ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. – A few months ago we warned investors that the private equity bubble was peaking. And since the Shanghai mini-crash, the risks have been increasing. As David Dreman said in his latest Forbes column, "The Risk Problem ... There are pockets of risk you should definitely avoid. Two of the most dangerous are private equity and hedge funds," the secretive twins favored by the smart money crowd.
Dreman's warning was specific: "Even the better-known funds like Blackstone Group are taking on immense new risk. Blackstone recently purchased Samuel Zell's Equity Office Properties Trust for $39 billion (including debt). Zell is regarded as one of the shrewdest operators in the real estate world. When Zell sells, it's like a bell tolling for private equity's peak. Good luck to Blackstone investors."
Blackstone's boss also smells the coming peak. Stephen Schwarzman and his partner, Nixon's Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, have been building billion-dollar fortunes for three decades and appear tired of the game. So don't blame them if they want to cash out before the next crash. That'll make way for a new round of investment opportunities in this highly unpredictable investment cycle.
Yes, unpredictable: The Wall Street Journal points out that although the Blackstone "business model has transformed Wall Street," there's a bit of hypocrisy in Schwarzman taking Blackstone public. For years he "has been unsparingly calling public stockholding 'a broken system' and criticizing the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accountability law as having 'taken a lot of the entrepreneurial zeal out of a lot of corporate managers.' Quarterly earnings reports for public companies, he has said, create a 'tyranny.'"
Lobbying: perfect investment for new economy
So he'll make way for the new. After all, both Wall Street and Main Street love chasing new opportunities, we love the hunt, the sizzle, the mystery. So what's next when the private equity/hedge fund bubble deflates?
Well, I've uncovered a fabulous new way to make money. Big money! Opportunities as bizarre as Schwarzman's flip-flop. Here's how: Start buying Washington's "K Street" lobbying firms. Later, take them public, like Schwarzman's doing with Blackstone. Buy in now; lobbying is a growth business loaded with cash cows.
In fact, lobbying may be America's biggest growth opportunity, thanks to the easy-to-tap $2.8 trillion federal budget. Better yet, that huge budget will be available in the bear market Dreman and Schwarzman see coming. Lobbying may be the best of the new crop of "alternative investments" now growing in popularity.
Check out the fundamentals: Here's why lobbying is such a huge cash cow for companies tapping into federal taxpayer money, and a perfect investment for the smart money:
1. Huge supply of talented lobbyists
Since 2000, the number of Washington lobbyists has doubled. Imagine: 35,000 lobbyists for a mere 536 elected officials (435 Congressional reps, 100 Senators and one President) with $2.8 trillion to spend. Each insider has an average of $5 billion to spend.
Business is booming: "Lobbying firms can't hire people fast enough," says the Washington Post. "Starting salaries have risen to about $300,000 a year for the best-connected aides." And it's the favorite retirement job for "nearly half of all lawmakers who return to the private sector when they leave Congress."
Lobbying is also huge at the state level. Barron's says "The number of lobbyists and the amount spent on lobbying has swelled over the years ... New York State had 3,842 lobbyists, 18 for each elected legislator. Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Ohio each had 10 per legislator," for an estimated total of about 40,000 state lobbyists.
And things will only get better, says The Post in "The Road to Riches is Called K Street:" "There's unlimited business out there for us,' said Robert L. Livingston, a Republican and former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, now president of a thriving lobbying firm, 'Companies need lobbying help.'"
2. Huge returns on small investments
Yes, companies need help, have lots of money and see big payoffs. One Post report notes that a group of 60 corporations spent a mere "$1.6 million in lobbying fees to persuade Congress to create a special low tax rate that they could apply to earnings from their foreign operations for one year." It took three years to pass, "saving the companies roughly $100 billion in taxes." Corporate America loves such huge payoffs from lobbyists.
There are many other examples. One lobbyist was "so proud of its performance that it annually publicizes its clients' costs and compares them with the benefits they receive." In its most recent "it collected $11 million in fees and delivered $1.2 billion in assistance to its clients, a ratio of less than 1 to 100. The payoff is large but fairly typical of modern-day lobbying." For another client, a small $500,000 "investment" paid off $1 billion.
Not every lobbying effort has a $100 billion or even $1 billion payoff, but "the return on investment in lobbying is often so substantial that experts and insiders agree that Washington's influence industry will continue to thrive no matter how lawmakers decide to rein it in."
3. America's newest 'big business'
Lobbying is definitely a major growth business. In a 25-part special series currently in The Post, the title says it all: "Citizen K Street: The Life & Career of Gerald S. J. Cassidy, How Lobbying Became Washington's Biggest Business." Thirty years ago Cassidy founded what's now "the most lucrative lobbying firm in Washington." Today he's the "godfather of the influence business."
Cassidy was the genius who created "earmarked appropriations" where Congress votes to give away federal tax dollars to private organizations even though no federal agency asked for the money. In three decades, "lobbying for such appropriations became a booming Washington industry." Cassidy "helped invent the new Washington, which has made him seriously rich. His personal fortune exceeded $125 million." Indeed, lobbying may be America's biggest business.
4. Politicians protect lobbyists and visa versa
Lobbyists and politicians have a mutual benefit society, according to a revealing New York Times report, "Big Money Still Learning to Lobby." Here's a specific example of how the back-scratching evolves:
"On a cold evening in late January 2007, Sen. Charles E. Schumer invited a who's who of hedge funds to dinner at Bottega del Vino on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. More than $100 billion worth of wealth sat around the table ... the New York Democrat had some simple advice for the billionaires in his midst: If you want Washington to work with you, you had better work better with one another." Schumer is on the Senate Banking and Finance committees, and chair of the Economic Policy Subcommittee.
"United by a desire to avoid stringent regulation," said the Times, "the industry's efforts have witnessed remarkable results. More than two years after the Securities and Exchange Commission required that funds register with the agency — a move overturned by a federal appeals court last summer — the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, Congress and the SEC seem to agree, hedge funds are as regulated today as they should be." Apparently a few guys with $100 billion count more than 94 million Main Street investors.
Bottom line: If the market does peak after Blackstone cashes out, remember that lobbyists and their many friends in Congress will still have $2.8 trillion to spend every year, which makes lobbying a fabulous investment, even in a bear market and recession.
Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.