When it comes to Bain Capital, I sometimes want to shake Mitt Romney and say to him what unkind adults used to say when I was a timid child in an era less preoccupied with self-esteem: Cat got your tongue?
He’s gotta learn to talk about Bain Capital.
Conservatives by and large are more likely to applaud than criticize Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital. But Romney hasn’t learned to talk about Bain in a way that shows voters that he can put forward a convincing capitalist manifesto.
Should Romney get the nomination, Bain will become shorthand for the capitalist system. Romney had better learn not only defend but to sell both. Daniel Henninger today in his column makes Bain the symbol, if not of capitalism in its entirety, at least of the 1980s go-go business culture:
We are of course putting forth "Bain Capital" as not merely the Romney private-equity house but as the stand-in for the period of American economic history that ran from 1980 to 1989. Back then it was called the Greed Decade, with asset-stripping barbarians at the gate.
Virtually everything about this popular stereotype is wrong. Properly understood, the 1980s, including Bain, were the remarkable years when an ever-resilient America found a way to save itself from becoming what Europe is now—a global has-been. …
If not for Bain Capital and the other, bigger players who commenced a decade of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers in the 1980s, the odds are that the U.S.'s "fundamentals" would be similarly weak. Instead, the U.S. corporate sector remade itself during the Bain years.
Some companies failed and others went on to prosper after venture capitalists such as Bain came calling. Henninger calls this era a “historic and necessary cleansing of the Augean stables of the American economy” in “thousands of Mitt Romneys” rebooted corporate America.
The left looks at this economic activity and sees Gordon Gekko. But in a time when the Obama economy is failing, the public may well be ripe for a new narrative. Romney just hasn’t found it yet.
Steve Kaplan, the Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (whew!), has a piece on the American that gives Bain credit for creating jobs “using any measure.”
First, Kaplan notes that Bain stood out during Romney’s tenure for creating outstanding profits for investors. But the political question is how many jobs Bain created while Romney was at the helm.
Kaplan says that there are two ways to look at this: One is to look at jobs created and lost at Bain before Romney left in 1999. The second is to look at jobs created and lost in those same companies today. Looking at companies Bain invested in after Romney left is inappropriate because Romney had no say in these ventures.
Bain invested in Staples and the Sports Authority when both were small. Staples, in fact, had only one store, which would probably indicate fewer than 200 employees. Sports Authority had about ten stores. At the end of 1998, Staples had more than 42,000 jobs, while Sports Authority had almost 14,000. These are only two companies, but the results appear to be indicative of the bigger picture.
Bain also invested in companies that went bankrupt. Kaplan says that, when you add it all up today, however, Bain appears to have come out on the positive side of the ledger in terms of jobs created. Kaplan has painstakingly gone through the histories of several companies.
A good example is State Stores:
Bain Capital invested in Stage Stores in 1988, when the company was young. Stage went public in 1996 with 9,606 employees. Bain realized $184 million from the investment, then reinvested $23 million for a net payout of $161 million.
Employment expanded to 15,700 employees by 1999. The company was hurt by the early 2000 recession and went into chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000.
Employment dropped back to 9,800 in 2001. Subsequently, Stage left chapter 11 and today it employs 13,500 people. So, even at its lowest point, Stage Stores had more employees than when it went public. Today, Stage has roughly 3,900 more employees than it did in 1996.
These two articles both indicate how beneficial equity firms can be for the overall economy.
But it is Mitt Romney who has to make the point.