The haters are coming out of the woodwork to kick impact investing while it’s down. Following the Abraaj fiasco and the sordid charges filed against Bill McGlashan, formerly CEO of The Rise Fund, people seem fairly gleeful to pronounce the death of impact investing.
I was particularly tickled reading PEI’s prognosis a few weeks back (“Has Bill McGlashan poisoned the impact well?”), which oddly failed to mention that PEI itself named McGlashan “Game Changer of the Year” in 2018.
The pickings were so easy that even I couldn’t resist tweeting, “Spare a moment for the LPs in the Abraaj healthcare fund …” (Nobody liked it).
Look, I of all people am skeptical about the term “impact investing.” It’s super squishy.
It is manifest that large asset managers are embracing the impact label to hoover up assets and collect management fees. And, it is nauseating listening to investors whose public appearances contain little more than sanctimonious virtue signaling, and whose marketing copy makes one retch in one’s mouth.
But before everyone dances on the grave of impact investing, let’s pause at GIIN’s recent research suggesting that the impact investing market has doubled to $502 billion.
And, while the financial services industry is teeming with unethical people, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are decent, earnest individuals in the industry who actually live and breathe an impact mission. Investors who are actually building sustainable businesses and improving lives. Most of them just are not as well known.
I was reminded of this recently after I recited the previous paragraph to a journalist whose work I respect.
“Name one,” s/he said.
“[Firm],” I said.
“Never heard of ‘em.”
Skepticism is warranted. But where, I ask, was the skepticism when the banquets and award ceremonies were being thrown, and the ingratiating articles were being written?
Maybe — maybe — people shouldn’t chase shiny objects.
Sometimes, the asset management industry is revealed for the grand kabuki dance it is: overpaid, mostly smart people developing overly complex narratives to justify their jobs / fees.
I am no Luddite.
I value data and evidence.
But who among us can quantify the life energy that has been spent
datamining backtesting investment strategies to uncover a finding that has no utility in the real world?
It’s not just the asset managers. Consider the lifetimes that asset owners have spent developing frameworks for manager selection, or the billions of pensioners’ dollars spent on investment consultants in a quest to pick top-quartile funds.
Loads of acronyms. Loads of analytics and equations. Loads of paperwork and spreadsheets and meetings. Countless hours nudging shapes in PowerPoint.
And then you see a chart that lays bare how silly it is to think that anybody could reliably pick winners. Dan Rasmussen of Verdad uncovered a golden nugget from the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund (OPERF) demonstrating that “despite 30 years of experience and the best advisors money can buy, OPERF has been unable to consistently identify top-quartile managers” (see below).
And yes, that analysis is weighed by dollars allocated, not number of commitments.
To be fair, it’s more flattering when done by the latter — which comically is a lesson the consultant (and the team?) learned for the 2019 report (see page 111).
But, it’s still less than one-quarter that fall in the top quartile. 😞
Winds of Change
One of the things we like to talk about around here is whether EM PE — as distinct from EM private markets — is an industry in structural decline. I’ve had too many conversations with investors lately to change my opinion. The anecdotes are becoming anecdata.
And one of the genres of marination we often ponder is the DFIs’ direction of travel on PE funds. On this ponderable, the chart below from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s performance review of CDC is quite telling.
Whilst CDC underwent a strategy shift in 2012, it’s rather remarkable to track the rate of change in the value of the organization’s funds portfolio (i.e., “intermediated equity”) on both an absolute (£2.6B ➡︎ £2B) and relative basis (88% ➡︎ 52%!) since 2014.
Marinate on the decline for a bit and what it suggests about industry performance. We can surmise where the preponderance of future investment flows are likely to head (hint: direct debt and equity).
Whither EM PE (ex-mega-cap Asia)?
My Friend Wrote a Book
This is not at all related to EM private markets, but my friend, John Gans, wrote a book about the National Security Council. It rocketed to the top of the New Release charts on Amazon a couple weeks ago.
You should buy it!
And maybe even read it!
To whet your appetite, I conducted a bite-sized interview with the author.
Thumbnail on John: Previously chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, senior speechwriter for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. He also worked with Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton, is published widely, and has an MA and PhD from SAIS. Big Bruce Springsteen fan.
Mike: First, thank you for writing a book that’s less than 300 pages.
Our newsletter has readers all over the world, many of whom may not have heard of the National Security Council. Why should people read this book?
John: This is the exact reason I tried to write an accessible book. The NSC is the most important and powerful entity in the U.S. government, with the influence to shape decisions that affect the lives of people in the United States and around the world. Yet few Americans can name a single member of the staff. This book introduces readers — for the first time — to the people and the power of the NSC staff. If you’re an American, these are your staffers, you should know them, judge them, and if necessary change them.
M: You interviewed an astonishing group of people for this book, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Gates, Susan Rice, and H.R. McMaster. What did you learn about the nature of leadership?
J: The most important take away for me is that each of these leaders is human. At the beginning of every course I teach about how government works, I start by reminding students that they are not that different than the people sitting in the Situation Room.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Susan Rice, are not much different than you and me. They may like politics more and be driven by a hunger for power, but they also have good days and bad, they laugh, they feel stress, and they worry about what people think about them. One of the keys to good leadership is remembering your own humanity and the humanity of those who you want to lead.
M: Your book includes a series of case studies in which entrepreneurial civil servants develop and then sell a policy shift to the president — frequently during war or exigent circumstances.
Our clients are mostly entrepreneurs who sell people on investment strategies in emerging and frontier markets — frequently these are outside of institutional investors’ comfort zone. What made for an effective ‘sales’ technique for difficult decisions across presidencies?
J: My bet is that exigent circumstances make it easier to sell one’s ideas. After all, there are few better places to sell life preservers than on a sinking ship, and few easier places to sell an idea about war than in the Oval Office with a president who does not want to lose.
That said, as someone who has worked in government and now written a book about it, I think the critical lesson is not to count on getting lucky — always having the right idea at the right time in the right place — but rather in persisting with your core ideas and principles. Eventually the right time will come for you. And if you’re ready in that moment, you’ll win the day.
M: In my previous life working with former NSC staffers, a uniform sentiment was that personalities trump process. I’ve also found this to be a prevalent sentiment while exploring the topic of governance in EM private markets.
Did you find this to be true in your interviews and research? If so, are there processes we can embrace to insulate America and the world from the consequences of misguided personalities?
J: There is no process that can make a mediocre, misguided, or malevolent person a good one. But good process can minimize the risks posed by the middling or mischievous, and make good personalities soar.
I think a lot of process — in government, in academia, in the business world — is bad because too few people are self aware enough to know what works for them and what doesn’t.
One of the early doubts I heard in working on this book was that the individuals did not matter much to the power of the NSC. But that’s one reason why no one gets what the NSC is capable of — they haven’t spent any time figuring out what makes these people tick. That’s a lesson for understanding our government, or running one’s business.
J: Fandom does not require an explanation, which is probably a good thing since love is hard to explain. But the assertion appears to answer the question: Springsteen wrote a rock song so good that a newsletter about private equity is talking about Tom Joad. How many artists can do that?
From the Bookshelf
… reporters, more often than not, heavily rely upon the help of powerful institutions, go through the motions of acting adversarial without affecting substance, and are distracted from the public interest by profit-minded news organizations and the changing demands for advancing journalistic careers.
— Timothy E. Cook, in Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (ed.), The Press (Oxford University: 2005))
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