enough to be able to be a part of that in a small way,” he said. But “there are some businesses that have to be cut back in order to survive ….”

“And every time that we invested in a business, it was to try and encourage that business to have ongoing life.”

It is all about the economic gospel of “creative destruction.” Sometimes jobs have to be destroyed, so that others can not only survive, but thrive.

Sounds relatively reasonable. As evidence, Romney points to his successes in revitalizing struggling companies such as Sports Authority and Domino’s Pizza. He says he has created 100,000 jobs by making companies such as these stronger so that they could grow again.

Yet, even if you believe Mitt Romney’s job creation numbers, his description of venture capitalism is not how many private equity firms—including Bain Capital—actually work.

Consider the case of KB Toys. Remember KB Toys? In 2000 (one year after Mitt Romney retired as a director, but remained a major shareholder), Bain Capital bought KB Toys for $305 million. To do this, it borrowed $297 million from big banks and other investors. It used only $18 million of its own money.

Immediately following the purchase, Bain Capital made the toy company borrow $297 million so that Bain could pay back the initial money borrowed from investors. Now KB Toys, not Bain Capital, owed investors the $297 million.

At this point, Bain Capital was free and clear. It was the owner of a profitable, if now indebted, company.

But Bain wasn’t satisfied. Nor was it interested in cutting fat from the company, or increasing long-term corporate profitability. The evidence shows it wanted a fast buck. Those who got hurt in the process were, apparently, collateral damage.

Even after the additional $297 million in extra debt, KB Toys was still valuable enough that Bain Capital could direct it to borrow tens of millions more over the ensuing months.

But here is where Bain Capital illustrates the dirty side of corporate America.

While Bain Capital was directing KB Toys to borrow more and more money, what was Bain Capital doing with it? Developing a bigger online presence? Building factories? Expanding product lines? Adding distribution capability? Creating a better company? Innovating new products? No.

Bain Capital was sucking KB Toys dry.

Over the next 16 months, Bain Capital paid itself a whopping $85 million in dividends from the now super-indebted toy retailer.

It was too much for KB to endure. In the face of growing competition from Toys R’ Us and other retailers and with basically a giant parasite as majority stakeholder, KB Toys filed for bankruptcy in 2004—at the direction of Bain Capital. Over 500 stores were shuttered. Thousands of employees lost their jobs, their retirements and their livelihoods. And all those investors that lent money to KB were left holding an empty toy box.

But what about Bain Capital? With tens of millions in dividends—plus consulting fees paid to itself from KB’s borrowed money—it still made around a 400 percent return on investment! All legal. And all ugly.

There was no “creation” in the destruction of KB Toys. It was never about “cutting back in order to survive,” or always and “every time” investing with the intent to encourage “ongoing life.”

And KB Toys was not alone.

Some call it vulture capitalism. But that is an insult to vultures. Vultures generally eat the dead and dying. Bain Capital seems to have very deliberately killed KB Toys—by sucking the life out of it. Parasite capitalism may be a better description. But even most parasites don’t kill their hosts so quickly.

If KB Toys was just one sad case, it would be regrettable but survivable for America. But the leveraged buyout boom of the pre-2008 Wall Street meltdown was massive. There are thousands of formerly healthy U.S. corporations now struggling under dangerous debt loads that, like KB, may be destined to kill them.

And with all that extra debt, when interest rates start to rise from their historic lows America’s parasite-bloated companies will become actual vulture food.

Are private equity and venture capital firms good for America? Just like anything else, how they are used is what counts the most. Many venture capitalists do actually seek to make money by making companies more efficient, by both investing and growing—and also cutting dead wood. But sadly, in too many cases, Wall Street is a place where tools like these are used for greedy destruction, not productive creation.

Can a private equity president save America?

America truly needs a Creative Destruction moment. But can any human save an economy so infested with wrong practices, greedy human nature and fraudulent foundations? If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we need to admit that it’s not an overhaul or a new set of regulations that we need. It’s a complete wipeout of the entire system so that a new, equitable, productive, honest foundation can be built. And if we are honest with ourselves, in the long run, and despite the short-term pain, wouldn’t that kind of creative destruction be a good thing to look forward to?