OPINION — Ambitious new programs are central to every presidential campaign, on the right or the left. Whether it’s a border wall or universal health care, voters want to hear what candidates will do and how they intend to pay for it. Of course, the latter part of that question often comes with an unspoken addendum: How will you pay for it — without taxing me?
For some, the answer has been to attack an industry that benefits public-sector pensions, universities and foundations without having to address the consequences of their policy proposals. But what might make for a good stump speech on the campaign trail can ultimately have a very real impact for millions of middle-class American families that stand to benefit most from a vibrant economy. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of time for leading candidates to study the capital flows driving new opportunities for American workers — and none stand out more than private equity.
A new report by Ernst & Young, in partnership with the American Investment Council, offers a previously unreported look at private equity’s growing role in directly supporting nearly 9 million U.S. jobs and its positive contributions to over 17 million more. These jobs can be found in every state and congressional district, and include those created by household brands like Dunkin’, Popeyes and Tate’s Bake Shop. Its impact can also be seen at businesses like Hilton, which recently topped Fortune’s list of Best Large Workplaces for Women in the U.S.
In total, private equity-backed businesses paid out $600 billion in wages and benefits last year, and another $1.1 trillion in wages and benefits were generated by suppliers and related consumer spending. As it turns out, private equity is now fueling roughly 5 percent of our country’s GDP and millions of middle-class jobs.
These investments provide the working capital that is promoting a new generation of manufacturing jobs, driving technological innovation and securing America’s leadership role in the global economy. Private equity can transform a fading institution into an economic powerhouse, or inject the capital needed to turn a great idea into an American icon. But flashy stories are only the tip of the iceberg. Private equity firms invest in thousands of U.S. businesses every year, unlocking the economic potential of small and midsize enterprises in rural communities and urban centers alike.
To be clear, these transformations carry risk. Private equity specialists look for opportunities where a fresh influx of energy and capital can make the biggest difference, and that means investing in companies that may be struggling with new consumer trends, global pressures or outdated technology. On occasion, it can also mean short-term cuts to save and streamline a business, so it is repositioned for future growth. If those pressures are too great, investors can lose billions — and become a scapegoat for headline-hungry politicians. But what the new EY study shows is that the private equity industry broadly is improving the lives of millions of workers, consumers and their families, and has become a driving force in the U.S. economy.
Of course, investors benefit too. A majority of private equity flows from public pension funds, including those belonging to teachers, first-responders and other dedicated public servants in all 50 states. Nearly 9 percent of America’s public pension dollars are now invested through private equity, delivering a 10.2 percent median annualized return over the last ten years — compared to public equity’s 8.5 percent, fixed income’s 4.8 percent and real estate’s 4.8 percent.
These stable returns mean retirement security for union workers and public servants. They also help alleviate unfunded obligations that fall on U.S. taxpayers. For example, the chief investment officer of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System the largest public pension fund in the nation, said earlier this year, “We need private equity, we need more of it, and we need it now.”
California’s experience is not unique. The Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System has also invested more than $4 billion in private equity. In 2018, those investments generated a better than 18 percent return in a year when the S&P 500 was down more than 4 percent. The Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board also realized an 18.5 percent return.
Private equity allows America to invest in itself, create jobs and diversify the portfolios funding our retirement security. It drives new growth and gives struggling businesses a second chance, but only because investors have the incentive to take calculated risks that will only pay off if a revitalized business delivers strong returns over several years.
Those dollars should not be pushed to the sidelines — or overseas — and policymakers who care about building a stronger, more prosperous middle class should keep that in mind.
Drew Maloney is the president and CEO of the American Investment Council, an advocacy group for the U.S. private equity industry.