David Stockman has finally said what so few economist are willing to say, but what every last one of them SHOULD have been saying about Mitt Romney, the so-called businessman from the beginning:
Mitt Romney was not a businessman; He was a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped, and stripped businesses.That says it all right there by a man who served as Ronald Reagan's Budget Director, David Stockman. This article should be required reading for anyone who claims that Mitt Romney is a businessman or that Alan Greenspan had all the answers. I could be wrong but looks like to me that Greenspan and the Federal Reserve were enablers to companies like Bain. This Stockman article gives you a real insight into why Romney and his people along with Republicans should not be touting the Romney is a businessman label:
Is Romney really a job creator? Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, takes a scalpel to the claims.
Bain Capital is a product of the Great Deformation. It has garnered fabulous winnings through leveraged speculation in financial markets that have been perverted and deformed by decades of money printing and Wall Street coddling by the Fed. So Bain’s billions of profits were not rewards for capitalist creation; they were mainly windfalls collected from gambling in markets that were rigged to rise.
Nevertheless, Mitt Romney claims that his essential qualification to be president is grounded in his 15 years as head of Bain Capital, from 1984 through early 1999. According to the campaign’s narrative, it was then that he became immersed in the toils of business enterprise, learning along the way the true secrets of how to grow the economy and create jobs. The fact that Bain’s returns reputedly averaged more than 50 percent annually during this period is purportedly proof of the case—real-world validation that Romney not only was a striking business success but also has been uniquely trained and seasoned for the task of restarting the nation’s sputtering engines of capitalism.
Except Mitt Romney was not a businessman; he was a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped, and stripped businesses. He did not build enterprises the old-fashioned way—out of inspiration, perspiration, and a long slog in the free market fostering a new product, service, or process of production. Instead, he spent his 15 years raising debt in prodigious amounts on Wall Street so that Bain could purchase the pots and pans and castoffs of corporate America, leverage them to the hilt, gussy them up as reborn “roll-ups,” and then deliver them back to Wall Street for resale—the faster the better.
That is the modus operandi of the leveraged-buyout business, and in an honest free-market economy, there wouldn’t be much scope for it because it creates little of economic value. But we have a rigged system—a regime of crony capitalism—where the tax code heavily favors debt and capital gains, and the central bank purposefully enables rampant speculation by propping up the price of financial assets and battering down the cost of leveraged finance.
So the vast outpouring of LBOs in recent decades has been the consequence of bad policy, not the product of capitalist enterprise. I know this from 17 years of experience doing leveraged buyouts at one of the pioneering private-equity houses, Blackstone, and then my own firm. I know the pitfalls of private equity. The whole business was about maximizing debt, extracting cash, cutting head counts, skimping on capital spending, outsourcing production, and dressing up the deal for the earliest, highest-profit exit possible. Occasionally, we did invest in genuine growth companies, but without cheap debt and deep tax subsidies, most deals would not make economic sense.
In truth, LBOs are capitalism’s natural undertakers—vulture investors who feed on failing businesses. Due to bad policy, however, they have now become monsters of the financial midway that strip-mine cash from healthy businesses and recycle it mostly to the top 1 percent.
The waxing and waning of the artificially swollen LBO business has been perfectly correlated with the bubbles and busts emanating from the Fed—so timing is the heart of the business. In that respect, Romney’s tenure says it all: it was almost exactly coterminous with the first great Greenspan bubble, which crested at the turn of the century and ended in the thundering stock-market crash of 2000-02. The credentials that Romney proffers as evidence of his business acumen, in fact, mainly show that he hung around the basket during the greatest bull market in recorded history.
Needless to say, having a trader’s facility for knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em has virtually nothing to do with rectifying the massive fiscal hemorrhage and debt-burdened private economy that are the real issues before the American electorate. Indeed, the next president’s overriding task is restoring national solvency—an undertaking that will involve immense societywide pain, sacrifice, and denial and that will therefore require “fairness” as a defining principle. And that’s why heralding Romney’s record at Bain is so completely perverse. The record is actually all about the utter unfairness of windfall riches obtained under our anti-free market regime of bubble finance.
RIP VAN ROMNEY
When Romney opened the doors to Bain Capital in 1984, the S&P 500 stood at 160. By the time he answered the call to duty in Salt Lake City in early 1999, it had gone parabolic and reached 1270. This meant that had a modern Rip Van Winkle bought the S&P 500 index and held it through the 15 years in question, the annual return (with dividends) would have been a spectacular 17 percent. Bain did considerably better, of course, but the reason wasn’t business acumen.
The secret was leverage, luck, inside baseball, and the peculiar asymmetrical dynamics of the leveraged gambling carried on by private-equity shops. LBO funds are invested as equity at the bottom of a company’s capital structure, which means that the lenders who provide 80 to 90 percent of the capital have no recourse to the private-equity sponsor if deals go bust.
By contrast, the 10 home runs generated profits of $1.8 billion on investments of only $250 million, yielding a spectacular return of 7X investment. Yet it is this handful of home runs that both make the Romney investment legend and also seal the indictment: they show that Bain Capital was a vehicle for leveraged speculation that was gifted immeasurably by the Greenspan bubble. It was a fortunate place where leverage got lucky, not a higher form of capitalist endeavor or training school for presidential aspirants.
VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF DEFEAT
The startling fact is that four of the 10 Bain Capital home runs ended up in bankruptcy, and for an obvious reason: Bain got its money out at the top of the Greenspan boom in the late 1990s and then these companies hit the wall during the 2000-02 downturn, weighed down by the massive load of debt Bain had bequeathed them. In fact, nearly $600 million, or one third of the profits earned by the home-run companies, had been extracted from the hide of these four eventual debt zombies.
The most emblematic among them was a roll-up deal focused on down-in-the-mouth department stores and apparel chains that were falling by the wayside in small-town America due to the arrival of Wal-Mart and the big-box retailers. Bain invested $10 million in 1988 and nine years later took out 18X its money—that is, a $175 million profit.
Fittingly, Stage Stores Inc. was the last deal underwritten by the Drexel-Milken junk-bond machine before its demise. And the $300 million raised for this incipient LBO was exactly the kind of slush fund that Milken’s stable of takeover artists had used to acquire corporate castoffs and other bedraggled pots and pans that got rechristened as “growth” companies.
During the next eight years, Bain slogged it out, accumulating about 300 small Main Street storefronts under such forgettable banners as Royal Palais, Bealls, and Fashion Bar. Yet the company wasn’t making much headway. By 1996, it had paid back none of the Milken debt and was only earning $14 million—exactly what it had generated back in 1992 on half the number of stores.
In the spring of 1997, when Chairman Greenspan decided that “irrational exuberance” was not such a worrisome thing, Bain Capital decided to indulge, too. It caused Stage Stores Inc.—which was already publicly traded—to raise $300 million of new junk bonds and used the proceeds to buy a faltering 250-store chain of family clothing stores called C.R. Anthony.
These 12,000-square-foot cracker-box stores sold mid-market shoes, shirts, and dresses right in Wal-Mart’s wheelhouse. In hot pursuit of “synergies,” Bain promptly rebranded these Anthony stores to the purportedly more compelling Stage and Bealls banners. While the name change did nothing to ward off the grim reaper from Bentonville, it suddenly gave Stage Stores Inc. the “growth” story that Greenspan’s bull market craved. Within five months of this ostensibly “transformative” deal and long before the results of the ritual “synergies” and “rebranding” could be determined, the company’s stock price had doubled. Bain Capital and its partner, Goldman Sachs, quickly unloaded their shares at the aforementioned 18X gain.
As a matter of plain fact, the “transformative” C.R. Anthony deal was a bull-market scam. Almost immediately, results headed south. After growing 4 percent during the year of Bain’s quick 1997 exit, same-store sales turned to a negative 3 percent in 1998 and negative 7 percent in 1999, and were still falling when Stage Stores Inc. filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. The company hemorrhaged $150 million of negative cash flow during 1998-99—that is, during the two years after Bain and Goldman got out of Dodge City.
Bain Capital subsequently claimed the company was “a growing, successful and consistently profitable company during the nine years we owned it” but then immediately ran into “operating problems.” That was a doozy by any other name but typical of the standard private-equity narrative that confuses speculators’ timing with real value creation on the free market. The fact is, the bad inventory and vastly overstated assets that took the company down did not suddenly materialize out of the blue during the 24 months after Bain’s exit: they were actually the result of financial-engineering games from the very beginning.
Worse still, the Stage Stores deal embodied all of the hidden leverage that had become par for the course in the era of bubble finance. When the crunch came, the company had no assets to fall back on because Bain had hocked virtually everything; it sold all the company’s credit-card receivables to a third party, and among its 650 stores it owned exactly three! By my calculation, the capitalized debt embedded in its store leases was nearly $750 million and when added to its disclosed balance-sheet debt, the company’s true debt of was $1.3 billion or a devastating 25X its peak-year free cash flow.
The bankruptcy forced the closure of about 250—or 40 percent—of the company’s stores and the loss of about 5,000 jobs. Yet the moral of the Stage Stores saga is not simply that in this instance Bain Capital was a jobs destroyer, not a jobs creator. The larger point is that it is actually a tale of Wall Street speculators toying with Main Street properties in defiance of sound finance—an anti-Schumpeterian project that used state-subsidized debt to milk cash from stores that would not have otherwise survived on the free market.
The pointless exercise of counting jobs won and lost owing to these epochal shifts on the free market is obviously irrelevant to the job of being president, but the fact that Bain made $15 million from the winner and $175 million from the loser is evidence that it did not make a fortune all on its own. It had considerable help from the Easy Button at the Fed.
The lesson is that LBOs (leverage buyouts) are just another legal (and risky) way for speculators to make money, but they are dangerous because when they fail, they leave needless economic disruption and job losses in their wake. That’s why LBOs would be rare in an honest free market—it’s only cheap debt, interest deductions, and ludicrously low capital-gains taxes that artifically fuel them.
The larger point is that Romney’s personal experience in the nation’s financial casinos is no mark against his character or competence. I’ve made money and lost it and know what it is like to be judged. But that experience doesn’t translate into answers on the great public issues before the nation, either. The Romney campaign’s feckless narrative that private equity generates real economic efficiency and societal wealth is dead wrong.
In that endeavor, they got plenty of help from the inside management of spun-off divisions, which were usually marketed as a “key asset” of the business and eager to participate in the prospective LBO. Thus, Experian’s CEO, D. Van Skilling, and his lieutenants reaped millions from this Wall Street-orchestrated windfall before they had even been issued new business cards. Oblivious to the irony, however, Skilling defended Bain’s instant $165 million profit by insisting to Business Insider “there was never a hint of financial chicanery at all.” He had that upside down. The deal was pure chicanery, but not because the private-equity investors were underhanded. It was because they were artificially enabled by the central banking and taxing branches of the state—the true source of this kind of rent-a-company speculation.
Wesley-Jessen had not then filed financial statements with even $1 of GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) net income. But when Bain’s underwriters wired the proceeds in August 1997 the selling price was $23.50 per share. That’s 52X the $0.43 per share it had paid for the stock 25 months earlier. At the end of the day, massive leverage, fancy accounting, and bubble finance, not entrepreneurial prowess, were the source of Bain’s 50-bagger.
THE ITALIAN JOB
In November 1997, Bain Capital pulled off a veritable capitalist heist in the socialist redoubts of the Italian Yellow Pages. On a $17 million investment in the Italian phone book, it took out a profit of $375 million. This was not only a 22-bagger; for Mitt Romney, it was the ultimate in no-sweat riches. According to the company’s CEO, Romney’s sole involvement was a cameo appearance during a due-diligence session: “He came into the room, asked a couple of very sharp questions immediately, shook hands and left.” Twenty-eight months later, in February 2000, Romney’s former colleagues at Bain located him during his tour of duty in Salt Lake City, where they wired his share of the winnings: a reputed $50 million.
Now hoist atop a stupendous house of cards, the raiders next went after Italy’s gussied-up Yellow Pages, paying $24 billion—or 180X net income—for a business that was slithering into the sunset. In fact, it is currently worth perhaps 1 percent of Bain’s exit price through a deal that top-ticked Greenspan’s NASDAQ bubble in February 2000. Never have a group of private-equity men laughed more heartily on the way to the bank.
The Bain Capital investments here reviewed accounted for $1.4 billion or 60 percent of the fund’s profits over 15 years, by my calculations. Four of them ended in bankruptcy; one was an inside job and fast flip; one was essentially a massive M&A brokerage fee; and the seventh and largest gain—the Italian Job—amounted to a veritable freak of financial nature.
In short, this is a record about a dangerous form of leveraged gambling that has been enabled by the failed central banking and taxing policies of the state. That it should be offered as evidence that Mitt Romney is a deeply experienced capitalist entrepreneur and job creator is surely a testament to the financial deformations of our times.
From the Forthcoming The Great Deformation: How Crony Capitalism Corrupts Free Markets and Democracy by David Stockman. Copyright © 2012 by David Stockman. Adapted by permission of Publicaffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Stockman’s book will be published in March 2013.This article is heavily excerpted and the bold/red are mine. For the financial information included in this article, please visit The Daily Beast to read the full background on why Romney is not a businessman. Former Budget Director has done an excellent job of explaining exactly how Bain operated which is about 180 from how he is being portrayed by the Republican Party as their candidate. Are some people going to be shocked when the real truth comes out about Romney after he election or are they still going to believe the koolaid because they refuse to acknowledge that they nominated an habitual liar as the GOP candidate? Jury is out on that one.