The Private Equity Question?

Not everyone is going to agree with me, but leveraged buyouts (LBOs) in the 1980s were mostly a positive influence on Corporate America. Yes, many people recall the '80s as a time of insatiable avarice and outsized egos, of junk bonds and Ponzi finance, of corporate raiders and merger madness.

But it's worth remembering that U.S. companies stumbled badly in the 1970s. Industrial America lost market share and profits to Japanese, German, and other overseas rivals. Management was risk-averse and isolated from shareholders. The mind-set of the average chief executive officer was economically disastrous. T. Boone Pickens, Michael Milken, Henry Kravis, Carl Icahn, and other financiers shook America's defeatist Establishment out of its gloom. In many ways, the foundation of the high productivity economy of the 1990s was created during the '80s.

My question is, what is the impact of private equity this time around? Like LBOs, private equity takes over companies with a sliver of equity and lots of debt. Problem is, I don't see the benefits this time around, while there are several negatives. First, private equity buccaneers are stripping cash out of the companies they take over through steep management and consulting fees; second, with all the debt payments I doubt management will invest heavily in their business; and third (and most important), it seems that top management is inviting deals so that they cash in with unimaginable riches. Top honchos are more concerned about lining their own pockets by putting their companies up for sale to the private equity bidders than in doing the hard work to manage well.

What am I missing?

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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