[Excerpt] Private equity, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and other private pools of capital form part of the growing shadow banking system in the United States; these new financial intermediaries provide an alternative investment mechanism to the traditional banking system. Private equity and hedge funds have their origins in the U.S., while the first sovereign wealth fund was created by the Kuwaiti Government in 1953. While they have separate roots and distinct business models, these alternative investment vehicles increasingly have been merged into overarching asset management funds that encompass all three alternative investments. These funds have wielded increasing power in financial and non-financial sectors – not only via direct investments but also indirectly, as their strategies – such as high use of debt to fund investments – have been adopted by investment arms of banks and by publicly-traded corporations.
This primer focuses on private equity (PE) because this is the new financial intermediary that most directly affects the management of, and employment relations in, operating companies that employ millions of U.S. workers. However, as the boundaries among alternative investment funds have begun to blur, we will touch on hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds as their activities relate to private equity.
To address the question of why these new financial intermediaries have become prominent in the last three decades, we begin by outlining the changes in financial regulation in the U.S. and the characteristics of labor market institutions that have facilitated the emergence and rapid growth of private equity and other alternative investment funds. We outline the changes in size and scope of the private equity industry; describe the generic PE business model, using examples from the retail sector where it has been particularly active; and examine the sources of gains for PE investors. We then review the impact of private equity buyouts on the sustainability of the operating companies and on workers and employment relations in these companies. In the period since the collapse of the housing and real estate markets and the onset of recession and financial crisis, the risk of financial distress and even bankruptcies among the highly leveraged operating companies in PE portfolios has increased. We examine this increased risk to operating companies in this period. In addition, we discuss the experience of private equity firms in the post-crisis period, noting the signs of recovery in the sector as well as the continuing challenges facing private equity investors. We illustrate our points – both positive and negative – with brief case examples to help clarify the issues. We conclude with proposals for regulatory changes that are needed to curb the destructive outcomes associated with some types of private equity activity.