Illusions and Delusions
Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in that nugget, whether applied to issues of a spiritual or temporal wavelength.
It’s also relevant to quotidian things, such as deciding which book to read. For instance, in the decade since I left SAIS, apart from a methodical reading of the Ancient Greek classics, I’ve approached my bookshelves with no real theme or objective in mind.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Whilst reading William Manchester’s droll book on the Medieval mind last week, however, I experienced an epiphany that revealed a pattern amongst the cornucopia of titles.
All these years, most of the most-enjoyable books have dealt with the theme of illusions and delusions.
They covered what Adda Bozeman, in her magisterial Politics and Culture in International History, refers to as the gap between image and reality.
(h/t Ben Welch for the recommendation).
Or, as Barbara Tuchman described it, the periods “when the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, [and] the system breaks down.”
(See A Distant Mirror and The Proud Tower).
Basically, history is littered with episodes when the bottom falls out of everything. Foundational myths, religious and political institutions, social orders, scientific hypotheses — all have cratered in the face of discovery, new knowledge and shifting conditions. They prove to have been illusions and delusions.
Lest we think that these gaps between myth and reality are confined to the distant past, consider this remark from Alan Greenspan in 2007 (as quoted in Adam Tooze’s Crashed):
[We] are fortunate that, thanks to globalization, policy decisions in the U.S. have been largely replaced by global market forces. National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.
Or, consider the astonishing scale and duration of the fraud that was Theranos. John Carreyrou’s riveting Bad Blood, which deservedly won the 2018 FT / McKinsey & Co. Business Book of the Year award, is replete with illusions and delusional people — including a credulous board comprised of national security cognoscenti.
Or, revisit our January newsletter (“Bulls on Parade”) in which GMO’s Jeremy Grantham and KKR’s Henry McVey were bulled up on EM. I was too. Illusion! Delusion!
If it’s any consolation, an insight from Jobs’s quote is that it’s virtually impossible to measure the size of the gap between myth and reality in real time.
But man, secondo me, it really does feel like we’re living through a period when the gap between image and reality is wide and widening, and a trapdoor is beneath our feet.
I wonder, though. Which of the foundational beliefs in EM private markets will prove to have been illusions and delusions?
A few motions to debate with yourself and others:
- There is an abundance of EM companies ripe for PE investment
(h/t Nadiya Auerbach).
- U.S. PE will outperform EM PE over the next decade.
- LPs that have committed to mega-cap Asia / China venture will do well over the next decade.
- “Impact investing” will continue to be a viable asset-gathering strategy for industrial-sized GPs if / when the yield on the U.S. 10 Year climbs north of 5%.
Anyway, our second son is arriving imminently, so this is Portico’s last newsletter for 2018.
A humble request: if you value our monthly(ish) dispatch, please share it with friends and colleagues. They may sign up for free at this link, and read previous editions here.
Once again, we’re going to make a charitable contribution for each new (human) subscriber we get between now and 30 December. We’ll be donating to Room to Read, a nonprofit active in Africa and Asia that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education.
Health and happiness to you and yours.
401(k)s — The Final Frontier
Private equity is one step closer to accessing the $5.3 trillion 401(k) market in the United States.
The Committee on Capital Markets Regulation has released Expanding Opportunities for Investors and Retirees: Private Equity, a study that provides the intellectual grist for legislative changes that would democratize access to direct investments in PE / VC funds.
I’m of two minds on this issue. Like, of course people should be able to invest in private investment funds. But on the other hand, there just aren’t that many great PE funds that merit one’s investment. Seems like a poor set-up for success.
Moreover, there are limits to PE’s absorptive capacity. For example, according to PitchBook, U.S. PE funds raised $275 billion in capital in 2017. If PE captured just 3% of the current 401(k) market, that’s an incremental $160 billion. Would a 60% increase in capital have a negative impact on returns?
Admittedly, this compares stocks to flows; but it’s worth asking just where all this capital would go. One thing is certain: it would generate a lot of fee income for managers.
It may have been my reading of it, but the study seems to pain itself on using historical performance data to make the case that private equity’s outperformance of public markets is akin to a law of nature. A tad overdone, in my opinion. Private equity is a market of managers; and recent research demonstrates that the persistence of fund managers’ performance is declining.
Honestly, how are retail investors going to select top-quartile managers when professional LPs fail to do so on a regular basis?
The reality is that they won’t. They’ll likely invest in the name-brand mega-cap firms that excel at gathering assets. The best-performing GPs don’t need — or want — Mom & Pop’s money.
Steve Byrom — head of PE at Australia’s A$150 billion Future Fund — has something to say:
At a big picture level, this asset class is becoming less attractive … Business models aren’t sufficiently differentiated because of the number of GPs in the ecosystem and the amount of capital competing for a reasonably small number of bidders.
Great time for retail to jump in!
Norway on Governance
Norges Bank Investment Management made a couple appearances in the newsletter this year, most notably for calling out private equity’s lack of transparency as a principal reason for their decision not to invest in it.
And since governance has been a key theme this year (and will be at least through Q1 ‘19), I was pleased to see that Norges Bank has released three position papers on key governance issues:
- The need for including industry expertise on a company’s board;
- Time commitments of board members (and limitations on the number of concurrent board memberships); and,
- The all-important separation of the roles of chairperson and CEO.
Chamath Palihapitiya — Founder and CEO of Social Capital + Owner of the Golden State Warriors — is an outspoken guy whom I’ve enjoyed listening to and reading over the last few years.
There was a bunch of hubbub in recent months about the exodus of employees from his firm, as well as his decision to transition from a fund structure to a holding company that will invest from its own balance sheet. I don’t know what’s fact or fiction. I don’t really care.
But since the firm is now a holding company, Palihapitiya is emulating Warren Buffett and releasing annual letters. His first letter provides a dour view on U.S. venture capital as an industry, which he colorfully describes as a “multilevel marketing scheme.” It’s worth reading. His cynicism is crisp, refreshing, and effervescent, like a chilled flute of pignoletto.
In the letter, he asserts that “the demands of innovation are going up;” it’s a conclusion that I’m inclined to believe. As I wondered aloud last month, “maybe founders with vision are the scarcest thing around.”
Palihapitiya closes with a cheeky comparison of Social Capital’s performance over its first seven years vis-à-vis Berkshire Hathaway’s. The devil’s in the footnotes, but I must say: hubris is not a good look.
From the Bookshelf
[T]he political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts — more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent — to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology … the decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct …
[This] nostalgia [for the absolute] — so profound, I think, in most of us — was directly provoked by the decline of Western man and society, of the ancient and magnificent architecture of religious certitude … Today at this point in the twentieth century, we hunger for myths, for total explanation: we are starving for guaranteed prophecy …
It was a deeply optimistic belief, held by classical Greek thought and certainly by rationalism in Europe, that the truth was somehow a friend to man, that whatever you discovered would finally benefit the species. It might take a very long time. Much of research clearly had nothing to do with immediate economic or social benefits. But wait long enough, think hard enough, be disinterested enough in your pursuit, and between you and the truth which you had discovered there will be a profound harmony. I wonder whether this is so, or whether this was itself our greatest romantic illusion?
— George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute (Anansi Press: 2004)
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