Private equity companies have Warren Buffett envy. Apparently, they’re quite jealous of Berkshire Hathaway’s investment autonomy and have decided to do something about it.
Blackstone and Apollo have recently amassed more than $250 billion in “permanent capital,” tweaking their business model to lean more heavily on permanent investment vehicles that will provide these companies even more freedom to invest in lucrative sectors — like dirty energy.
Private equity companies have long been enthusiastic investors in the fossil fuel industry. As Derek Seidman and Donald Shaw argue in a recent report for the Public Accountability Initiative, private equity is “a core driver of that industry, with vested financial interests in hundreds of oil and gas corporations, from smaller independent businesses to major companies.”
Blackstone, for example, has invested billions in oil and gas. The world’s largest private equity company is a partial owner of both Cheniere Energy Partners and EagleClaw Midstream Ventures, two major players in natural gas and shale oil. Blackstone has its fingers in pipelines through its investments in both Tallgrass Energy and Rover Pipeline, a company that made headlines a couple years ago for spilling millions of gallons of drilling fluid into Ohio wetlands.
The PE giant also dabbles in waste management through its recently formed venture Waterfield Midstream — cashing in on the need to dispose of the toxic wastewater produced by fracking. Blackstone’s interest in the fossil fuel industry is mirrored by many other private equity investors including Apollo, the Carlyle Group, EIG Global Energy Partners, KKR, TPG Capital, and Warburg Pincus.
Traditionally, private equity investments have followed a standard funding model: investors (including pension funds, wealthy individuals, and endowments) put money in earmarked funds that PE firms use to fuel leveraged buyouts in three-to-five-year cycles.
This model, while often devastating for the workers and communities impacted by the leveraged buyout, has been highly lucrative for private equity firms. Even if a company declares bankruptcy, lays off most of its employees, eliminates its pension plan, or closes down as a result of the massive debt burden its private equity buyer bestows upon it, the PE firm still gets a huge payday. Both Blackstone and Apollo have nearly doubled their share price in the past year.
But PE firms want more. They feel hemmed in by the limits of the traditional fundraising model in which PE firms are regularly forced to hit the pavement in search of fresh investors. They don’t want to give their investors back their money after a few years. Instead, PE firms want to keep it, and the fees that come along with it, potentially forever. So, they are modifying their investment model, stockpiling perpetual capital to be directed toward permanent investment vehicles, providing PE firms more flexibility to chase returns wherever they can find them.
One thing the PE firms plan to do with their new forever funds is to invest more in special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), otherwise known as shell or “blank check” companies.
In a typical SPAC scenario, a PE firm, hedge fund, or other investor will sell shares and launch an IPO for a new company that is chartered on nothing more than a promise that it will quickly find a lucrative company to acquire (and start earning cash from) or else return the money to investors if no acquisition or partnership materializes within a designated time frame.
From the perspective of private equity firms, SPACs are attractive for at least two reasons: First, SPACs appear to be more flexible than traditional PE funding models; they offer the PE firm leeway to pursue any assets it desires, even if they fall outside the investment mandate of an existing fund. Second, blank check companies enable PE firms to make big moves quickly. Normally an IPO takes many months or even years, but a SPAC can be formed and executed in a matter of weeks.
Given the new normal of Fed-engineered low interest rates that make capital costs incredibly low, the flexibility and speed of SPACs make them an ideal vehicle for PE firms looking to cash in on the fossil fuel industry — a notoriously boom-and-bust sector.
In fact, energy-focused SPACs are an extremely popular type of blank check company, garnering billions of dollars — nearly 40 percent of all specified-industry SPAC investment — in the past few years.
PE companies have already begun to use SPACs to invest in the oil and gas industry. Apollo, for example, registered a $400 million SPAC in 2018 called Spartan Energy Acquisition Corp., tasked with acquiring an energy business. Blackstone also recently completed a complicated merger of a portion of its shale assets with a SPAC company that resulted in a new energy company called Falcon Minerals.
The move toward stockpiling capital in permanent investment vehicles is likely to accelerate this trend, granting powerful PE firms even more flexibility and resources to profit from dirty energy.
The world of private equity, blank check companies, and complicated investment vehicles is, by design, alien to most people. But the maneuvering and back-room deals of these companies have stark, real-world implications. With no regard for anything beyond making a profit, private equity firms are hurtling us toward ecological catastrophe.