Cory Doctorow: The long lineage of private equity’s looting

Fans of the Sopranos will remember the “bust out” as a mob tactic in which a business is taken over, loaded up with debt, and driven into the ground, wrecking the lives of the business’s workers, customers and suppliers. When the mafia does this, we call it a bust out; when Wall Street does it, we call it “private equity.”

For years, the crooks who ran these ops did a brisk trade in blaming the internet. Why did Sears tank? Everyone knows that the 19th century business was an antique, incapable of mounting a challenge in the age of e-commerce. That was a great smokescreen for an old-fashioned bust out that saw corporate looters make off with hundreds of millions, leaving behind empty storefronts and emptier pension accounts for the workers who built the wealth the looters stole:

Same goes for Toys R Us: it wasn’t Amazon that killed the iconic toy retailer – it was the PE bosses who extracted $200m from the chain, then walked away, hands in pockets and whistling, while the businesses collapsed and the workers got zero severance:

It’s a good racket – for the racketeers. Private equity has grown from a finance sideshow to Wall Street’s apex predator, and it’s devouring the real economy through a string of audactious bust outs, each more consequential and depraved than the last.

PE shows that it can turn profitable businesses gigantic windfalls, sticking the rest of us with the job of sorting out the smoking craters they leave behind,

Today, the PE sector loves a rollup, which is when they buy several related businesses and merge them into one firm. The nominal business-case for a rollup is that the new, bigger firm is more “efficient.” In reality, a rollup’s strength is in eliminating competition. When all the pet groomers, or funeral homes, or urgent care clinics for ten miles share the same owner, they can raise prices, lower wages, and fuck over suppliers.

PE’s most ghastly impact is felt in the health care sector. Whole towns' worth of emergency rooms, family practices, labs and other health firms have been scooped up by PE, which has spent more than $1t since 2012 on health acquisitions:

Once a health care company is owned by PE, it is significantly more likely to commit medicare fraud. It also cuts wages and staffing for doctors and nurses. PE-owned facilities do more unnecessary and often dangerous procedures. Appointments get shorter. The companies get embroiled in kickback scandals.

As bad as PE is for healthcare, it’s worse for long-term care. PE-owned nursing homes are charnel houses, and there’s a particularly nasty PE scam where elderly patients are tricked into signing up for palliative care, which is never delivered (and isn’t needed, because the patients aren’t dying!). These fake “hospices” get huge payouts from medicare – and the patient is made permanently ineligible for future medicare, because they are recorded being in their final decline:

Private equity is behind the mass rollup of single-family homes across America. Wall Street landlords are the worst landlords in America, who load up your rent with junk fees, leave your home in a state of dangerous disrepair, and evict you at the drop of a hat:

As these houses decay through neglect, private equity makes a bundle from tenants and even more borrowing against the houses. In a few short years, much of America’s desperately undersupplied housing stock will be beyond repair. It’s a bust out.

You know all those exploding trains filled with dangerous chemicals that poison entire towns? Private equity bust outs:

PetSmart – looted for $30 billion by RaymondSvider and his PE fund BC Partners – is a slaughterhouse for animals. The company systematically neglects animals – failing to pay workers to come in and feed them, say, or refusing to provide backup power to run during power outages, letting animals freeze or roast to death. Though PetSmart has its own vet clinics, the company doesn’t want to pay its vets to nurse the animals it damages, so it denies them care. But the company is also too cheap to euthanize those animals, so it lets them starve to death. PetSmart is also too cheap to cremate the animals, so its traumatized staff are ordered to smuggle the dead, rotting animals into random dumpsters.

All this happened while PetSmart’s sales increased by 60%, matched by growth in the company’s gross margins. All that money went to the bust out.

Mitch W @MitchW