Elizabeth Warren launched a new attack on private equity: Here's how the downfall of Toys R Us got her there

Key Points
  • Toys R Us' liquidation, which stripped away about 30,000 U.S. jobs and pulled at the country's heartstrings, stokes anger across the U.S.
  • Politicians, including Elizabeth Warren, latch on to that anger and push for tighter regulations on the private equity firms that owned retailers such as Toys R Us.
  • Retailers bought by private equity that went bankrupt also include Payless ShoeSource and Sports Authority.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren took aim Thursday morning at the private equity industry, proposing new regulations for an industry that some have blamed for the spate of retail bankruptcies over the past few years.

The attack was the latest shot at Big Business and its supporters since candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Donald Trump whipped up populist fervor during the 2016 presidential campaign.

For politicians seeking broad support, private equity has become an easy target. The investment firms that do business by buying up companies and loading them with debt have been criticized for rewarding themselves with dividends while the businesses they own go under. Private equity firms were at the forefront of the so-called "retail apocalypse," which saw the destruction of many of the country's beloved retailers.

Private equity's hold on the retail industry solidified in the mid-2000s, when firms swarmed, lured in by a combination of low interest rates, recognizable brand names and the view that retailers' steady cash flow would continue indefinitely.

But the debt load firms placed on those retailers left them hamstrung. When digital commerce permanently altered the retail industry, the companies had no capacity to make investments in technology and in their stores that were needed to compete against Amazon.

Economists split on Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax
Economists split on Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax

The result was a rash of bankruptcies, including those of Payless ShoeSource, Sports Authority and Toys R Us. Thousands lost their jobs.

Toys R Us' liquidation, which stripped away about 30,000 U.S. jobs and pulled at the country's heartstrings, stoked particular fury. Activist group Rise Up Retail, since renamed United for Respect, pounced on the outrage and the visibility afforded by social media. It successfully lobbied for the creation of a severance fund, into which two of Toys R Us' backers, KKR and Bain Capital, paid $10 million. The third owner, real estate investment firm Vornado, did not contribute to the fund.

The momentum has continued, as United for Respect has joined forces with politicians including Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to demand rights for workers at bankrupt retailers.

Warren has lashed out against Sears' former CEO, Eddie Lampert, over worker severance following the company's 2018 bankruptcy. She has also targeted private equity firm Sun Capital following the bankruptcy of department store chain Shopko.

Warren has her own background in bankruptcy, having specialized in bankruptcy law during her tenure at Harvard Law School. In 2005, she lobbied for more protection for individuals filing for bankruptcy.

In regulations outlined Thursday, Warren proposed a number of stipulations seemingly aimed directly at private equity's unhappy marriage with retail. The proposals include making private equity firms responsible for debts and pension obligations of companies they buy and banning dividends for two years follow a firm's acquisition of the company.

"For far too long, Washington has looked the other way while private equity firms take over companies, load them with debt, strip them of their wealth, and walk away scot-free — leaving workers, consumers, and whole communities to pick up the pieces," Warren said in a statement.

In an odd coincidence, former Toys R Us executive Richard Barry announced Thursday that his new company Tru Kids — which operates brands including Toys R Us, Babies R Us and Geoffrey — will be opening two Toys R Us stores this November as part of a partnership with technology company b8ta.

The new venture is undertaking a number of initiatives to cater to past Toys R Us employees, according to a release. Those efforts include job fairs in areas where the company is opening stores and opportunities for select employees to meet semi-annually with the company's corporate board of directors and top executives.

Representatives for Warren did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Toys R Us' revival.

United for Respect, the activist group that has worked with Warren, commended the move in a statement.

"We hope that other retailers follow suit and adopt an employee-centric model that provides store-level employees a voice in the decisions that impact their work and their lives," said Eddie Iny, campaigns director at United for Respect.