Private equity's future hinges on ditching worst impulses

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, shown at the US Capitol earlier this year, has been a vocal critic of the private equity industry. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Over the past five years, I have watched private equity firms destroy Toys R Us, cause irreparable damage to the US newspaper industry and profit off hitting the most vulnerable with surprise bills after a trip to the emergency room.

During that same period, I have watched firms pour billions of dollars into tech and ESG, provide rescue financing for struggling companies during the pandemic, and become minority owners in sports franchises within the MLB, NBA and other leagues.

Indeed, PE firms can be a vehicle for economic growth or the grim reaper for an already struggling company. And they've become a flashpoint politically, with industry critics such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren calling for reform while others insist they create jobs.

I still go back and forth at times about whether PE dealmakers provide portfolio companies with the financial expertise they claim to. Was Warren Buffett right when he called out PE executives for juicing returns? Should we really believe that passively investing in an index fund yields better returns for pensions than devoting capital to the private equity asset class?

If either is true, why haven't pensions, endowments and other institutional investors taken their money elsewhere? After all, PE dry powder has reached a global all-time high of roughly $1.3 trillion, according to PitchBook data.

This article appeared as part of The Weekend Pitch newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

Here's what I know: A number of PE shops have largely shifted away from the leveraged buyout model made famous by KKR in the 1989 book "Barbarians at the Gate." Blackstone has become a real estate juggernaut. Apollo Global Management has become an insurance giant through its merger with Athene. The Carlyle Group is arguably best known more recently for backing Supreme, a trendy clothing line among millennials that it sold last year.

It's clear that many reputable PE firms either don't have the stomach for or don't want to acquire struggling companies, load them with debt and sell the parts for scraps a few years later. The political environment is simply too volatile. And it's a major financial risk. KKR and Bain Capital had to pay out $20 million to compensate the thousands who lost jobs when Toys R Us closed.

Last year, during the depths of the pandemic, I thought private equity-backed companies would be wiped out en masse. But many remained unscathed. Part of the reason: Portfolio companies with private equity owners received at least $5.3 billion from the CARES Act (which was intended for small businesses impacted by the pandemic), according to a report released this week by Americans for Financial Reform.

Also earlier this week, House Democrats outlined their latest tax proposal to pay for President Biden's $3.5 trillion budget plan. And the carried interest loophole, which allows fund carry to be taxed at more beneficial capital gains rates rather than income rates, remains largely intact despite a growing chorus of criticism from tax law professors around the country as well as longtime PE detractors like Sen. Warren.

The next decade for private equity should indeed be fascinating. The industry's worst actors still need to be weeded out. The large-scale tax avoidance must be addressed. A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that investors at private equity firms fail to report $75 billion annually in income.

PE lobbyists have certainly pushed the narrative that they can join Biden in helping the US "Build Back Better." Firms have plenty of money to dish out, continuing the recent boom in growth equity investing that helps the private markets hum.

Just call it "The Great Private Equity Rebrand." I'll be watching from afar, hoping it happens.