Obama’s ‘Outsourcer’ OverreachThe president's campaign fails to back up its claims that Romney 'shipped jobs' overseas.
SummaryObama accuses Romney in a series of TV ads of being a “corporate raider” who “shipped jobs to China and Mexico,” asking if voters want to elect an “outsourcer in chief.” But some of the claims in the ads are untrue, and others are thinly supported.
Bain Capital, the venture capital firm founded by Romney in 1984, is the focus of the Obama campaign’s attacks. There is no question that Bain invested in some companies that helped other companies outsource work and that some of that work went overseas. That was the core business for Modus Media and SMTC Corp. — two outsource companies featured in a June 21 article in the Washington Post that has been the basis of recent Obama TV ads. Bain also invested in U.S.-based companies that sold goods manufactured here and abroad, and some of those companies closed U.S. facilities and eliminated U.S. jobs.
But after reviewing numerous corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange
Commission, contemporary news accounts, company histories and press releases, and the
evidence offered by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, we found no evidence to support the claim that Romney — while he was still running Bain Capital — shipped American jobs overseas.
- One TV ad, called “Come and Go,” claims that Romney “shipped jobs to China and Mexico.” But two examples cited by the Obama campaign occurred after Romney left Bain. There’s no clear evidence that a third company shipped jobs to China under Romney.
- A second ad called “Revealed” mocks Romney’s tough talk about cracking down on China’s trade practices by saying “all he’s ever done is send them our jobs” and citing the Washington Post article. But the newspaper article contained no examples of U.S. jobs being shipped to China while Romney was working at Bain.
- The “Come and Go” ad casts Romney as a “corporate raider,” but that term, loaded with negative connotations, is simply inaccurate. Bain didn’t engage in hostile takeovers when Romney was at the helm.
- That ad also repeats the claim that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was “outsourcing state jobs to India.” But it wasn’t the state that outsourced contracts. Rather, Romney vetoed a measure that would have prevented the state from doing business with a state contractor that was locating state customer-service calls in India.
AnalysisOurs was not a comprehensive review of every company Bain Capital invested in — there are hundreds — nor every one of the transactions the company undertook on behalf of those companies. It is incumbent upon the Obama campaign to back up its claims. Our conclusions are based on the examples provided by the Obama campaign and — because the Obama ads cited a Washington Post story — the examples cited in that newspaper’s account.
Representatives of the Romney campaign met with editors of the Washington Post this week and asked for a retraction of the story. The Post stood behind its story, but added that “the language in the [Obama campaign] commercials went beyond the Post article by calling Romney himself an ‘outsourcing pioneer’ and suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor would be the ‘outsourcer in chief’ if elected.”
Romney ‘Shipped Jobs to China’?The first of these attack ads was titled “Come and Go” and began airing June 20. It starts by saying Romney campaigned as a “job creator” when running for governor in 2002. “But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico,” the ad goes on to say.
The ad — in tiny type at the bottom of the screen — cites three sources for the statement that “he shipped jobs to China and Mexico.” But all of them fail to support the claim that Romney was personally responsible for sending U.S. jobs to those countries:
- Two electronic outsource manufacturing services companies controlled by Bain Capital closed plants in the U.S. and moved work to Mexico. But Romney had left Bain more than a year before the plants closed at both companies.
- A picture frame company with operations in the Far East, including in China, closed a plant in South Carolina. The Obama campaign cites the plant closing, but those workers were manufacturing photo albums for professionals — a line of work that the company discontinued because it was such a small part of the business.
The first is Modus Media, an outsource manufacturing services company controlled by Bain. The TV ad cites a June 2, 2000, news brief by Bloomberg News about Modus Media’s announcement that it would close its plant in Fremont, Calif., in September and open a plant in Guadalajara, Mexico. The company provided “customer support, inventory management, software packaging and computer assembly for companies such as AT&T Corp., Dell Computer Corp., and other technology and Internet companies,” Bloomberg said. About 200 jobs in California were eliminated.
But the announcement of the Modus Media plant closing occurred more than a year after Romney had left Bain. Romney took a leave of absence in February 1999 to head the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and he did not return to the company. He became governor of Massachusetts in January 2003.
A similar situation existed at SMTC Corp., which is also an outsource manufacturing services company. The company closed a plant in Denver, Colo., and moved some of its production to Mexico. The TV ad cites a March 29, 2002, report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by SMTC Corp. The report (page 7) says: “In June 2001, we closed our assembly facility in Denver, Colorado. … Production at the Denver facility … has been migrated to SMTC facilities closer to locations and to our recently retrofitted and expanded lower cost Chihuahua, Mexico facility.” But, again, Romney did not work at Bain in 2001.
Holson BurnesThe third case is more complicated. This one involves the Holson Burnes Group, a Rhode Island-based company that manufactured picture frames and photo albums. Except for a brief leave of absence to run for U.S. Senate in 1994, Romney worked at Bain during the entire time that it owned the Holson Burnes Group, from 1987 to 1995.
In this case, the Obama campaign claim that Romney shipped jobs to China rests on the fact that the company outsourced most of its picture framing manufacturing to Far Eastern countries, including China, and that the company closed a South Carolina plant in 1992.
The TV ad cites a March 26, 1993, SEC filing (page 6) that says the Holson Burnes Group “outsources approximately 75 percent of its photo frames and fabricates and assembles the balance in its Rhode Island facility,” and “maintains foreign production arrangements with over 35 suppliers located in Far Eastern countries including China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.”
Clearly, the company outsourced picture frames to overseas manufacturers. However, on the same page, the company says that “approximately 75% of the Company’s photo albums are manufactured at its Claremont, New Hampshire manufacturing facility.” So, it clearly had a large U.S. presence, too. The Obama campaign ignores that.
The Obama campaign also ignores the section of the company’s March 1992 prospectus that describes Holson Burnes’ capital investments in its U.S. facilities. The company reported (on page 20) that it invested $7.6 million in capital projects over the last three years “primarily relating to a $2.9 million addition to Claremont, New Hampshire manufacturing facility, $1.5 million for leaseholder improvements to its Rhode Island facility … and $3.2 million for machinery and equipment.”
The Romney campaign takes issue with the assumption that the outsourcing of picture frames had increased under Bain’s control. It points to the company prospectus filed a year earlier that showed 78 percent of the company’s photo frames at that time were outsourced. It argues that outsourcing had gone down from 78 percent to 75 percent in a year. This does not prove anything, however, because Bain purchased picture frame maker Burnes of Boston in 1986 and Holson Co. in 1987 and merged them to form the Holson Burnes Group. So Bain had been in control of the company since it formed in 1987.
The fact is we don’t know whether the company’s outsourcing to China increased under Bain or decreased and, more important, we don’t know if that outsourcing came at the expense of U.S. jobs. The Obama campaign doesn’t know, either.
The Obama campaign cites a Dec. 19, 2011, Associated Press article on Holson Burnes that mentions the closing of a South Carolina plant in 1992. The article said the plant closing cost 150 jobs. “Some jobs were sent north, where months later many of those were also eliminated. Other operations went overseas,” the article says. But there was no mention of what operations went overseas or whether any went to China.
The Spartanburg Herald-Journal, a local paper, reported on March 27, 1992, that the plant had been manufacturing photo albums “mostly for professional photographers” — an entire business line that the company was eliminating to focus on providing picture frames to large retail stores, such as Wal-Mart. “[T]he company will sell its professional album division, which is expected to account for 2 percent of projected 1992 sales, to concentrate on the more successful consumer market,” the paper said in reporting on news of the plant closing.
So, this wasn’t a case of a company closing a U.S. plant and moving the operations to a foreign country.
That’s not to say that Holson Burnes did not do business in China. Clearly it did. In fact, after the South Carolina plant closed, Holson Burnes entered a joint venture with Chu Kwun Kee Metal Manufactory, Ltd. in mid-1994 to manufacture picture frames, according to a Feb. 6, 1995, corporate press release. It was part of what Holson Burnes described as its “new mass merchant frame strategy.” A press release said, “This strategy has included the development of a new line of upscale frames at competitive prices.”
But even this does not provide clear evidence that Romney shipped U.S. jobs to China. The work being done in China (manufacturing picture frames) was different from the work that had been done in South Carolina (professional photo albums), so there was not a direct connection.
You also have to consider the market conditions at the time.
Prior to being sold to Bain, the Holson Company faced financial problems it blamed on unfair foreign competition. A corporate history of Holson Burnes that appears on FundingUniverse.com said the company filed and won a trade complaint because “manufacturers in Korea and Hong Kong were dumping cheap photo albums into the U.S. market at a loss as part of a long-term strategy to put American competitors out of business and take over their market share.” The website said Holson sold out to Bain in 1986 “partly because of the import problem,” but the company “continued to have problems under the Bain umbrella.”
Holson Burnes went public in 1992, but it had been “a disappointment to investors,” the Providence Journal-Bulletin reported in December 1995. “It went public at $14 per share, and now is changing hands at less than 60 percent of that figure,” the Journal-Bulletin reported in a Dec. 14, 1995, article on an announcement that Bain would sell the company to Newell Co. of Illinois.
When the sale was announced in late 1995, Holson Burnes still had a major presence in the U.S. It employed 650 workers at its factories in North Smithfield and Claremont, N.H., the Providence Journal-Bulletin story said. “The Claremont facility is the world’s largest manufacturing facility for photo albums,” the story added.
We’ll have more to say about outsourcing, but in this particular case the Obama campaign failed to support its claim that Romney personally “shipped jobs to Mexico and China.”
‘Revealed’ What, Exactly?A day after the “Come and Go” TV ad first appeared, the Washington Post wrote an article on Bain’s investments in companies that provided outsourcing for U.S.-based companies, including electronic companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell. The story quickly became the center of Obama’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain and the focus of a TV ad campaign, called “Revealed,” that included TV ads tailored for Iowa, Ohio and Virginia.
“Revealed,” June 27: Romney’s never stood up to China. All he’s ever done is send them our jobs.The Post story included two companies that had operations in China, Modus Media and ChipPAC, but contained no evidence that either company moved jobs from the U.S. to China while Romney worked at Bain.
In the case of ChipPAC, as the Post said, Bain announced it would buy the company “a month after Romney left Bain.” The sale was completed few months later on Aug. 5, 1999; Romney became president of the Olympic Committee in February of that year.
That leaves Modus Media, which was created in December 1997 as a subsidiary of another Bain-controlled company, Stream International Holdings Inc. Modus became an independent company in January 1998.
As the Post writes, Modus “specialized in helping companies outsource their manufacturing” and had foreign operations, including in China. But the company also had facilities with more than 800,000 square feet in four U.S. cities, the company reported to the SEC on Dec. 10, 1999. About 45 percent of the company’s total revenue for the first nine months of 1999 came from North America, which at the time included only the U.S., the SEC filing shows.
Modus “grew rapidly,” as the Post said. The company reported to the SEC that it had 4,550 employees as of Sept. 30, 1999. It would be accurate for the Obama campaign to claim that Romney created jobs overseas, but there is no evidence that he shipped U.S. jobs to China.
The Obama campaign provided documentation that showed Modus lost 1,500 employees under Bain’s control; it cited SEC reports and newspaper accounts that show the company had 4,800 employees in July 2000 and 3,300 in 2004. But those job cuts occurred after Romney had left the company.
The Obama campaign also notes that Romney retained his ownership in Bain even after he left in February 1999. That’s true. The campaign cites a 2007 Post story that said Romney “resigned and reduced his role at the company to that of a passive investor in 2001 when it became clear that he was going to run for Massachusetts governor after the Olympics.” But there’s no evidence that he took any active role in Bain’s decisions after he left in February 1999.
The Post story did not reveal, to use the Obama campaign’s term, that Romney relocated U.S. jobs to foreign countries.
The Post story revealed that Bain invested in companies that did outsourcing. But the outsourcing resulted in the creation of jobs here and abroad, as we will explain next.
Outsourcing vs. Off-Shoring
Another version of the “Reveal” ad running in Virgina and Iowa asks if those states “really want an outsourcer in chief in the White House.”trying to draw a distinction between outsourcing and off-shoring.
“Just last week it was reported that Gov. Romney’s old firm owned companies that were ‘pioneers’ in the business of outsourcing American jobs to places like China and India,” Obama said in a speech in North Carolina. “So yesterday, his advisers were asked about this and they tried to clear this up by telling us there’s actually a difference between ‘outsourcing’ and ‘off-shoring,’ That’s what they said. You cannot make this stuff up.”
Well, there is a difference between outsourcing and off-shoring.
Companies can outsource services to another company, but the outsourcing services can be done at different locations still in the United States. Or they can be done overseas to cater to international customers, which isn’t the same as shipping otherwise American jobs overseas.
The first company featured in the Washington Post story is a good illustration of the point. As the story notes, Bain Capital purchased a stake in the Massachusetts-based Corporate Software Inc. (CSI) in 1993. CSI did outsourcing of customer support — including call center assistance — for companies like Microsoft and Pfizer.
But outsourcing doesn’t always mean off-shoring. For example, in 1992, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer turned to CSI for “on-site and remote PC software support services.” According to a 1993 press released from Pfizer (accessed via Nexis), those services were provided to Pfizer from locations in New York City and outside Boston.
On March 20, 1994, the Boston Globe reported that CSI was “hiring by the hundreds,” with most of the jobs based in Massachusetts.
It’s also true that CSI was setting up overseas call centers. But in the case of the work it was doing for Microsoft, for example, those overseas centers were intended to assist Microsoft’s multinational customers, according to a Microsoft press release in 1993 (accessed via Nexis).
In 1995, Bain merged CSI with another company to create Stream International. Bain initially owned a minority share (4 percent) of the company, though it acquired a majority share of the company in 1999, a few months after Romney had left Bain to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. The company mainly provided call center support for its client companies.
The Washington Post noted that “[b]y 1997, Stream was running three tech-support call centers in Europe and was part of a call center joint venture in Japan” and pointed to an SEC filing that said: “The Company believes that the trend toward outsourcing technical support occurring in the U.S. is also occurring in international markets.”
That’s true, but the Romney campaign insists American call centers handled American phone calls and international call centers serviced international calls.
The Romney campaign supplied a quote from Scott Murray, former president of Stream International:
Scott Murray, June 27: By the time Romney left Bain, Stream’s call centers had grown from just a few hundred people in Massachusetts to approximately 5,000 employees across the United States. Stream was not ‘shipping jobs overseas,’ but creating thousands of jobs for American workers in places like Massachusetts, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas.Multinational companies often provide some support services in the regions of the world to which they are exporting. That’s not the same as shipping American jobs overseas.
Stream’s international operations served foreign clients in their local languages across Europe. … If you called Microsoft or Dell from the United States for technical support, we answered the phones from one of our locations in the United States. If you called Microsoft, for instance, in French from France, we answered your call in France.
Outsourced as Governor?The Obama campaign ad “Come and Go” also claims, “As governor, [Romney] did the same thing, outsourcing state jobs to India.” We looked at this claim when the Obama campaign made it in a previous ad, and we found there was more to the story than the ad let on, as is the case here as well.
The state wasn’t outsourcing contracts. Rather, in some cases, state contractors were subcontracting work to companies overseas. Romney vetoed a bill that would have prevented the state from doing business with companies that outsourced any state work to other countries. The veto was supported by leading newspapers as a savings to taxpayers. The Democratic Legislature did not override Romney’s veto, as it did with most of his vetoes.
At the center of the issue was a contract the state signed with CitiGroup (which later sold the division to JP Morgan Chase) to handle calls about food stamps, and that company outsourced the work to a company in India. At the time, 38 states had similar contracts with JP Morgan Chase to handle food stamp calls. It became an issue everywhere, and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur called for federal legislation to ban it. When the Massachusetts contract was up, the state Department of Transitional Assistance required work to be done in the U.S. It hired another firm that handled the calls from Utah, so the practice ultimately ended, but Massachusetts didn’t get the jobs.
Was Romney a ‘Corporate Raider’?The Obama campaign also tags Romney as a “corporate raider,” a term that summons images of hostile takeover artists like Carl Icahn or the ruthless Gordon Gekko character from the movie “Wall Street.”
This isn’t the first time we have heard the term “corporate raider” applied to Romney. Among other Democrats, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz used the phrase to describe Romney back in February. The left-leaning Americans United for Change even created a website, “Romney-Gekko 2012.” Nor has its use been confined to Democrats. During the Republican primary, pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future put out a film about Romney’s Bain years that called him a “corporate raider.” The film was largely financed by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who, incidentally, recently gave $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.
We have written extensively about Bain Capital’s modus operandi with Romney at the helm. And we have documented instances in which Bain enriched itself and its investors with hefty fees and dividend payments that left companies heavily in debt and vulnerable to bankruptcy. The New York Times on June 22 found that in some cases, even when companies went bankrupt and hundreds of employees got laid off, Bain managed to make money on its investments.
But that doesn’t make Romney a corporate raider, which has a specific meaning in the business world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a corporate raider is “one who mounts an unwelcome takeover bid by buying up shares (usu. discreetly) on the stock market.”
Specifically, several financial experts told us, corporate raiders are those who lead hostile takeovers of public companies by snapping up publicly traded stock. With Bain Capital, the private investments in companies came at the request of company officials.
“Mitt Romney ran one of the most successful venture/private equity firms,” Howard Anderson, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, told us. “In some cases, they built terrific companies – like Staples, like Sports Authority. Often they would go into a company and attempt to improve operations — which sometimes meant selling assets and sometimes moving operations. They didn’t always succeed, but their record from 1985 to 1999 was that they returned 88% each year on their fund, one terrific record. They were not raiders. They came in only with the assent and aid of management — they were invited in.”
We also reached out to Mark Stevens, author of the book “King Icahn: The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist,” about perhaps the most famous corporate raider, Carl Icahn. Was Romney a corporate raider?
“Absolutely not,” Stevens said, “because what a corporate raider is engaging in is a hostile activity.”
“The corporate raider acquires equity in an open market on the stock exchange,” Stevens said. He then begins to take over management, and acquire more equity, to effect dramatic change. He may ask management to leave. He may lay off workers to boost profits.
“Private equity is completely different,” Stevens said.
Private equity investments are non-hostile, non-adversarial, he said. Management needs money to grow or salvage its operations. It invites in the private investors. Now, the private equity firm may take over control of the management of the company. The equity firm may invest in equipment. It may fire people.
“Their only goal is to make back money on their investment,” Stevens said. “They are not coming in as Mother Theresa with money.”
But it’s not the same as raiding a company, he said, which is simply not possible with a non-public company.
“It seems similar, but it is 100 degrees different,” Stevens said. “I hate the loose language that puts things emotionally as opposed to factually. There is no parity between a hostile corporate raider and private equity. You can’t raid a non-public company.”
Said Stephen M. Sammut, a lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Programs at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania: “ ‘Corporate raider’ is a phrase often used in connection with Private Equity funds. It is a bit strong and sometimes accurate but most often not.
“The term was coined during the 1980′s when many leveraged buyout funds made bids for hostile takeovers of publicly traded companies. In my view, the term is justifiably used only when a fund pursues hostile takeovers.”
In its backup material, the Obama campaign hangs the “corporate raider” tag on a Reuters story from Aug 17, 2011. It’s true that Reuters identified Romney as a “former corporate raider, who has a net worth of about $250 million.” But a Reuters editor told the Washington Post Fact Checker that the wire service “typically refers to Romney as a ‘former private equity executive’ or something along those lines” and that the use of the phrase “corporate raider,” by a Reuters stringer, “must have just slipped through the net.”
– by Robert Farley and Eugene Kiely
Update, July 2: Late on July 1, the Obama campaign issued a formal objection to this article, claiming that Romney remained at least a “part time” manager of Bain after February 1999. We strongly disagree. Both Romney and Bain have stated repeatedly that Romney “has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way” since leaving to head the Olympics. Romney stated that twice on official federal disclosure documents, where a falsehood could draw a federal felony charge and possible fines and prison time if convicted. A contemporary news account describes Romney as working 16-hour days on the Olympics.
For a full account of the Obama campaign’s evidence, which we find to be weak or non-existent, please see “FactCheck.org to Obama Campaign: Your Complaint is All Wet” (July 2, 2012).
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