How Inequality Hurts

Risking All — and Risking Nothing

Last week’s tragic mining disaster in West Virginia reminds us once again that some Americans face real risk every day when they go to work — and none of these Americans wear power-suits.

By Sam Pizzigati

On Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, wherever the power-suit set gathers, talk about “risk” almost always seem to fill the air. Indeed, inside our highest business circles, risk-takers occupy an honored place. They deserve, we are assured, whatever ample rewards may come their way.

Take, for instance, Wilbur Ross, the chairman of the International Coal Group Inc., the outfit that runs the Sago mine that cost 12 West Virginia miners their lives last week.

Wilbur Ross focuses on cutting costs, by gobbling up companies in bankruptcy or about to fall into it.

Business journalists have been lionizing Wilbur Ross for over five years now, ever since Ross started building up an investment fund empire devoted solely to making and managing risky investments.

Last January, US News & World Report called Ross “a modern-day Andrew Carnegie.” Two years ago last month, Business Week plastered Ross across its cover.

“At 66, an age when peers are looking toward retirement,” gushed Business Week‘s admiring profile, “Ross is taking on more risk, bigger deals, and wilder bets than ever.”

Just what does Wilbur Ross do that’s so “risky”? Ross scours America’s economic landscape for failing companies in down-and-out industries, buys them up, and then moves quickly to “flip” them for big profits.

Until last week, and the Sago mine tragedy, this flipping had been going exceedingly well. In 2004, Ross made his way onto the Forbes 400 list of America’s richest. Shortly after hitting that milestone, Ross added $300 million to his already considerable fortune — in just one single deal.

What’s the Ross secret? This billionaire investor doesn’t worry himself with the difficult details of turning mismanaged enterprises into efficient and effective operations. Wilbur Ross focuses, instead, on cutting costs, by gobbling up companies in bankruptcy or about to fall into it.

Bankrupt companies can dump their liabilities — like mandates to fund pension plans — onto somebody else’s shoulders.

For an investor willing to take “risks,” these bankrupt companies come with a substantial upside. For starters, you can buy them cheap.

More importantly, bankrupt companies can dump their liabilities — be they oppressively high debt loads or mandates to fund pension plans — off the corporate balance sheet and onto somebody else’s shoulders. They can, as the economists like to say, “externalize” their costs.

Wilbur Ross started externalizing his way to billionaire status with the steel industry. He waited until two steel giants — LTV and Bethlehem Steel — hit the bankruptcy skids, then picked up the two companies for a song, after going bankrupt had enabled the companies to shift their pension obligations onto the government-run Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

In no time at all, the International Steel Group that Ross created in 2002 to house his steel company collection would become the nation’s largest steel producer. He then sold it, late in October 2004, for 14 times his original investment.

By that time, Ross had also branched out big-time into textiles, where he would follow the same M.O. as in steel. He created an International Textile Group and packed it with bankrupt textile companies that had successfully sidestepped their pension obligations and squeezed various other concessions out of workers.

But Ross, this time around, didn’t show much patience. The billionaire, unhappy shareholders at the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Cone Mills would later charge, “manipulated management into declaring an unnecessary bankruptcy in order to help him get control of the company.”

In rhetoric, our most powerful business titans celebrate personal risk. In practice, they will do most anything to avoid it.

That control in hand, Ross next moved into coal. Early in fall 2004, he spent over three-quarters of a billion dollars to buy up a Kentucky-based coal-mining company, Horizon Natural Resources, and created the International Coal Group to host it.

“Ross’ buy-in,” the Chicago Tribune reports, “came only after a bankruptcy court judge released Horizon from its promise to pay health-care benefits to its retirees.”

Last November, the Ross-run International Coal Group picked up the Sago mine from the Anker Coal Group Inc., another bankrupt rust-belt operation. For Wilbur Ross, Anker made a fitting takeover target. The company was already busy slashing costs — by playing fast and loose with mine safety regulations.

“Compromising the health and safety of their workers,” explains the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition’s Vivian Stockman, “is one of the many ways that mining companies externalize their costs.”

That compromising would continue under the watch of Wilbur Ross, right up until last week’s fatalities. Those miners paid, in effect, the ultimate price for the “risk taking” of Wilbur Ross.

And none of this, of course, should surprise us. In rhetoric, our most powerful business titans celebrate personal risk. In practice, they will do most anything to avoid it, and this risk-avoidance has been going on ever since the modern corporate order first emerged after the Civil War.

In boardrooms back then, as in boardrooms today, astute captains of industry have always understood that grand fortunes come most expeditiously to those who eliminate risks, not those who take them. A century ago, corporate giants rigged “trusts” to crush any rivals that might place their enterprises at true competitive risk.

Today’s corporate giants endeavor to squash rivals with much the same zeal. Microsoft, as a federal judge would rule in 1999, illegally manipulated “its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft’s core products.”

Movers and shakers like Wilbur Ross have merely added a new twist to this century-old business crusade to eliminate risk from the marketplace.

Unlike top executives, meanwhile, average Americans cannot so easily sidestep risk. In fact, millions of Americans, not just mine workers, regularly face serious risks in their workplaces.

These average risk-takers don’t wear power suits. They are firefighters who rush into burning buildings and iron workers who walk on I-beams forty floors up. They’re nurses on midnight shifts and clerks in robbery-prone convenience stores. They’re men and women who encounter real hazards, some because they welcome risk, most because they have no choice.

Corporate America seldom rewards these everyday risk-takers particularly well. Corporate America seldom even feels compelled to reduce the risks that put these risk-takers at peril.

So who deserves, in the final reckoning, more recognition — and compensation — for taking risks, an investing whiz like Wilbur Ross or the workers deep underground in his mines?

To seriously consider such a question, notes the British philosopher Alex Callinicos, a serious analysis “would have to come up with a way of comparing the moral worth of, say, the risks that rich people face when they play the stock market with that of the hazards confronting workers compelled to undertake dangerous tasks in a polluted workplace because of the absence of alternative employment in their area.”

Corporate America has not yet undertaken this sort of comparative analysis. Any such study would, undoubtedly, be too risky.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up at Inequality.Org to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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