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Why Romney's job outsourcing record matters

June 22, 2012: 11:41 AM ET

Mitt Romney opened the door for attacks on Bain Capital's history of outsourcing American jobs.

FORTUNE -- Is Mitt Romney an American job creator, or an American job destroyer?

That's the question posed by a 1,632-word piece in today's Washington Post, which details how Bain Capital invested in several companies that both directly and indirectly encouraged American jobs to be shipped overseas.

For example, the WaPo delves into Bain's 1993 investment in Corporate Software Inc., a provider of outsourced services like call centers for U.S. technology companies like Microsoft (MSFT):

Initially, CSI employed U.S. workers to provide these services but by the mid-1990s was setting up call centers outside the country.

Two years after Bain invested in the firm, CSI merged with another enterprise to form a new company called Stream International Inc. Stream immediately became active in the growing field of overseas calls centers. Bain was initially a minority shareholder in Stream and was active in running the company, providing "general executive and management services," according to SEC filings.

By 1997, Stream was running three tech-support call centers in Europe and was part of a call center joint venture in Japan, an SEC filing show.

To be sure, there is nothing surprising about a private equity firm being involved in what is now known as "business process outsourcing." It's big business, with Pitchbook reporting that private equity firms have made 333 BPO investments valued at nearly $27 billion since the beginning of 2001 (although not all of them necessarily involve U.S. jobs being lost, as "outsourcing" is sometimes distinct from "offshoring").

Likewise, Romney's Bain Capital makes sense as one of the earlier adopters. Not only because it was one of the earlier private equity firms to exist, but also because of its strong ties to management consulting firm Bain & Company.

Similar lack of shock for WaPo's (fairly lackluster) case that Bain Capital also encouraged its non-BPO portfolio companies to take advantage of outsourcing trends. In fact, one of Romney's former colleagues recently told me: "In the 1980's, private equity made a lot of its money by stripping and flipping. In the 1990's and early 2000's, it was about outsourcing. Since then, it's been about growth." No shame or sense of regret. Just matter-of-fact.

The problem with this history, however, is that it runs counter to Mitt Romney's own narrative. And he only has himself to blame.

On the campaign trail, Romney has a tendency to talk about a job creation record. Specifically, that he helped create 100,000 "net jobs." As we've previously reported, it's a figure that no one, including Romney, can actually calculate. Bain Capital never tracked the number of jobs it created, let alone the number it destroyed or outsourced. Nor did it track any collateral employment damage, such as a mom-and-pop stationary store put out of business by Staples (SPLS).

Had Romney been more honest, he simply would have said that Bain Capital had a singular mission: Make money for its investors. And, if he wanted to make it sound a little less Gordon Gekko, he could have added that many of those investors were nonprofit institutions like universities and charitable foundations. His responsibilities as an elected official, of course, would be different.

But Romney chose to highlight Bain's job creation record, rather than its financial performance. And, by doing so, invited analysis like today's Washington Post story.

It should be interesting to see how the Romney campaign responds, particularly if someone is able to ask the candidate for the number of U.S. jobs that were outsourced by Bain Capital portfolio companies during Romney's tenure. After all, he must have that number if he's so sure about 100,000 jobs being created.

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About This Author
Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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