The New Titans of Wall Street

The financial world and media were abuzz in February not about the latest merger or stock-market rally. Instead, for days they were focused on one man's birthday party.

Sure, Rod Stewart was singing. And yes, the governors of New York and New Jersey were guests along with Donald Trump and countless other celebrities and financial bigwigs.

But what was really special about Stephen A. Schwarzman's bash was that it offered a rare glimpse into the reclusive world of private equity.

Compared to the titans of the 1980s, who were known for their public shows of opulence and excessiveness, today's private equity kings are reclusive figures.

That's why everybody noticed when Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of the Blackstone Group, one of the largest private equity firms in the country, threw a lavish party for his 60th birthday.

The event, reported to cost $3 million, was a sort of coming out party for the world of private equity -- even if it was just for one night.

"Private equity has been traditionally a business that has not needed to make public securities filings, so as a result, there has been a certain tendency towards secrecy," said Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School specializing in investment banking. "This is clearly changing as the industry becomes more visible."

It seems that every few days private equity announces a new, record-breaking megadeal merger. But for the men who run these organizations -- and yes, the people at the top are all men -- that's where the news stops. They rarely speak about their deals and try to stay out of the spotlight.

Schwarzman, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story. So did several others who watch the world of private equity.

Even though they are big, powerful and have the ability to move markets -- as their name suggests -- we know very little about private equity firms.

Yet these funds make up a significant and growing segment of the financial world.

"They've popped up on the radar screen in a very big way," said Robert Keiser, vice president of Thomson Proprietary Research.

Record-Shattering Deals Now the Norm

Evidence of private equity's economic punch is apparent in the sheer size of a number of recently announced buyouts and mergers.

For nearly two decades, private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts held the trophy for the largest of large deals with its record-breaking $25 billion acquisition of RJR Nabisco in 1988.

That deal "is now sort of a footnote in history because all the records have been shattered in the last two years," Keiser said.

In recent months the RJR Nabisco deal has been eclipsed several times, including a $39 billion deal for Equity Office Properties, a $33 billion agreement for hospital operator HCA and $27 billion for casino giant Harrah's Entertainment. Shareholders will vote June 15 to approve a $45 billion offer for Texas utility company TXU.

The private equity world made headlines again this week when rumors surfaced about a possible takeover of Dow Chemical for more than $50 billion, potentially the largest takeover deal ever.

So how much money do the masterminds behind these megadeals make?

"The safe answer is a lot," said Colin Blaydon, director of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

Blaydon said the heads of these firms make billions off these deals, but exactly how much is not known.

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