Private Equity’s Surprisingly Good Track Record of Cutting Back on Private Jets

The search for better economic policy.
May 14 2012 6:17 AM

Private Equity vs. Private Jets

When firms like Bain Capital buy companies, they often cut jobs. But they also park the planes.

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The fact that corporate raiders deprive wealthy executives of jets and other luxuries doesn’t let them off the hook for what they do to the other 99 percent. If inefficiency is the enemy of the good in the private equity business, extra employees could represent every bit as much waste as unneeded airplanes.

But the evidence suggests that the stereotype of private equity as destroyer of jobs is perhaps overblown. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper looks at what happens to employment after the buyouts of 3,200 companies that took place between 1980 and 2005. It turns out that Gingrich was at least partly right about the effects that Bain Capital and its ilk have on jobs. The study examines the payroll at the factories, offices, and stores at each buyout target before and after the takeover. The authors find that employment at these establishments falls by about 6 percent in the five years following the ownership change—the result of plants being shuttered, and layoffs at the ones that remain open—relative to employment changes at a comparison set of companies. However, these losses are almost—but not quite—offset by new jobs created after the takeover by building new factories, offices, and stores, or acquiring them from other companies.

The authors calculate that there’s still a net loss of jobs, but it’s only about 1 percent. And they point out that the much higher rate at which PE-run companies shutter or downsize some factories while opening or expanding others may be a reflection of efforts to create efficiencies that make the companies more profitable and (perhaps) make America a richer country.

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Neither I nor private equity investors themselves would want to leave you with the impression of corporate raiders as saints. Their primary purpose is to squeeze whatever profits they can out of the companies they buy, and often earn fortunes for themselves in the process. Nor is it fair to suggest that the suffering of executives who lose access to private jet travel is comparable to that of workers who lose their jobs. But the picture that emerges from that data suggests that when the dust settles after their cost-cutting frenzy, top management will have gotten squeezed, just like the bottom 99 percent.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.