How Many PE Pros Does It Take To Solve an Economic Crisis?

Earlier this afternoon, a hedge fund manager called to tell me that a bunch of PE and hedge honchos recently met with Tim Geithner at Goldman Sachs HQ. Twenty minutes later, he said that Geithner wasn’t there. Twenty minutes after that, Charlie Gasparino went on CNBC to report that Goldman Sachs “called a secret meeting to figure out how to fix the problems,” and that it was attended by approximately 20 of Goldman’s PE and hedge fund clients. And Geithner certainly wasn’t there, since the meeting took place just hours after his underwhelming Tuesday speech. 

Finally, Goldman Sachs itself has chimed in, confirming the meeting but disputing Gasparino’s context. In an official statement, the firm said:

Contrary to a report on CNBC earlier today, Goldman Sachs did not host “a secret, emergency meeting” to discuss the Treasury Department’s Financial Stability Plan on Tuesday. Three weeks ago, we issued a invitation to a large group of our investing clients to discuss market conditions, including a presentation on the macro-economic environment. The fact that the dinner took place on the same day as the Treasury Department’s announcement was a coincidence.

All of this leads me back to a point I’ve made endless times this week: Treasury has been negligent in not consulting private equity firms about its public/private partnership plan. I have spoken to senior members of most mega-buyout and hedge houses over the past few days (including at least one at the meeting), and none has been contacted by Treasury. How is this possible?

Geithner is setting private equity up as the eager buyer of toxic assets, but does not seem to have done much market research. I don’t mean Congressional commissions — just a few phone calls. Geithner is right that PE firms have billions in available capital, but wrong to assume they’ll automatically invest it at his direction. PE firms need the risk-return profiles to work, which would first require conversations about public participation on both the downside (guarantees) and the upside (equity positions). Moreover, many firms already expect to bypass the public/private partnership, and wait to buy positions in the detoxified financial institutions.

The Goldman meeting wasn’t called in response to Geithner’s speech, but it could have been canceled had Geithner been bothered to speak with those who his “plan” ultimately relies upon.