This approach has one obvious virtue: if a private-equity firm wants to make money, it has to improve the value of the companies it buys. Sometimes the improvement may be more cosmetic than real, but historically private-equity firms have in principle had a powerful incentive to make companies perform better. In the past decade, though, that calculus changed. Having already piled companies high with debt in order to buy them, many private-equity funds had their companies borrow even more, and then used that money to pay themselves huge “special dividends.” This allowed them to recoup their initial investment while keeping the same ownership stake. Before 2000, big special dividends were not that common. But between 2003 and 2007 private-equity funds took more than seventy billion dollars out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.
As a result, private-equity firms are increasingly able to profit even if the companies they run go under—an outcome made much likelier by all the extra borrowing—and many companies have been getting picked clean. In 2004, for instance, Wasserstein & Company bought the thriving mail-order fruit retailer Harry and David. The following year, Wasserstein and other investors took out more than a hundred million in dividends, paid for with borrowed money—covering their original investment plus a twenty-three per cent profit—and charged Harry and David millions in “management fees.” Last year, Harry and David defaulted on its debt and dumped its pension obligations. In other words, Wasserstein failed to improve the company’s performance, failed to meet its obligations to creditors, screwed its workers, and still made a profit. That’s not exactly how capitalism is supposed to work.