Warning: attack on capitalism below

A very enlightening piece about the nature of private equity firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital was published by the New Yorker. It explains the perverse incentives created by the government:

Some highlights:

The real reason that we should be concerned about private equity’s expanding power lies in the way these firms have become increasingly adept at using financial gimmicks to line their pockets, deriving enormous wealth not from management or investing skills but, rather, from the way the U.S. tax system works. Indeed, for an industry that’s often held up as an exemplar of free-market capitalism, private equity is surprisingly dependent on government subsidies for its profits…

If private-equity firms are as good at remaking companies as they claim, they don’t need tax loopholes to make money. If we capped the deductibility of corporate debt, and closed the carried-interest loophole, it would not prevent private-equity firms from buying companies or improving corporate performance. But it would reduce the incentives for financial gimmickry and save taxpayers billions every year. Private-equity firms are excellent at gaming the rules…

In 2004, for instance, Wasserstein & Company bought the thriving mail-order fruit retailer Harry and David. The following year, Wasserstein and other investors took out more than a hundred million in dividends, paid for with borrowed money—covering their original investment plus a twenty-three per cent profit—and charged Harry and David millions in “management fees.” Last year, Harry and David defaulted on its debt and dumped its pension obligations. In other words, Wasserstein failed to improve the company’s performance, failed to meet its obligations to creditors, screwed its workers, and still made a profit. That’s not exactly how capitalism is supposed to work.

As if this weren’t galling enough, taxpayers are left on the hook. Interest payments on all that debt are tax-deductible; when pensions are dumped, a federal agency called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation picks up the tab; and the money that the dealmakers earn is taxed at a much lower rate than normal income would be, thanks to the so-called “carried interest” loophole. The money that Mitt Romney made when he was at Bain Capital was compensation for his (apparently excellent) work, but, instead of being taxed as income, it was taxed as a capital gain. It’s a very cozy arrangement.

But hey, an attack on Bain is an attack on capitalism. Heh.