the plan for the future
26 June 2003
Taken from: Economist - The Carlyle Group - C for capitalism
ON the day Osama bin Laden's men attacked America, Shafiq bin Laden, described as an estranged brother of the terrorist, was at an investment conference in Washington, DC, along with two people who are close to President George Bush: his father, the first President Bush, and James Baker, the former secretary of state who masterminded the legal campaign that secured Dubya's move to the White House. The conference was hosted by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that manages billions of dollars, including, at the time, some bin Laden family wealth. It also employs Messrs Bush and Baker.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when no one was being allowed in or out of the United States, many members of the bin Laden family in America were spirited home to Saudi Arabia. The revival of defence spending that followed greatly increased the value of the Carlyle Group's investments in defence companies.
The Carlyle Group is a godsend for conspiracy theorists who are convinced that the world is run by, and on behalf of, a shadowy network of wealthy men. Sure enough, it was not long before Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat member of Congress, pointed a finger at Carlyle, noting in an interview that “persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war” and that, despite “numerous warnings”, they did not alert the “people of New York who were needlessly murdered”. “What”, she asked, “do they have to hide?”
You need not be a conspiracy theorist, though, to be concerned about what lies behind Carlyle's success. Can a firm that is so deeply embedded in the iron triangle where industry, government and the military converge be good for democracy? Carlyle arguably takes to a new level the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower feared might “endanger our liberties or democratic process”. What red-blooded capitalist can truly admire a firm built, to a significant degree, on cronyism; surely, this sort of access capitalism is for ghastly places like Russia, China or Africa, not the land of the free market?
Named after the luxurious New York hotel favoured by the firm's founders, Carlyle even got started by exploiting a tax loophole, a legitimate capitalistic activity, if not an honourable one. This particular loophole bizarrely allowed profitable American firms to enjoy a large tax break by buying the losses incurred by Eskimo-owned companies in Alaska. In 1987, this opportunity brought together a flamboyant dealmaker, Stephen Norris, who left Carlyle in 1995, with David Rubenstein, a former aide to President Carter and still the brains behind the firm.
After this initial success, though, the going got tougher. Carlyle missed out on several attractive deals while completing some duff ones, including buying a stake in Caterair International, a company that later collapsed under the weight of its junk-bond financing. Still, it did introduce them to a man who became well worth knowing: George W. Bush, a director of Caterair.
Carlyle really only took off after it hired Frank Carlucci, a former secretary of defence and deputy director of the CIA, in 1989. Mr Carlucci was able to open doors in Washington that had hitherto been closed to the firm, allowing it to participate in many lucrative deals.
Although Dan Briody's book is useful reading for anybody interested in American politics today, it tells Carlyle's story in the style of a Tom Clancy or John Grisham novel. This is rather a shame. Instead of expanding in an unrelenting tone of shocked disapproval, the author could have offered a serious view on a number of difficult questions.
For instance, if privatisation can increase the efficiency of the notoriously inefficient defence sector, how should the inherent political and security risks best be managed? Given that the rewards for success in the private sector so far exceed those for public service, how can talented people be persuaded to enter public service without their former private-sector activities becoming a source of suspicion?
While some former presidents are happy to play golf, others may feel they can still earn a decent living. What rules should govern the commercial activities of former President Bush; or, for that matter, former British prime minister, John Major; or former South Korean prime minister, Park Tae-joon—all of whom have taken the Carlyle nickel? Mr Bush senior receives private intelligence briefings that are not available to ordinary investors. Does his inside knowledge of, and possible influence over, the administration's political strategy towards, say, North Korea and Saudi Arabia directly benefit Carlyle? If so, does that constitute an unacceptable conflict of interest?
Perhaps there would be less reason to worry about Carlyle if there were rival clubs of ex-political heavyweights competing within the iron triangle. Alas, this firm seems to be an aspiring monopolist, hoovering up former public officials from across the political divide and, increasingly, from across the world. It is becoming more ambitious in Europe, and keenly eyeing China. Perhaps there would be less reason to worry if Carlyle's activities were more open—but as a private equity firm, it has largely escaped America's recent efforts to improve the governance and transparency of companies, which is unfortunate. At a time when America is aggressively promoting democracy and capitalism abroad, including by military means, it would be helpful if its politicians and businesses were regarded as cleaner than clean. Shrouded in secrecy, Carlyle calls capitalism into question.