NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Gordon Gekko? Try Mother Teresa.
The private equity firms that sometimes reap billions in gains on buyout investments also have a social responsibility, says one private equity titan.
Such an acknowledgement would add to the expectation that firms can find the highest investment returns in the financial world and could solve the industry's negative image, as outrage bubbles underneath the Presidential candidacy of the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital head Mitt Romney.
"If you own a lot of companies on behalf of your investors, you have a social responsibility," says The Carlyle Group's co-founder David Rubenstein. He adds that the social responsibility gets bigger with a private equity firm's size and investments. That responsibility includes making investments that creat jobs and help the economy grow -- not just those to fill investor and partner wallets.Rubenstein co-founded The Carlyle Group with Bill Conway and Daniel D'Aniello in 1987. In January, the company announed an initial public offering and on Friday it dropped a clause in the filing that would have barred the prospective shareholders from filing class-action lawsuit against the company, succumbing to a negative investor reaction. Rubenstein spoke at a Columbia University Business school panel alongside Joseph Rice of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, who both took the stage in front of MBA students and industry peers. Par for the course at such conferences these days is soul searching and a vigorous defense of the industry in light of accusations made in political debates and the press that buyout investments are a jobs killer, which benefit from tax subsidies. "Ultimately, I want to have people who give back to society," added Rubenstein about the types of people hired by the buyout firm. Rubenstein's recently proved the point, donating millions to causes like education, the restoration of the Washington Monument and even the maintenance of the Panda bear population. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has repeatedly referenced a public service calling as a key to his departure from the private equity firm he founded, Bain Capital, to run for governor of Massachusetts and the Presidancy. For more on private equity, see Blackstone's big retail contrarian bet. Those maxims would contrast sharply with Wall Street's less ethically laden ethos of profit, shareholder and market maximization. Still, private equity practitioners are widely perceived in a similar light as Wall Street bankers whose large pre-crisis bonuses were surpassed in size by taxpayer funded bailouts after the overleveraged industry imperiled the global economy. Now private equity financiers are out to change their image as an industry don bids to be Commander-In-Chief. An interesting visual divergence between private equity's wanted image and that of Wall Street came up in January when a photo of Romney during his Bain Capital days showed him posing as Gordon Gekko, the ruthless fictional corporate raider in the 1987 classic Wall Street. That photo inspired flocks of rage and even a website called Romneygekko.com. Gekko coined the term "greed is good," a motto that's since permeated Wall Street trading floors for decades. "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit," said Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar Award for his portrayal of Gekko. While the private equity industry has long championed its important role in corporate evolution by investing in promising assets and cutting failing ones, a new narrative may be emerging. If large private equity firms were to have a social responsibility to create jobs and economic growth on top of their goal of high investment returns, it could be a watershed moment for the industry and the U.S. economy. "The policy debate that we are having about private equity is a microcosm of the economy," said Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard when introducing Rubenstein and Rice to the university's Friday panel. That's because the financiers accelerate innovation within the economy, while bringing the latest in financial theory to companies for their benefit, argued Hubbard. The twenty largest private equity firms employ nearly 6 million workers in the companies they control, over 5% of present day private sector employment, according to data compiled by the Service Employees International Union in 2007. Would an openly socially responsible private equity industry be helpful in imparting the job growth that the U.S. economy needs to recover the 8 million-plus jobs lost in the recession and push the unemployment rate down?