Explaining Southern California's economy

Who is Tom Barrack, the latest billionaire to covet the Dodgers?

Bill Shaikin of the LA Times is reporting that Tom Barrack, an LA-based billionaire real-estate investor, has joined the ever-expanding list of potential bidders for the Dodgers. The team was put into bankruptcy by embattled owner Frank McCourt and has to be sold to somebody by April 30.

Prospective somebodies include Rick Caruso and Joe Torre; Magic Johnson; Mark Cuban; and a furtive Connecticut hedge-fund billionaire, Steven Cohen

Barrack ads some new local flavor to the action. I feel obligated, however, to explain how the various Very Rich Men who are interested in owning the team made their money — and what that could tell us about how they'd run the Dodgers.

I've already tackled how Steven Cohen amassed his hedge-fund billions. Now I'll take a look at Barrack.

At base, the guy does real estate. From the helm of his $34-billion private-equity shop, Colony Capital in Santa Monica, Barrack manages this most debt-intensive of investments. His mojo is to zero in on "distressed" assets — properties that could be worth a lot more than their apparent face value and, being real estate, provide an obvious form of collateral to use for leverage — and, to put it simply, fix them up. This is from a New York Magazine profile of Barrack, a 63-year-old USC grad, that appeared in late 2010:

He launched Colony Capital in 1990, and for fifteen years, it averaged an annual return of 21 percent for its investors. The inaugural Colony transactions mined the S&L crisis by buying packages of bad loans from the FDIC at bargain prices. These deals possessed several of the elements that would characterize Barrack’s deals over the next two decades: They used real estate as collateral; they required intensive hands-on management; and, most important, they ran toward, rather than away from, regulatory complexity.

I don't think Barrack is above talking down assets, either, in order to distress them to the point where they'd be good buys for him. See the above video for an example, when in an interview with Erin Brunett on CNBC he foretold a commercial real estate crash that never arrived. It's not that he necessarily wanted that to happen. But if it had, he would have seen opportunities to leap at. Just sayin'.

More recently, Barrack has been moving into entertainment-oriented investments. He famously rescued Neverland Ranch and proposed a way for Michael Jackson to dig himself out of debt before the singer unfortunately died. He also saved photographer Annie Leibovitz for the clutches of Art Capital, who had loan-sharked her into $24 million of debt that had become seriously distressed. Catnip for Barrack.

So let's put this in the context of the Dodgers purchase. For Caruso-Torre, you can see the development angle: Caruso has made his name creating the kind of retail-entertainment environments that Angelenos love, such as the Grove and the Americana at Brand. Caruso looks at Dodger Stadium and the surrounding land as a massive missed development opportunity.

Someone like Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, might think that he can amp up the Dodgers, creating a kind of Lakers-esque "Showtime" revival in Chavez Ravine. Woo-hoo!

With the money guys, it gets more cryptic. Cohen, who's worth something like $8 billion, has a fearsome reputation as a trader. His hedge funds look to move in an out of stocks very quickly. Not exactly a formula for long-term management of an MLB sports franchise — and besides, it been alledged that Cohen is happy to bend the rules to rack up big profits.

But then again, there's been speculation that Cohen want to semi-retire from the hedge-fund game, and owning the Dodgers could be his ticket to a new way of life.

Barrack, on the other hand, wants to buy low and sell high. The private-equity model establishes a timeframe to hold an asset, seeking to remove it from market pressure until it can be un-distressed and later unloaded at tremendous profit, once the obscured value is revealed. 

The real estate angle is present with the Dodgers — the land and the stadium are worth a lot. The total value of the sale is now being set at something like $1.6 billion. So does Barrack see the word "distressed" printed on top of that price tag?

In this respect, the way that Colony Capital handled the purchase and then sale of the Paris Saint-Germain French soccer team between 2006 and 2011 is instructive.

Along with several other investors, including Morgan Stanley, Colony acquired the team. Colony later bought Morgan out, upping its share to 95 percent. In 2011, it sold 70 percent to Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, keeping 29 percent for themselves.

As you can see, start to finish, the timeframe was a private-equity typical five years.

Does Barrack have something similar in store for the Dodgers? From Shaikin's story, it seems clear that Colony would be buying the team, not Barrack personally. This differs from Cohen's likely plan — that billionaire would treat the Dodgers perhaps in the same way he does his formidable art collection, as something...well, beautiful to be obtained. A diamond in the recent rough. An damaged Picasso in need of restoration.

One thing's for sure, from where I sit: Barrack's interest, and his background in buying distressed properties, suggests that the Dodgers' price may be going up.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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