Elizabeth Warren's real beef with Antonio Weiss: What her fight against him is actually about

The nominee to a key Treasury position is part of a larger affront to America's middle class. Here's why

Published December 23, 2014 5:42PM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren                            (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
Elizabeth Warren (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

The Senate adjourned last week without dealing with the nomination of Antonio Weiss for Treasury Department undersecretary for domestic finance, the No. 3 position in the agency. Weiss’ nomination has sparked a backlash among progressive Democrats, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren, largely because of his two-decade career making international merger deals at the boutique investment bank Lazard.

Warren believes that Weiss not does carry the necessary experience for the Treasury position, which oversees many elements of financial reform. She also believes that continually plucking top government officials out of Wall Street closes off alternative perspectives and ensures policies favorable to their interests. For their part, former Treasury officials who have held this position defended Weiss, calling him “very well qualified” for the job.

The nomination has become a proxy fight for a battle inside the Democratic Party over how to handle the financial industry. But that has paradoxically released some of the pressure on Weiss himself, and his investment banking career. In fact, Weiss’ history symbolizes what has gone wrong with American-style capitalism, with its focus on financial engineering rather than creating good products people might want. His deal-making has led directly to tens of thousands of lost jobs and billions in bonuses and stock options for top executives and money managers, who in many cases loot the companies they acquire.

We haven’t heard much about Weiss’ deals, other than the recent $11 billion merger of Burger King with the Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts chain Tom Hortons. Critics argue this was a corporate inversion-type deal designed to shift Burger King’s corporate headquarters to Canada and lower its tax bill; supporters say that it was simply a merger between two big companies for which taxes was not the main motivation.

But Burger King wasn’t really an American company at the time of the acquisition. Brazilian private equity fund 3G owned Burger King. In fact, 3G appears to be Weiss’ biggest client. He has worked on deals for them involving some of the biggest brands in America: not only Burger King, but Heinz and Anheuser-Busch. And 3G follows the private equity playbook to a T.

Owned by the richest man in Brazil, billionaire Jorge Lemann, 3G specializes in picking up companies through debt-financed buyouts, and mercilessly cutting costs. Private equity managers get paid hefty fees out of the cash flows, increasing debt as the value of the company slowly gets siphoned off into executives’ pockets. They take the profits, while someone else gets stuck with the losses.

3G installs their own leadership for the companies, executives who often have no experience in the particular business, and who implement the 3G strategy with the lure of short-term stock options rather than overall corporate growth. In a sign of their detachment, 3G executives at Heinz reportedly complained about why the company would prepare so much gravy for stores in November.

3G limits every expenditure imaginable (they track monthly printer and mini-refrigerator use), especially labor costs. Since purchasing Heinz in June 2013, 3G has announced 5,400 layoffs, from mid-level managers at its Pittsburgh headquarters to entire factory staffs in Idaho. After the 2008 merger of Anheuser-Busch with 3G-owned InBev, an acquisition that gave the new company 46 percent of the U.S. beer market, 1,400 workers lost their jobs, with another 1,000 bought out. The company expects more layoffs this year. Hundreds more were culled from Burger King headquarters after that 3G acquisition.

Analysts marvel at this “management efficiency,” but the human costs are evident, especially for the companies themselves, which lose institutional knowledge and must rebuild their vendor relationships. Ultimately, the cost savings get reflected in the quality of the product; Consumers sued AB InBev recently for watering down Budweiser.

This all serves the owner class, rather than the business as a whole. Prior to the merger with Tim Hortons, same-store sales at Burger King were flat. Sales at Heinz dropped 5 percent in the most recent quarter studied. But 3G managers – Antonio Weiss’ partners – profit handsomely: the private equity firm collected more $1.4 billion from Burger King, for example, when they spun the company out to a shell corporation in 2012. “It is all about bottom line for Brazilian bonuses,” said one AB InBev employee.

Weiss has engineered deals for other clients besides 3G. In 2010, Weiss helped Coca-Cola consolidate its North American bottling operations, leading to undisclosed layoffs. In 2012, he brokered the purchase by GlaxoSmithKline of Human Genome Sciences, a biotech firm based in Maryland. Immediately, GlaxoSmithKline cut 211 jobs, 20 percent of Human Genome Sciences’ staff. That same year, Weiss aided Google in purchasing Motorola Mobility, a consumer electronics division, leading to 5,200 job cuts. Though they denied this shortly after the acquisition, Google purchased Motorola Mobility solely for the patents, laying off the workers and ignoring the division for two years before selling it off to Lenovo. Google, of course, retained the patents, a way they can keep competitors out of their markets.

The common theme around Weiss’ work is that he engages in deals that reward top executives, while rank-and-file workers get the shaft. CEOs like Motorola Mobility’s Sanjay Jha get huge golden parachute deals after getting purchased. Executives at the new companies make fortunes in bonuses and stock options. Those who produce the products get a pink slip.

In addition, many of Weiss’ merger deals have led to monopolies, from AB InBev’s control of the beer market, to the 2007 deal between Nestlé, Gerber and Novartis Medical Nutrition, creating a company that sells 81 percent of the nation’s baby food. These monopolies drive down supplier prices in the same way Wal-Mart’s dominance of retail impoverishes the companies who sell them goods. It’s the opposite of what is supposed to enrich capitalism, the constant competition that creates benefits for consumers on both price and quality.

The deals also exhibit the modern hallmark of corporate America: financial engineering. Decisions are made to satisfy shareholder clamoring for short-term profits rather than any long-term vision about building a quality business. The manager class extracts value for their own ends, and the rotted husk of the company either sinks or swims. It doesn’t matter to those who have already completed the looting.

Through brokering these deals, Weiss facilitated this transformation of American capitalism, as a cog in the wheel of a corporate strategy that has led to a stunning gap between productivity and wages and historic levels of inequality. The deindustrialization of the country has turned us into a nation of financial managers and the service workers who attend to them, virtually eliminating the middle class. Weiss became a very wealthy man from this process, which every Democrat from the president on down likes to decry.

Because of the end of the congressional session, President Obama would have to affirmatively nominate Weiss again in order to restart his confirmation process. He should find somebody else. Weiss is not merely a symbol of the Wall Street revolving door, he’s a symbol of what has happened to the middle class over the past 40 years. The last thing we should do is reward that.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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