Ben Stein Q&A

Last month, Ben Stein wrote in the New York Times that management buyouts of public companies should be outlawed. Pretty surprising for a free-market Republican who made his bones in the Nixon White House, before becoming an economic pundit, actor, game show host and economic pundit (again). So surprising, in fact, that some bloggers wondered if it was a fit of pique that has since abated.

It hasnt. I spoke with Stein yesterday about the article, and have posted the entire audio interview here:

Ben Stein MP3(you can just click and listen on your computer’s media player, or download it to an iPod).

My goal for the interview was to let Stein expound on the points he made in print, but also to play a bit of Devils Advocate. For example, if management buyouts are such good deals for company management, how come they dont get outbid? Arent there certain operational efficiencies a company can recognize as a private entity that it cant as a public entity? Isnt there a possibility that company management will overvalue its corporate assets (the falling in love with your own players problem)? Dont shareholders have the ultimate responsibility here, since they have the final vote?

So you know, Im partially convinced by what Stein says (which also means Im partially unconvinced). I share his major concern that company management has an unavoidable conflict of interest when it comes to a management buyout and that managements first fiduciary responsibility is to its shareholders. I even wonder a bit if this is where the amorphous DoJ investigation could be heading. I also share his concern that PE firms backing a management buyout are privy to more information than is a common shareholder, which means that the final shareholder vote is not being done with full transparency on both sides.

On the flip side, Im not quite sure why Stein doesnt have the same objection to strategic M&A deals in which the acquired company management gets options/jobs/golden parachutes with the new company. Moreover, most MBOs are done at a significant premium to current market price, and rarely get outbid by another offer.

So take a listen to the Q&A, and let me know what you feel about his argument either on the merits or in your own self-interest. What he says is obviously unsettling for the private equity market (not to mention I-banks), but that is no reason to dismiss it out of hand