Fix the Debt financier Peter G. Peterson knows a thing or two about debt: he’s an expert at creating it. Peterson founded the private equity firm Blackstone Group in 1985 with Stephen Schwarzman (who compared raising taxes to “when Hitler invaded Poland”). Private equity firms don’t contribute much to the economy; they don’t make cars or milk the cows. Too frequently, they buy firms to loot them. After a leveraged buyout, they can leave companies so loaded up with debt they are forced to immediately slash their workforce or employees’ retirement security.
In 2006, Blackstone ransacked Travelport, a travel reservation conglomerate, piling on $4.3 billion in new debt, then pocketing $1.7 billion to pay shareholders and itself. Travelport promptly fired 841 workers to meet its new debt obligations. It was a great deal for Blackstone but “a horrible one for Travelport,” according to one investment adviser, who described Blackstone as trading in “poisoned waters.”
Now Peterson wants to loot Social Security. For decades he has warned of a “Pearl Harbor scenario” in which spending on Social Security and Medicare causes an epic economic meltdown. Fix the Debt is only his latest project pushing the message that the deficit poses a “catastrophic threat,” and the media have been content to echo his warnings. But people should know better than to be frightened by this chorus of calamity. Peterson is no master of prediction when it comes to economic crises. When an actual threat to the economy—the $8 trillion housing bubble—loomed ominously overhead, Peterson said nothing, even as credit markets froze, subprime lenders filed for bankruptcy and economists like Dean Baker shouted from the rooftops.
The housing crisis provides a good window into the way Peterson operates. In 2007, Blackstone owned the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company, the world’s fourth-largest insurer, which had branched out from municipal bonds into home-equity securities and subprime mortgage debt. FGIC went belly up in 2010, but by that time Peterson had sold most of his shares in a Blackstone IPO that netted $4 billion. Again, Peterson left others holding the bag. The AFL-CIO had warned the Securities and Exchange Commission that the Blackstone IPO was riddled with problems: the firm was structuring itself to avoid regulation and its real assets and values were unknown. Perhaps Chris Cox, George W. Bush’s man at the SEC, should have listened. A year later, Blackstone’s value had dropped 40 percent. Today, it is trading at $18 a share, showing no signs of the recovery that other Wall Street firms have enjoyed.
Blackstone shareholders may have been miffed, but Peterson walked away with $2 billion (on top of the fortune he already made from the carried interest tax loophole, which allows fund managers to be taxed at 15 percent rather than the standard 35 percent)—and pledged to spend half of that to convince Americans they have to take a harsher route to prosperity.