Biden’s Wall Street backers face new threat from WarrenJanuary 19, 2021
Private equity firms went all out for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, giving his campaign six times more money than they donated to President Donald Trump. That’s not going to do them much good with progressive Democrats in Congress.
Democratic lawmakers are poised to crack down on the industry, which they say threatens both the economy and workers through its debt-laden takeovers of companies in industries from health care to food, sometimes followed by painful restructuring and mass layoffs.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), private equity’s biggest foe in Washington, will push for a sweeping set of reforms intended to stop what she calls “Wall Street looting.” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who supports Warren's plan and will be chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is vowing to hold hearings and expects legislation aimed at the industry. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says he will scale back tax benefits as chairman of the Finance Committee that could have a significant impact on the companies’ bottom lines.
It’s setting up a clash with moderate Democrats who say private equity is a crucial tool to keep capital flowing to businesses and propel economic growth. But progressives, now emboldened by the party's full control of Washington, are showing no signs of backing down.
"We need reforms to rein in the private equity industry," Warren told POLITICO. "It’s time we empower workers, safeguard the financial system, and protect small businesses by holding predatory companies accountable for abusive practices that line the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else."
Warren in recent years has ramped up a crusade against so-called leveraged buyouts, which use borrowed money for takeovers, and she's gaining support for the movement after the layoff of 33,000 workers at Toys "R" Us and other storied private equity-backed brands. She and her allies have also tried to highlight concerns that companies taken over by the investment firms are abusing consumers and that acquisitions are accelerating corporate consolidation.
Private equity executives made significant inroads with Biden before the election. Industry leaders such as Blackstone's Jonathan Gray and Bain Capital's Joshua Bekenstein were major financial backers of his presidential run. Private equity and investment firm employees contributed $3.5 million to Biden's campaign, compared to $560,000 to Trump's, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions.
Biden for his part has called for raising capital gains taxes for people making $1 million or more, another measure that would hit private equity.
But lobbyists are encouraged that the president-elect has started to populate his administration with officials who have ties to the industry. Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff is Ron Klain, who was previously general counsel at venture capital firm Revolution. Biden’s National Economic Council director will be Brian Deese, most recently the head of sustainable investing at asset manager BlackRock. Biden’s Covid-19 response czar will be Jeff Zients, who was CEO of investment firm Cranemere and will now focus on the pandemic health crisis.
Private equity representatives expect Biden's core group of economic advisers will hear them out and that they will want to keep capital flowing as the country recovers from the pandemic. The firms are likely to tout commitments to diversity and climate change, which are high priorities for the Biden administration.
“The private equity industry is working in Ohio, Massachusetts, and across America to save jobs and strengthen companies during the Covid economic downturn," said Drew Maloney, president and CEO of the American Investment Council, an industry trade association. "It is more important than ever that policymakers encourage private investment that creates jobs, builds better businesses, supports sustainable energy projects and delivers more secure retirements.”
Warren first introduced her private equity overhaul in 2019 as she was running for president. She's preparing to reintroduce it. The legislation would make private equity firms liable for debt that's placed on companies they control, the pension obligations of the takeover targets and any government litigation they face.
Private equity lobbyists are betting that the firms have plenty of allies in Congress who will continue to act as a firewall against big changes.
At a 2019 House Financial Services Committee hearing on Warren's bill, several moderate Democrats came to the industry's defense, unnerving progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who said she was "quite upset" by the episode. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who said at the hearing that he was trying to attract private equity backing for a struggling minority-owned company, told POLITICO Friday that Democrats should review rules governing the industry, which he said "can play an important role only if regulatory safeguards are robust."
Even during the pandemic, the American Investment Council has stayed active. It has been giving lawmakers virtual tours of the headquarters of PE-backed companies.
Major investors, such as pension funds, endowments and insurance companies, have benefited from returns provided by private equity funds and will also likely push back on the more dramatic aspects of Warren's proposed overhaul of the buyout business model. They would prefer that Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission focus on subjecting private equity firms to greater transparency and governance safeguards -- things like more disclosures of fees and of regulatory exam findings.
"Industry is confident there are policy makers on both sides of the aisle who will be the voice of reason to counter some politically motivated proposals," said Jared Sawyer, a former senior Treasury Department official and principal at the lobbying firm Rich Feuer Anderson.
While some lobbyists are betting that Democrats will be reluctant to shake up the industry during a crisis, Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who introduced the House version of the Warren bill, told POLITICO that "this is not the time to let corporations and private equity continue to run unchecked."
"Continued relief in this pandemic must also include regulations to prevent private equity from making out like bandits by halting any unnecessary corporate mergers and putting the American people above private equity’s bottom lines," he said. "This crisis has only continued to expose private equity’s willingness to profit off disaster.”
Even if Warren is unable to advance her legislation, she will have well-placed allies in the executive branch.
Warren's former economic adviser, Bharat Ramamurti, will serve as deputy director on the National Economic Council, where he will focus on financial reform and consumer protection. Another Warren protégé, Rohit Chopra, has been using his role as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission to call for greater oversight of private equity with regard to health care industry buyouts, warning that recent buying sprees are contributing to higher costs and lower-quality care. Biden has tapped Chopra to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"Biden will be facing competing impulses," said Jeff Hauser, executive director of watchdog group The Revolving Door Project. "But we're hopeful that his populist instincts will win out."