The field of private equity — under intense political attack in recent weeks — has a haven at the Wharton School.
Despite negative media attention on the topic and its connection to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, there is continued enthusiasm for it among Wharton students in the field.
Private-equity firms make high-risk, high-return investments — often by acquiring companies — making internal changes and reselling them for profit.
These firms can serve an important function, Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson said.
“A lot of private equity has the potential to make business more efficient,” he said. “That may actually save the business [and] can lead to an increase in economic welfare.”
What is important, Robertson added, is the mentality of private-equity firms and “whether they’re willing to invest rather than just downsize it, pull out the cash and sell it off.”
But that is precisely what former Massachusetts Gov. Romney is accused of doing as CEO of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm he helped found.
Attacks on Romney
Texas Gov. Rick Perry charged Romney with practicing “vulture capitalism,” and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s attacks on the number of employees Bain Capital fired played an important role in Romney’s loss in South Carolina.
But at Wharton, there exists a different view of private equity than the one being portrayed in campaign advertisements and in the national news media.
“What Mitt Romney and many private equity firms do … is not different from what Warren Buffett does,” said Daniel Pang, a first-year Wharton MBA student, referring to the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, one of the world’s wealthiest people. “It’s pretty much just investing in companies.”
He defended Romney, saying the candidate “might be really wealthy, but he’s made exponentially more money for other people.”
Private equity at Wharton
Private equity is an increasingly popular career option for Wharton students, particularly MBA students. In 2001, 2.3 percent of MBA students accepted full-time job offers with companies in the industries of private equity or venture capital, a subcategory of private equity, according to that year’s MBA Career Report. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 7.65 percent.
“The industry grew a lot in the early 2000s,” Pang said. “It’s an attractive career path.”
In contrast to the general public, students, “especially in business schools like Wharton, get a more balanced opinion,” he added.
Undergraduates have a somewhat more difficult time breaking into the field. From 2006 to 2011, the percentage of undergraduates accepting full-time positions in which their job functions involved either private equity or venture capital declined slightly from 7.7 percent to 5 percent, according to Career Services.
“Certainly there is a lot of student interest in private equity, but it remains a tough area to get hired in immediately after an undergraduate program,” Senior Associate Director of Career Services Barbara Hewitt wrote in an email. “It is more typical for individuals to enter PE after working for a couple of years.”
Wharton plays a central role in the study of private equity. Aside from supplying the field with many of its graduates, the school has held the Wharton Private Equity & Venture Capital Conference for the past 17 years. This year’s conference, titled “Finding the Edge: Succeeding in a Turbulent and Increasingly Competitive Global Landscape,” will be held Feb. 3 at the Hyatt at the Bellevue.
Pang is a co-manager of a panel at the conference on leveraged buyouts, which are a type of corporate takeover financed by borrowing.
Much of the criticism directed at Romney on the campaign trail comes for his use of leveraged buyouts as CEO.
At a debate in New Hampshire earlier this month, Gingrich criticized Romney’s career at Bain Capital, saying, “I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”
Pang defended the effects of leveraged buyouts, saying that “these are high-risk transactions.”
“Sometimes, for a company to operate most efficiently … it’s not the worst thing if some people ended up losing their jobs,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s very beneficial for companies.”
Sanjay Banker, a principal at Bain Capital and 1996 Wharton graduate, will participate on the leveraged buyout panel at the conference,, Pang said. Banker and other speakers will discuss “opportunities and challenges in today’s turbulent marketplace,” according to the conference’s website.
For Banker and others at the conference, the recent negative press surrounding Romney and private equity are sure to be “pretty top of mind,” Pang said.
He added, “I’m sure Bain Capital feels [the pressure] more than other firms.”
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