The New York Times tonight features a generally very good piece, "Buyout Firms Profited as a Company's Debt Soared," by Julie Creswell that falls short in one important respect: it fails to call a prevalent and destructive practice of private equity firms by its proper name.
PE firms in the risk-blind environment preceding the credit crunch got into the habit of producing good to stellar returns by modifying their usual formula. The traditional model was to buy companies with a ton of debt, then improving their bottom line by a combination of partial asset stripping (selling off ancillary operations), cost cutting, and once a blue moon, actually doing something to improve operational performance. Then the company would be sold, either privately, usually to a corporation, or taken public.
But the PE firms found a much easier approach: just pile on more and more debt, and pay themselves a special dividend. No need to do any work, just keep borrowing until you had recouped your investment and then some. And that way you did not need to care how the company fared. If you destroyed the business, it was of no mind to you and your investors. Other saps were left holding the carcass.
George Akerlof and Paul Romer called that activity looting in a famous 1993 paper and depicted it as criminal:
Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society's expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations .
Our description of a looting strategy amounts to a sophisticated version of having a limited liability corporation borrow money, pay it into the private account of the owner, and then default on its debt
First, limited liability gives the owners of a corporation the potential to exploit lenders. Second, if debt contracts let this happen, owners will intentionally drive a solvent firm bankrupt. Third, when the owners of a firm drive it bankrupt, they can cause great social harm, just as looters in a riot cause total losses that are far greater than the private gains they capture.
This version wasn't sophisticated. It was done in broad daylight. The Akerlof/Romer article describes how looting occurred (among other places) in Chile and in the US during the savings and loan crisis. But the New York Times article is robbed of its punch by its inability (due to Grey Lady conventions) or reluctance to call this form of chicanery what it is, a fraud perpetrated on society as a whole.