Nov 11, 2023

Private ughuity

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

– Woody Guthrie, The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd

The modern-day counterpart to plunder of Dust Bowl farmers goes by the anodyne name of “private equity.” Two new books rip off the veil to explain how it works. Reviewing them, Kim Phillips-Fein breaks it down:

Private equity firms create nothing and provide no meaningful services—on the contrary, they actively undermine functional companies. Far from creating jobs, companies owned by private equity see the number of people they employ shrink by an average of more than 4 percent within the first two years after purchase—if they survive at all…. one in five large companies taken private in a debt-financed deal declares bankruptcy within a decade.

The authors describe private equity funds running the companies they purchase into the ground. A common maneuver, for instance, is to mandate that a newly acquired hospital or factory sell off its buildings and land—even if the business has no reason to do so other than to pay back the debt the fund incurred to purchase it. In the long term, this means the company is left to pay rent on the same properties it once owned. Often it’s stuck paying property taxes, insurance, and upkeep despite no longer owning the property.

Other tactics include forcing acquired companies to pay “dividend recapitalizations,” in which they borrow to pay dividends to new owners, or myriad advisory and management fees…. The acquired companies find themselves weighed down by costs they had never borne before.

When the Carlyle Group purchased ManorCare, the second-largest nursing home chain in the United States, for example, the first thing it did was require ManorCare to sell its real estate. This allowed Carlyle to recoup the money it had borrowed to finance the deal, but forced the chain to pay nearly $500 million in rent annually to keep using its buildings. It was also saddled with $61 million in “transaction fees,” followed by an additional $27 million over nine years in advisory fees. To cover these new costs, ManorCare faced intense pressure to scrimp on patient care, laying off hundreds of workers. Its health code violations rose by more than 25 percent between 2013 and 2017. At the same time, it forced patients to undergo pointless therapies that Medicare would cover, sometimes with absurd consequences—as in the case of an eighty-four-year-old man who was brought to group therapy even after he became verbally unresponsive and his doctor had authorized end-of-life care. Nonetheless, ManorCare declared bankruptcy in 2018.

Private equity seeks out low-wage industries (food service, retail, health care, and security are its largest sectors) in which the consumers are unlikely to complain and in which it can economize brutally without fear of lawsuits. Many of the companies purchased by private equity funds are those that cater to the poor, sick, and vulnerable: payday loan companies, ambulance companies, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices. A slew of prison services (food, collect phone calls, health care, ankle monitors, even debit cards given to prisoners upon release) are provided by companies owned by private equity firms.

The books are Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America by Brendan Ballou and These are the Plunderers: How Private Equity Runs – and Wrecks – America by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. Read the review here.