Christmas comes early: Lumps of coal for buyout titans?

Talk about planning ahead: A sign at a local garden center this morning advised, “Order your large Christmas trees now.” And as the calendar turns to August, the Christmas mail order catalogs will start cluttering the mailbox.

Speaking of Christmas, it’s been Santa all year for mergers and acquisitions. Mega-million-dollar agribiz buyouts continue apace, further imploding an arena that, 25 years ago, was teeming with hundreds of entrepreneurial companies. In the agchem business alone, consolidations and mergers have reduced the major players to only a handful.

But those pale beside deals being brokered by private equity firms and hedge funds, to whom multi-billion-dollar deals seem routine.

The private equity Blackstone Group recently tendered an offer for the Hilton Hotels chain that will run $26 billion or so.

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), the granddaddy of buyout firms (their hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco in 1989 for $31 billion set the financial world abuzz), has snapped up everything from mattress maker Sealy Corp. to the recent $7.3 billion acquisition of the Dollar General chain.

KKR also founded the media conglomerate, Primedia, which at one time owned Farm Press. It is reported to have invested in 150 deals with an aggregate value of $279 billion; its companies have over $100 billion in annual revenues and more than half a million employees.

And in a how-much-is-enough scenario, both KKR and Blackstone are now planning billions in initial public stock offerings.

Where do the private equity and hedge fund moguls get all their billions for these monster deals?

Well, part of it comes from you, John Taxpayer, thanks to eminently favorable tax provisions that allow them to pay at a 15 percent capital gains rate on much of their partnership income, versus an ordinary income rate as much as 35 percent. What a sweet deal.

An effort is afoot in Congress to change the tax rate on certain partnerships that go public, making them subject to the ordinary income rate.

Many in Congress see this as a way to offset the increasingly onerous burden of the alternative minimum tax now confronting many middle income taxpayers. A fierce lobbying campaign is under way by the buyout titans to try and scuttle the tax changes.

But, Christmas for them could well include a few lumps of coal.

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