The White Stripe
A small print of Jody Clark’s “Keep Treading” hangs on a wall in my office. It’s a picture that I first saw at the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (“BJJ”) gym where I started training last fall. It shows a man in a gi trying to stay afloat in the ocean. An eel is wrapping around his legs and pulling him asunder, while a collection of sea nettles threatens to sting him if he reaches out his arms.
It’s an apt metaphor for the travails of a white belt in BJJ. As Sam Harris describes it, “The experience … is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat—and you will fail.”
That is an accurate one-word summation of my first five months in BJJ: failure. Relentless, unmitigated failure. Soul- and ego-crushing failure.
Consider this dispatch from my BJJ journal:
2/10 – Open Mat
Performed poorly. Got smashed. Decent defense but too passive. Need to be more aggressive. Neck got crushed while in turtle. Honestly I just feel dejected.
There are days when the hardest thing is showing up to class or open mat. The certainty of being smashed, submitted, and in pain makes it all seem like a futile exercise. It’s so tempting to quit in the face of near-certain failure.
But, you have to keep treading. It’s all a bit of a metaphor for life as a whole.
Last week, I received my first stripe on my white belt. I know it’s foolish to place much stock in outward signs of progress, but this promotion—this piece of tape—was one of the more hard-earned accomplishments in my life. And yet, it’s merely the first rung on the ladder. Progress. One aching, small step at a time.
In other news, I’m looking forward to joining some folks from General Atlantic next month for a conversation with students at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. Should be fun!
I’ve also created a video of the presentation that I delivered at the UNC Alternative Investments Conference last week (some of the slides are featured below). If you’re keen to see a 30-minute overview of EM PE, check it out on YouTube!
Abraaj: Part Deux
In last month’s newsletter we discussed the drama at Abraaj following revelations that four LPs had hired forensic accountants to probe the books of the Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund.
The situation is serious, indeed:
- Abraaj’s fund management business is being split off into a separate entity with an independent board “to which internal audit and compliance will directly report.”
- Abraaj’s founder, Arif Naqvi, relinquished management of the funds business, though he is expected to serve on its investment committee.
- The firm announced a halt to investment activities.
- Private Equity News reports that Themis, the energy team that Abraaj acquired in March 2016, sought to end its partnership with the firm as early as mid-2017. Denham Capital announced a new platform agreement with Themis earlier this month.
- The WSJ reports that the firm is weighing job cuts as its fundraising is put on hold; existing investors in its $6B target mega fund are asking for their money back; investors in other funds are considering selling their stakes; and, lenders are reviewing credit lines for their capital call facilities.
- The FT reports that the firm’s CFO departed.
Meanwhile, the firm is still unable to secure an exit from K-Electric, a divestiture it announced in October 2016. Abraaj was slated to receive a consideration of $1.77B from Shanghai Electric Power, a subsidiary of the State Power Investment Corporation of China; however, the transaction has been dogged by delays.
According to a local news report dated 9 March, the Pakistani government still had not cleared the sale, in part because it has not received a copy of the sale-purchase agreement, in part on national security grounds, and in part because the company is alleged to owe “dues” upwards of PKR139 billion (~$1.25B). Arif Naqvi is reported to have met with government ministers this week in an attempt to accelerate the sale.
What a mess. I’m left wondering if investors in the firm’s funds will seek (a) new GP(s) to manage out the assets.
EM Fundraising: Coming Full Circle?
“Coming Full Circle.” So reads the adulatory headline from EMPEA’s year-end 2017 statistics, which show $61 billion in EM fundraising across PE, private credit, and infrastructure and real assets—the highest level since 2008. Break out the champagne glasses and lace up those dancing shoes. EM PE is back!
Looking at fundraising for buyout and growth equity funds, the volumes remain stagnant since 2011 (see below). Though 2017 shows a rebound, the aggregate figure is deceptive: KKR Asia III clocked in at $9.3B and Affinity Asia closed on $6B, which means these two funds account for 40% of the capital raised for buyout and growth strategies. That leaves about $20B for the rest of EM. It’s peanuts!
The trends we highlighted in November 2016 are continuing apace, with only 75 growth equity funds achieving a close in 2017—a 44% decline since 2010. In addition, new entrants are struggling to get traction. EMPEA’s own analyses show that first-time growth equity funds have declined from 30% of the capital raised for the strategy in 2008-09 to less than 10% over the last four years.
At issue is a lack of distributions and a lost decade for LPs in EM buyout and growth equity funds (see below). There is a sharp drop-off in distributions beginning in 2007 / 08 when fundraising exploded. It’s a decade later, and the breakpoint for top-quartile funds beginning in 2008 hasn’t returned investors’ capital.
These performance indicators from Cambridge Associates are damning, and it’s no surprise why LPs have been walking away from “traditional” EM PE in greater numbers.
But there’s something about this exhibit that bothers me. I know many established managers that refuse to provide their performance figures to Cambridge. One global manager was befuddled when I presented these figures; s/he noted that their EM deals generated IRRs well north of 30%.
It’s worth asking whether Cambridge’s benchmarks are a worthy benchmark in EM. I have my doubts.
For example, a quick sketch comparing the universe of EM buyout and growth equity funds—as collected by EMPEA—to those in Cambridge Associates’ database show that CA has between 4% and 21% of the total number of funds by count, and between 29% and 60% by total capitalization (excluding 2011; see below).
The industry is poorly served by these benchmarks. I should probably stop using them, but there is no credible alternative.
If only there were an organization that could serve as a utility for the industry—one that provided impartial data on private capital performance … 🤔
In any event, as bearish as I’ve been about the prospects for the EM PE industry, I am cautiously optimistic that we’re close to reaching a bottom. If flows to EM public equities continue, then the exit windows should stay open, managers should distribute cash to their LPs, and then capital can be recycled to new commitments.
While I don’t expect EM-dedicated growth equity and buyout funds to come “full circle” to the $58 billion they raised in 2007 anytime soon, the scarcity of capital allocated to the sub-$1 billion segment portends well for the performance of current vintages. And if history is any guide, LPs will herd back into these markets after the “easy” money has been made.
Private Equity: Overvalued and Overrated?
Dan Rasmussen of Verdad is not making friends with many people in private equity. His former colleagues at Bain Capital must wish he’d stop talking. Like him or hate him, Dan puts out thought-provoking, empirically driven takes on the myths and realities of U.S. buyouts (see last December’s newsletter for an example).
In his latest piece, “Private Equity Overvalued and Overrated?”, Dan probes three premises about which there is “near-complete consensus:”
- PE firms make money by creating value in portfolio companies;
- PE is less volatile / risky than public equity; and,
- PE will significantly outperform other investments.
Rasmussen’s most interesting conclusion pertains to the first bullet: the myth of value creation. Verdad constructed a database of 390 deals—representing more than $700 billion in enterprise value—for which the PE firm issued debt to finance the acquisition. This enabled Verdad to compare underlying companies’ financial performance both pre- and post-acquisition. What did they find?
In 54 percent of the transactions we examined, revenue growth slowed. In 45 percent, margins contracted. And in 55 percent, capex spending as a percentage of sales declined. Most private equity firms are cutting long-term investments, not increasing them, resulting in slower growth, not faster growth.
If PE firms are not growing businesses faster, investing more in growth, or gaining much operational efficiency, just what are they doing?
In 70 percent of cases, PE firms are leveraging up the businesses they buy. PE firms typically double the amount of debt on the balance sheet, from 2.5x EBITDA to 5x EBITDA—the biggest financial change apparent from our study.
With $1.7 trillion in dry powder, rising rates, and average U.S. LBO entry multiples hitting 11.2x EBITDA, this just does not seem like an attractive value proposition.
Persistence in Private Equity
McKinsey’s Global Private Markets Review has a fascinating finding on the decline of persistence in private equity performance. Notably, “follow-on performance is converging towards the 25 percent mark—that is, random distribution.”
At a time when capital is flooding to mega-cap funds and, at least in emerging markets, established GPs with a track record, I wonder whether new techniques are needed for manager selection. Perhaps the winning LPs will be those with the liberty to chase a variant perception of value; those less hamstrung by rigid asset allocation buckets and / or institutional constraints.
Je ne sais pas.
From the Bookshelf
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Vintage: 1989).
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