As private equity has grown, its influence has touched more companies. But what are its effects on competitors, public markets and sector productivity? We explore the findings of three recent research papers that examine PE’s broader impact.
Roundtable discussion chaired by Amy Carroll.
“If PE is successfully making productivity gains in its own companies – and thereby encouraging productivity gains in the broader market – regulators need to be very careful indeed about taking any steps that could hamper that dynamic.”
Private equity continues to grapple with a punishing perception problem – many politicians and members of the general public still associate the asset class with company collapse and job destruction. In polarised times, the industry’s ability to communicate the benefits it brings, not only to the businesses it backs but also to the wider economy and society, has never been more important.
Three recent academic papers delve into exactly these issues, revealing that PE’s influence spreads well beyond its immediate portfolio companies.
One explores how having PE experience influences the behaviour of CEOs running public market companies. Another examines the impact of a PE-backed player on competition in its industry. A third studies PE’s productivity improvement potential.
The results of these research initiatives are important for policymakers trying to balance being responsive to their constituents with promoting economic growth.
We talked to the authors of the three studies and to PE investors about what the findings tell us regarding the industry’s spill-over effects and how these should influence any future regulation.
Roundtable discussion chaired by Amy Carroll.
How would you describe public and political perceptions of PE’s spill-over effects today?
Neil MacDougall: “It’s hard to get good press for PE at the moment. Everything in the venture world is deemed to be wonderful, but buyouts are a far harder story to sell. Is that because the venture industry is doing a great job of explaining what it does? Or do people just like the idea of novelty and growth, while PE is only ever associated with financial engineering? It’s certainly something we all need to be concerned about. How do we get our message across in a better and more compelling way?”
Johan Van de Steen: “Sovereign wealth funds and pension funds are increasing their allocation to PE. But broader public opinion continues to be defined by bad news stories. To much of the general public, PE firms are still locusts and fat-cat financiers.”
In light of this, why are the findings of these research papers so important?
Steven J. Davis: “The PE model has been controversial for many years, primarily because in some quarters it is seen as contributing to job destruction. But we also live in a time where there is a great deal of concern about slow productivity growth. PE’s focus on managerial professionalisation means it could be an important driver of productivity. If so, it’s critical to understand why that is, so we can replicate those benefits, and also so policymakers can have the information they need to make the right decisions around the asset class.”
Serdar Aldatmaz: “There has certainly been a lot of negative publicity around PE and its implications for the broader economy. Most recently, we have seen Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Stop Wall Street Looting Act’, which is being pushed in the US Senate. Senator Warren refers to PE firms as ‘looting companies’.
“This negative perception has been around for some time. In 2015, PE-backed casino operator Caesars filed for bankruptcy and PE was substantially blamed, not only for the collapse but also for downward pressure on its peers’ financials.
“At the same time, though, you have Hertz, one of the biggest buyouts in history. It was taken private in 2005 and then quickly sold back to public markets two years later. That deal attracted a lot of controversy, but PE made the company significantly more efficient. And, critically for our study, a lot of improvements were also seen in the car rental industry more broadly, particularly among Hertz’s main competitors – Avis Budget and Dollar Thrifty.
“There has not been a great deal of evidence to date about the asset class’s broader externalities, or side effects, and so we thought this was important to explore. We found that when PE invests in a sector, publicly traded companies within the same industry do significantly better in terms of labour productivity, profitability, employment and capital expenditure. In other words, there are positive spill-overs from the PE target onto public peer companies in the same industry.”
Is that a result of competitive pressures, or could it be that PE is good at identifying positive industry trends?
Serdar Aldatmaz: “It could be argued that PE investors just have perfect foresight. But we did distinguish between the two scenarios – we examined the PE investments against the baseline of the industry’s historical performance, for example – and everything suggests that it isn’t how an industry is performing that attracts PE capital. Instead, it’s PE coming in that changes industry performance.”
Neil MacDougall: “Yes, it’s what you would expect in a competitive market: if somebody raises the bar, the competition needs to improve their performance as well.”
Scott Hsu: “I agree. The findings make sense. PE firms bring cost-cutting and value-enhancing initiatives to targets. When those targets start to improve, their peers come under pressure to act and so the whole industry’s productivity and efficiency improves.”
Steven J. Davis: “When Walmart started taking market share, everyone tried to figure out what it was doing so they could imitate it. Those that couldn’t didn’t survive. What’s interesting, though, is that our study evaluates productivity gains post-buyout, by comparing outcomes to those of control businesses. If this research is correct, it means we are probably ‘under-scoring’ our productivity gains by not taking that spill-over effect into account. If PE is successfully making productivity gains in its portfolio companies – and thereby encouraging productivity gains in the broader market – regulators need to be very careful indeed about taking any steps that could hamper that dynamic.”
Johan Van de Steen: “PE isn’t affecting public companies only through competitive pressure. It is casting its shadow over public markets in other ways as well. It is increasingly active in public markets, by acquiring significant minority positions with influence or taking underperforming companies private. This poses a threat – or an incentive – to public companies, encouraging them to do better.”
Scott, you found that one way that PE spills over into public markets is through the PE experience of some public market CEOs. How does that experience manifest itself?
Scott Hsu: “We looked at the spill-over effect through a novel lens, by considering the human capital side of the industry. In particular, we found that PE effects spill over to listed companies through public company CEOs who have received on-the-job training while working for private equity targets in the past.
“We called these spill-over effects ‘managing with PE style’, and that is exactly what we found. We looked at the job histories of public company CEOs and found that those with a PE background – and in particular, those who had previously held the CEO position in PE targets – exhibit cost-cutting and value-creating characteristics within the public companies they manage.”
Neil MacDougall: “But why do you get these differences in behaviour? Do these CEOs simply realise they have the ability to make changes faster because they have done it in a private context? Does that, therefore, bring a feeling of greater operational freedom to their quoted situation? It may just come down to the fact that they realise they can make this level of change without destroying a business. They are less focused on quarterly results because they take the view that if they get it right over four or five years, their shareholders will ultimately thank them.”
Johan Van de Steen: “Having sat on the board of public companies and having been involved in several take-private transactions, I have seen the benefits of bringing in PE-trained CEOs. All else being equal, they bring more focus, discipline and sense of urgency to value creation. They are also used to working in an environment of transparency and accountability, and are more compatible with more active boards and investors.”
One of the characteristics exhibited in PE transactions, however, is job reduction. Can PE really be positioned as a force for good in the wider economy while the story around employment remains mixed?
Johan Van de Steen: “Reducing investment and employment does not mean putting the brakes on a business. On the contrary, these reductions are often the result of improving labour and capital efficiency – a critical foundation for future growth and value creation. PE’s objective is not to starve a company of resources. Doing so would put the long-term viability of a business at risk. On exit, PE owners need to demonstrate sustainable growth in revenues and profit margins. Slash-and-burn tactics just don’t work.”
Steven J. Davis: “It is important to remember that PE doesn’t have a single narrative. For example, we saw very large employment gains in the wake of private-to-private deals. Lots of these gains come through acquisitions, but even if you strip them out of the data, those findings still stand. That’s a positive story that everyone can be happy with. But there is no denying that the story is materially different when it comes to other forms of buyouts, particularly take-privates.”
Neil MacDougall: “It is no surprise to me that employment increases following private-to-private deals. If you are buying a family-run business, for example, the owners will often have been perfectly happy simply taking out dividends, while the PE firm will be focused on growing the company, making it bigger and more valuable. To do that you need people. It’s the difference between investing for growth and holding for yield.”
Why then does employment fall following a take-private?
Neil MacDougall: “Quoted companies have the burden of quarterly reporting and the CEO has to look after numerous investors. When we sold a business to a US corporation, the buyer doubled the size of the finance department simply to deal with those tasks. PE has a much more direct and focused communications channel and you can usually save money, thereby reducing the headcount. There will be other factors at play as well, although those will be more industry-specific.”
PE’s ability to drive productivity is a common theme across the research. But Steven, you found that productivity gains varied, depending on the macro-economic backdrop. What do you think is going on there?
Steven J. Davis: “First of all, we found average productivity gains of 8% over two years. That is very significant. But yes, the results did vary when we dug down into different types of buyouts and also different credit conditions. We found that deals executed in years when credit was tight performed really well on the productivity margin. A plausible hypothesis is that when credit is tight, PE firms have to generate profits through operational improvements, and are consequently more selective in the deals they pursue and more focused on generating extra profit at an operational level. The flip side of that, however, is that when credit conditions are loose, more deals may take place, but investment decisions might not be so wise and the focus on productivity performance may not be as great.”
Johan Van de Steen: “The availability, or not, of cheap credit is an important factor in the effort required to generate target returns. As credit becomes scarce or more expensive, PE owners have to push harder on earnings growth and cash generation to achieve similar returns.”
Neil MacDougall: “It’s all about sweating the assets.”
Johan Van de Steen: “But I don’t agree that when credit is cheap, PE becomes less selective. When credit is cheap, prices go up, so you actually have to be more selective to ensure you don’t pay too high a price.”
Scott Hsu: “The finding that target productivity gains are larger for deals executed during tighter credit market conditions seems to suggest that PE has positive effects in helping target firms become more competitive – or survive – when economic conditions are less favourable. Overall, I am glad and appreciate that the authors found these important effects of PE, and I hope that these findings will lead to a fairer assessment of its impact.”
As PE ownership becomes more extensive, do these findings not mean that the asset class could potentially amplify economic peaks and troughs?
Steven J. Davis: “There is some potential for that. We see, in particular, a lot of take-privates happening at the top of the cycle, with high leverage adding strain when the cycle turns. That is a concern and it is something the tax and regulatory system should take into account. The tax system in the US treats debt financing more favourably than equity financing, and this can encourage excessive leverage. It’s not that I am against debt financing, but I don’t see a good justification for the corporate tax code to encourage greater levels of debt than would otherwise be the case.”
Serdar Aldatmaz: “I’m not sure that PE ownership could amplify peaks and troughs. In fact, research has found that industries with high levels of PE ownership are less prone to market shocks.”
Johan Van de Steen: “The PE sector is well aware of the risks of investing in cyclical industries, such as the need to get the timing right, the potential negative impact on the holding period for an asset if you have to sit out a downturn, or even more basic things like the limitations of leverage as a tool for cyclical businesses. As a rule, many PE investors do not invest in structurally cyclical industries.”
Neil MacDougall: “I agree. That is probably three steps of logic too far. Given the level of PE activity as a percentage of overall economic activity, I can’t imagine a variation significant enough to make a difference to the cycle at all. We see ourselves more as a cork on the wave than a wave generator.”
Do the results of these pieces of research show that PE is intrinsically better at managing business than public markets?
Serdar Aldatmaz: “I think they do. It is clear that PE targets become more and more efficient. There is some degree of financial engineering involved in that, of course. Leverage forces companies to behave differently because management has less free cash flow and because they are more closely monitored. But there is also operational engineering. Companies are simply run in a different way that makes them more efficient. Now we know it also has broader implications for peer companies, and that is very important.”
As the number of take-privates rises and public ownership falls, what does that mean for PE’s influence on the wider economy?
Steven J. Davis: “It’s an interesting question because, as you say, we have this long slide in the number of listed companies, particularly in the US. That suggests that being listed is less attractive than it once was. As the industry has grown in prominence, it has shown that there is a different way to bring managerial expertise and financial resources to bear. I do see PE as having a potentially positive social and economic function to play, partly because it takes people with a high level of managerial expertise and spreads that expertise widely.”
Johan Van de Steen: “I believe PE ownership will continue to grow. As a result, there will be further professionalisation of companies and management, a stronger focus on value and returns, and higher levels of industry consolidation – all phenomena typical of PE’s buy-and-build approach.
“More PE ownership could mean slightly more short-termism as mostPE firms operate a finite fund life structure, typically holding companies for five years. But again, bear in mind that exit value and returns correlate strongly with creating sustainable value, so I don’t think greater levels of PE ownership are likely to lead to a slash-and-burn mentality.”
Serdar Aldatmaz: “These pieces of research show that thinking about PE should not just focus on the target company. Policymakers need to consider the broader implications. The sector helps industries to grow faster and become more efficient, which will only increase societal welfare over the long term. Anyone thinking about regulating or limiting the asset class should carefully analyse these findings before making their decisions.”
“We found that when PE invests in a sector, publicly traded companies within the same industry do significantly better in terms of labour productivity, profitability, employment and capital expenditure.”
All three research papers attempt to quantify PE’s impact, not only on the businesses it backs but on competitors, public markets, and the economy as a whole.
The Economic Effects of Private Equity Buyouts analyses thousands of US PE investments between 1990 and 2013, a period that experienced huge swings in credit market conditions and GDP growth. Its authors – Steven J. Davis (University of Chicago), John Haltiwanger (University of Maryland), Kyle Handley, Ben Lipsius (both University of Michigan), Josh Lerner (Harvard University) and Javier Mirander (US Census Bureau) – identify significant differences between the impacts of these deals, depending on their nature and the economic backdrop against which they took place.
Employment rises following acquisitions of other privately-owned companies and in secondary buyouts, but falls following divisional buyouts and take-privates. Meanwhile, labour productivity increases in all cases, but particularly in periods where credit availability is tight.
A further paper, Private Equity in the Global Economy: Evidence on Industry Spillovers, by Serdar Aldatmaz of George Mason University and Gregory Brown of University of North Carolina, explores the impact of PE investment on other companies operating in the same sectors and geographies. Its dataset covers 19 industries across 48 countries.
The research finds that, following a PE investment, productivity, employment and capital expenditure all rise in public companies operating in the same space. Furthermore, the more intense the industry’s competitive dynamics, the bigger the effects.
The research does consider whether the findings could be attributed to PE’s prowess in pre-empting positive industry trends. However, it concludes that the results are more likely to be explained by competitive forces. It specifically points to the buyout of Hertz in 2005, for example, which was followed by increases in employment, labour productivity and profit growth at competitors Avis Budget and Dollar Thrifty.
Finally, Managing with Private Equity Style: CEOs’ Prior Buyout Target Experiences and Corporate Policies, by Hung-Chia Scott Hsu, Tomas Jandik and Juntai Lu, all of University of Arkansas, investigates the impact of a chief executive’s PE experience on their managerial practices in the public arena. The research finds that CEOs with prior PE experience reduce investment by 34% and employment by 23%. This behaviour is particularly evident when the experience is recent and when it has been gained at a company prone to cost-cutting measures.The research also finds that CEOs with PE experience are more likely to file patents, improve operational efficiency and, ultimately, improve the value of a business.