Imagine a schoolteacher in a mid-sized American city. She earns approximately $60,000 per year and each month contributes somewhere between 6 and 12 percent of her wages to the state’s public employee pension plan. Given her salary and associated living expenses, a robust personal savings plan seems out of the question. For the teacher – and the firefighter, the police officer, and many other public employees – pension benefits are the only hope for financial security in retirement.

The managers of the teacher’s pension fund allocate a significant portion of the teacher and her peers’ contributions to several private equity funds. The employees of one of those funds identify a profitable, mid-sized business to buy, one of many companies they will acquire that year. The company’s cost structure appears heavy, and the investors reason that the business could get by with fewer managers. Consultants hired by the investors identify an overseas factory that can replace part of the company’s U.S.-based production at much lower costs.

The investors take this plan to America’s booming private credit market. Debt funds – some also comprised of pensioner capital – compete to lend against the company’s assets. The investors acquire the business, putting up thirty cents of every dollar, with the rest coming from lenders.

Coincidentally, the company happens to be located in the same city in which the teacher – its ultimate, unwitting, indirect part-owner – resides. For decades, the company has been a leading employer in the region and an important component of the regional economy and its tax base. This scenario, though hypothetical, is not implausible. According to the Milken Institute, in 2018 there were over 8,000 private equity-backed companies in the U.S., up from less than 2,000 two decades earlier. The industry’s rapid growth has increased competition, driving capital into smaller and more regionally diverse businesses as investors broaden their search for acquisition candidates. Some pension systems even have special vehicles to invest locally, such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s (CalPERS) $1 billion CalPERS for California initiative.

Over the next five years, the investors “improve” the business. More consultants manage the outsourcing and ensuing layoffs. Revenues grow slightly, but this growth is driven by “price optimization” rather than increasing sales volumes. Profits, however, increase substantially. After five years, the company is put up for sale. With the company producing more cash, it fetches a higher valuation, selling for 50 percent more than its original purchase price. The investors have generated an annualized return of around 15 percent. Counting dividends, returns may even approach 20 percent – at least before fees and carried interest knock a few points off the gross return.

The experience has irrevocably changed the teacher’s community and consequently, her quality of life. The layoffs struck a body blow to the regional economy. When the company’s laid-off managers departed, so too did the town’s little league coaches, PTO presidents, and neighborhood watch captains. Workers fared even worse. As income per capita tumbled, neighborhoods fell into disrepair. Home prices fell, crushing net worth. Crime and drug abuse increased, but the budget-constrained local government struggled to provide adequate services. The teacher’s job became much harder.

Over the same five-year period, a low-cost index fund tracking the S&P 500 would have generated a 15% annualized return. In a best-case scenario, investors working on the teachers’ behalf may have beat the market by a few percentage points. One has to wonder, however: if given a choice in the matter, would the teacher trade a few points of alpha on her retirement money for a life lived in a more vibrant and prosperous community?

It is worth noting here that private equity, as an investment construct, is neither good nor bad. Pooling money and investing it is a core behavior of a capitalist economy. And there are indeed skilled, growth-oriented private equity and venture capital investors. Their firms earn handsome profits while fueling job creation, innovation, and the growth of small and mid-sized enterprises. But, in aggregate, the industry is generating mediocre returns relative to much cheaper alternatives, all while relying heavily on unproductive financial engineering techniques that too often harm American communities.

Even if we momentarily set aside the societal impacts and thorny questions of political economy, we still face an important question: in what other industry does aggregate underperformance mint hundreds of millionaires and tens of billionaires each year?

This is why The Returns Counter and the Coin-Flip Capitalism project at American Compass are important. Much has been written about the financialization of the economy. Our financial elites’ sense of detachment from their countrymen is also well-trodden ground. These are subjective, politically charged discourses. What is not up for debate is that American pensioners and universities paid $100 billion in fees alone from 2006 to 2015 for the privilege of investing in private equity and venture capital. Much of that went to firms that did not beat the stock market. Would our teachers, firefighters, and civil servants be better off if their pension fund managers revisited their assumptions around so-called alternative investments? The answer seems clear.

Despite this apparent mediocrity, the industry is booming. Private equity has tripled in size over the last two decades. The number of American businesses owned by private equity firms has quintupled over the same period. As pension funds and endowments chase returns, their appetites mirror that of CalPERS’ Chief Investment Officer, who last year declared, “we need private equity, we need more of it, and we need it now.”

For better or worse, Americans are about to get more private equity. In yet another handout to their friends in finance, Wall Street Republicans in the Trump Administration last week removed the barriers that for decades had prevented ordinary Americans from investing in private equity via their 401(k) plans. Analysts say the move could open up another $6 trillion in previously restricted retirement savings to the world of private equity, hedge funds, and venture capital. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said the move would “help Americans saving for retirement gain access to alternative investments that often provide strong returns.” If only that were the case.

Americans are right to want to understand how underperformance can generate so much wealth. The business model of private equity, where fund managers earn years of fees before facing judgment on their investment results, plays a significant role. So too do factors on Main Street. Too many mayors and governors refuse to address unfunded pension liabilities, opting instead for voodoo budgets that promise to plug gaps with higher future returns. Low interest rates have also contributed by depriving portfolio managers of many of their traditional options. Though these issues are complex, the role and impact of private equity in the economy deserve a more robust discourse. Equipping ourselves with a clear-eyed, empirical view of performance is a great place to start.

Sam Long
Sam Long is a small business investor and former U.S. Marine.
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