Coffeenomics, Dunkin’ Donuts and Private Equity

Today, in case you  missed it, Dunkin’ Donuts (DD) held its initial public offering (IPO) on Nasdaq. By all accounts, it was a successful IPO. The stock was originally supposed to be priced at $16-$18 per share, but the day before the sale, the owners raised the target price to $19 because they sensed there would be more demand for the stock than originally believed.

The sellers were right. On the first day of trading, Dunkin’s price jumped nearly 50%, closing at $27.85 per share. It was a good day for the owners.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the stock’s price or where it might be going, though that would be an interesting discussion (Forbes has a somewhat pessimistic take here). What I do want to talk about is a small part of the Forbes article that caught my eye:

The members of the consortium recently paid themselves $500 million in a special dividend, which ended up as debt on the company's books, so the IPO proceeds will essentially go to pay for that little kicker.

The ‘consortium’ consists of three private equity firms: Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s former company), the Carlyle Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners. They had previously purchased Dunkin’ in a leveraged buyout (LBO), meaning they borrowed a lot of money (~$2.4 billion) to buy the company.

Leveraged buyouts are nothing new—they are what private equity firms do.  The firms borrow huge sums of money to buy a company that has a lot of cash or saleable assets, with the idea that they can dispose of the non-performing assets and make the company more profitable. The buyout firm is supposed to improve the operations of the company to make it more profitable and attractive to future buyers. They come in, turn the company around, and sell it after a few years for a big profit.

At least that’s how it is supposed to work.

Often, however, when the private equity firms buy a company, they saddle the company with huge amounts of debt, making it harder for the company to be profitable. Dunkin’ Donuts’ LBO is a typical example—the debt used to purchase the company ended up on the company’s balance sheet, and payments on the debt have been dragging down DD’s earnings. The money raised in today’s IPO was being used to pay down the debt.

This might lead you to ask, if Dunkin’ already had a lot of debt, why would the owners pay themselves a “special dividend” that only increases that debt? The short answer: because they can. As owners of a company, they have the right to do just about whatever they want to with the company’s assets, so paying themselves this kind of dividend is common. The investors get paid, regardless of whether or not the buyout actually improves the long-term health of  the company.

In order to make the LBO successful, the new owners ratchet up pressure on managers and employees, pushing for higher productivity and profitability. The push to make higher profits often leads to cuts in salaries and benefits, store closures and layoffs.  

The private equity firms  argue that they are just squeezing inefficiencies out of the system. They fail to advertise that these “inefficiencies” are often peoples’ jobs, pensions and by extension, their lives. Just ask the people who worked for the Chicago Tribune. The beneficiaries of the LBOs are the investors, not the system.

Here’s the bottom line: Billionaires can play games with other people’s money and lives in a way that the rest of us can only dream about.

Whether we like it or not, that’s how it is, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. To tell you the truth, I can’t decide whether to rail against the system or try to start my own private equity fund. Maybe I’ll just start the prep work for a successful Caffeinated PDX IPO. . . How does the year 2020 sound?