An Extractive Industry

I remember it like it was yesterday.

30 years ago, my father — God rest his soul — dragged me to the hardware store, with the promise that yet another of my boyhood weekends would be spent “building character.”

But this weekend was different.

Instead of heading home after securing the lumber and dirt, we stopped by a Toys “R” Us.

Dad told me to look around while he spoke with a manager, and when I sauntered back to the front of the store, the manager was retrieving — ever so delicately — a Nintendo Entertainment System from a locked display case. My Dad’s outstretched hands rose to the ceiling, as if offering a prayer, ready to catch the box should the manager tumble from the ladder.

Nintendo. Humankind’s third-greatest invention (after the wheel and the Gutenberg press).

That trip to Toys “R” Us was one of the most joyful moments of my childhood. I am certain that I am not alone — Toys “R” Us was an iconic company that enriched the lives of millions of children.

And private equity destroyed it.

Let’s not mince words: leveraged buyouts (LBOs) constitute an extractive industry.

In the case of Toys “R” Us, Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado took the company private in a $6.6B LBO in 2005. It is now bankrupt and closing all of its stores — without paying employees any severance.

In the year of the acquisition, the company generated $11.2B in annual sales, and the linked article says their biggest competitors at the time were the discount retailers Wal-Mart and Target. (Amazon’s shares were ~$35, fwiw).

Revenue was never a problem. Net sales never dipped below $11.3B (in fact they exceeded $13B between 2007-13). However, according to SEC filings, Toys “R” Us’s debt burden jumped from $1.86B at acquisition to $5.5B in the fiscal year after the deal, and annual interest expense climbed from $130m in the year of the acquisition to $400m+ beginning in 2006 (see charts). Optimizing capital structures for whom, one might ask.

ToysRUs2

The LBO firms were on the take from the get-go. According to SEC filings, “upon consummation of the Merger, [Toys “R” Us] paid the Sponsors a fee in the aggregate amount of $81 million for services rendered and out-of-pocket expenses.”

In addition, SEC filings show that between 2005-17, Toys “R” Us paid out aggregate “Sponsor management and advisory fees” of $204m. An analysis in The Atlantic suggests there may have been $128m in (incremental?) transaction fees as the company bought up KB Toys (another Bain Capital bankruptcy special) and other toy retailers.

Consider that between 2014-16, when Toys “R” Us was posting losses of $867m, $256m, and $48m, the company paid out advisory fees of $22m, $18m, and $6m. In other words, in the three years that the private equity sponsors were overseeing losses before taxes of nearly $1.2B, they still drew fees of $46m.

That giant sucking sound you hear is LBO firms hoovering out the value from a cash-generating company. One that likely could have remained a going concern, had the LBO firms not forced down such an onerous debt burden.

Again, 30,000 employees were fired without receiving severance. This is Dickensian villainy at its finest. It evokes The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The FT reports that some of KKR’s pension fund clients “are re-examining their relationship with the investment group amid anger over the treatment of workers at the bankrupt retailer.” They should.

But they shouldn’t stop there — they should re-evaluate their investments in LBOs altogether.

Here’s the dirty little secret: when pensions invest in LBO funds, they are fueling inequality.

The entire LBO model is predicated on bogging down cash-generating businesses with debt, and compelling managements’ hands to create efficiency gains (i.e., layoffs). In other words, thousands of people must lose their jobs and benefits, and be plunged into a state of precarity, in order for pensioners to remain secure in their stipends. It is absolutely zero-sum.

One of the most rigorous takedowns of the LBO model is Eileen Applebaum and Rosemary Batt’s Private at Equity Work. I highly recommend it.

Notably, one of their conclusions is that, unlike LBOs, private equity investments in small and midsize companies can drive meaningful business growth and innovation. I — and others — would argue that the opportunities for shared value creation are even greater in emerging and frontier markets.

When I came up with Portico’s ethos, I jotted down the following:

Value creation > value extraction
Build something that increases the general welfare. While there are riches to be made in value extraction, we do not believe in doing well at the expense of others. Spread dignity.

The fate of Toys “R” Us is precisely the type of BS I had in mind when I wrote those lines.

I would encourage all investors to consider the long-term consequences of the LBO model, and to eschew such extractive forms of investment.

Alla prossima,
Mike

P.S. The newsletter is taking a hiatus in August. See you in September.

Raising a Fund

At Portico, we believe in fund managers who are trying to build businesses and increase prosperity across the world.

In a sense, Portico was founded as an anti-gatekeeper. We believe that too many service providers in this industry operate in a black box, and that this lack of transparency ultimately hurts everyone.

With that in mind, we created the Informal Guide to Raising Your First Fund. Our goal with this product is to empower fund managers with the knowledge they need to develop an institutional-quality pitchbook. We’ve bundled it with a 27-page sample pitchbook to maximize its practical utility, and the feedback we’ve received tells us it’s equally relevant for managers raising funds III, IV, and beyond.

Given the exceedingly difficult fundraising environment, we’re pleased to announce that we are now offering it for only $149. It’s more important to us that a greater number of firms succeed — and that the industry develop — than that we sit on useful knowledge.

Invest in yourself. As our next story demonstrates, it’s only going to get tougher for EM managers to raise capital.

Abraaj: Redux

(For background, read parts III, and III)

This is way bigger an exposure than anyone expected … What is shocking is that the company invested almost 10 percent of its total assets and all their investment book with one company.

I am surprised that the company had more than 70 percent of its 1.5 billion-dirham investment portfolio exposed to a single fund and this was never flagged by the auditors or questioned by the shareholders.

These two quotes come from a Bloomberg article on Air Arabia’s disclosure that it faces a $336m exposure to funds managed by Abraaj.

That is a lot of granola. But it’s only part of the story.

Abraaj executed a pre-IPO investment in Air Arabia in 2007, and it secured two board seats in the process. Arif Naqvi retained his position on the board through 2017 (though he didn’t show up to the first three meetings in 2017).

Somehow, nobody seemed to see a conflict of interest in Air Arabia directing “all their investment book” to a board member’s firm?

It gets worse. The Wall Street Journal reports that, “Money originating from Air Arabia was used to replenish the [Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund], according to people familiar with the situation. KPMG’s review of the fund didn’t mention this, one of those people said.”

KPMG, you may recall, was the firm Abraaj selected to examine the books of its healthcare fund after this whole imbroglio erupted in the press. KPMG is also the auditor of Air Arabia (among other Abraaj portfolio companies).

And then there’s the bombshell.

A separate Wall Street Journal article reveals that PricewaterhouseCoopers, a provisional liquidator for Abraaj Holdings, “have ‘been unable to obtain standalone annual financial statements or management accounts’ for the holding company, a situation they described as ‘highly irregular.’”

Absolutely extraordinary. It’s a sentence worth reading again.

According to the Journal, the PwC report goes on to say:

This lack of financial record-keeping raises the question of how the company’s directors were able to ensure the company was solvent and being effectively managed.

Investment management fees revenue had, for some years, been insufficient to meet its operating costs.

Any liquidity shortfall was largely funded through new borrowings.

Reuters reporting adds that “Abraaj’s total debt stood at $1.07 billion … including $501.4 million in unsecured debt and $572.4 million [in] secured debt.”

The launch of the $6B mega-fund may be viewed in a new light.

The whole situation stinks.

And the stink is on many hands.

Who was doing due diligence? With what documents? Where was the fund administrator?

Institutions were throwing money at Abraaj. Washington State Investment Board, for example, unanimously approved an investment of up to $250m, plus fees and expenses, in the mega-fund, “based on Abraaj’s solid overall investment performance, large, institutionalized team … [and] a consistent investment and risk underwriting process applied globally.”

During the preceding Private Markets Committee meeting, Hamilton Lane “discussed [Abraaj’s] approach to investing, reputation, culture, track record, and currency risk” and supported the staff’s recommendation to invest in the fund.

They’re not the only ones. It’s just that their minutes are public.

Consider, for example, the long list of third parties that provided Abraaj the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval:

  • Abraaj reportedly received its third A+ rating from the UN Principles for Responsible Investment last year.
  • Arif Naqvi was on the Board of the UN Global Compact and a Founding Commissioner of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission
  • He is also a member of “The B Team” — a self-appointed group of business leaders that seeks to advance ESG, etc. Literally the first challenge on their website is, “Drive full transparency: be open, transparent and free from corruption, with good governance and accountability at all levels of our organizations.”
  • The Harvard Business School and Kennedy School connections.
  • The World Economic Forum.
  • Gatekeepers.
  • Auditors.
  • PR firms and the press.
  • Etc.

If there is one lesson from this fiasco, it is that it pays to do your own work.

Also, don’t chase shiny objects.

Fin.

P.S. As we suggested in March, it appears that LPs in the Africa fund are looking for a new GP to manage out the assets.

Small Is Beautiful in CEE

EMPEA recently released a report on private markets in CEE and it’s really quite good. My fundamental takeaway from the report is that the region attracts little capital — between $500m and $1.5B annually between 2009-17 — but this lack of capital is why (a handful of) investors like it.

Consider that, according to the PitchBook data in the study, the median Eastern European buyout multiple between 2006-17 was 5.8x — the lowest multiple globally.

Admittedly, there were few transactions that provided data points for PitchBook, so let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: as of December 2016, EBRD’s portfolio of CEE funds — which is, like, every CEE fund ever — has delivered roughly 7.5% net across all vintages. It’s not an exceptional number, but private equity’s not about investing in an index.

Moreover, it’s not like pension funds — which aren’t pursuing EBRD’s development mandate — are doing much better. According to the American Investment Council’s 2018 Public Pension Study, the median U.S. pension fund’s private equity portfolio delivered a 10-year annualized net return of 8.6%.

Anyway, as I read the briefing, I reflected upon Portico’s thought piece from last December — Does EM PE Scale? — and decided that what’s happening in CEE is a beautiful outcome. The GPs and LPs interviewed for EMPEA’s piece seemed happy with the status quo: most investors have mistaken perceptions of the region’s risks, so they don’t invest in it; and those LPs that do invest in the region have found manager relationships they value across cycles.

Maybe EM PE is an artisanal industry.

Insomnolent in India

Bain & Co. released the 2018 edition of their India Private Equity Report. Lots of charts. Lots of things moving up and to the right.

Bain asked respondents to its survey, “What keeps you awake at night?”

The top three responses:

  • Mismatch in valuation expectations (~75% of respondents)
  • Challenges to maintain high level of returns (~55% of respondents)
  • Lack of attractive deal opportunities (~50% of respondents)

Those seem like … the core elements of running a PE business? No wonder so many Indian GPs are happy to take my calls at 2am IST — they’re not sleeping!

Funnily enough, respondents were least concerned about, “Approaching end of fund life with unliquidated assets” (~3% of respondents).

Now, Bain’s survey had 39 respondents out of a universe of active investors they estimate at 491. But I wonder, would the percentage be much different if the sample size quadrupled?

Zombie4

Turkey: Value Trap?

Last November, we asked if Turkven’s Seymur Tari was precipitating a market turn in Turkey. After seven years of declining business and consumer confidence, was the country on the cusp of a resurgence?

Well. After the latest round of elections, the president’s appointment of his son-in-law as the head of the country’s treasury and finance ministry, and changes to the rules for appointing the central bank governor, one wonders if all those assets trading at a discount might constitute a value trap.

The IMF forecasts gross external financing requirements of ~25% of GDP (equal to ~$200B) each year through 2023.

Turkey’s policymakers confront a delicate dance, indeed.

From the Bookshelf

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Bantam Books: 1970)

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

 

The Wealth of Nations

A few years ago, my wife and I enjoyed a marvelous walking safari through the bush of Tanzania.

After camping in the village of Nainokanoka, we set off early with Moloton, our Maasai guide, and we trekked amongst the buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and zebra on our way to a campsite at Empakaai, a gorgeous crater lake that legions of flamingos call home.

It was positively Edenic … I still can’t believe my wife did it while pregnant …

Anyway, as we walked through some of the villages, I noticed an abundance of domesticated animals grazing around the boma — cattle, goats, sheep, chickens.

Since this was a long hike, I had lots of time to get lost in thought. And I kept pondering one question: who’s wealthier, a Maasai elder or your average American?

I’ve finally written down my take on this thought experiment, which you may read at this link.

Having hit publish on the piece a day after closing on a house (and thus taking on a mortgage for the next three decades), I’ve found myself acutely sensitive to the role credit plays in the U.S. economy. This machine runs on debt … future earnings are earmarked for today’s consumption.

There have been numerous articles of late warning about an impending crisis amongst over-leveraged emerging market companies and governments. A strong dollar / dollar shortage, higher borrowing costs and roll risk are genuine challenges, indeed. As Michael Pettis warned, capital structure matters bigly (see this month’s From the Bookshelf).

However, I think the sensitivity of U.S. households to rising rates is underappreciated. Personal consumption expenditures constitute nearly 70% of U.S. GDP. With higher interest expenses and higher prices due to “trade wars” — and with as-yet-unseen meaningful wage inflation — I think many American households are going to be wondering what happened to the purchasing power of their tax cuts. #youvebeenduped

On the other hand, I think many emerging market countries’ households have stronger, more resilient balance sheets. See, for example, our Maasai elder:

Maasai2

According to EMPEA statistics, only $5 billion was raised for EM PE / VC funds ex-Asia last year, and a measly $397 million in Q1 2018.

The scarcity of long-term capital flowing to these markets tells me that few investors see the world this way. And that may suggest we’re on the cusp of one of the most promising moments for wealth creation that EMs have seen in the last decade.

Have a great summer.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Mekong

Vietnam has been one of the hottest markets of late. Understandably so! It’s an alluring country with tremendous energy.

Chris Freund, founder of Mekong Capital, has been working and investing in Vietnam since the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1994. He has written a refreshingly candid piece on the origin and evolution of his firm, and its role in the development of Vietnam’s private sector.

While the article provides lessons that the Mekong team learned across multiple funds — the perils of strategy drift, the challenges of building strong management teams — it’s also a chronicle that can be read as an embodiment of EM PE’s evolution over the last two decades.

Mekong reportedly plans to go to market with Mekong Enterprise Fund IV.

I wish them well.

LP-GP Fit

The majority of times I meet with GPs, they’re eager to start pitching — which is often why we’re meeting in the first place and is an exciting part of my job. But I usually like to ask if I can talk to you about Sapphire first to give an overview of who we are what our investment thesis is.

That way, we can find out early in the conversation if there is alignment between the fund you’re raising and what we’re investing in. If there isn’t alignment, you’ve just been spared making your well thought out pitch only to find out that your fund is out of scope for Sapphire. Additionally, often times a LP will offer critical clues about what they care about which will allow you to tailor your pitch to what that LP cares about.

So when you walk into a meeting with an LP, pause to ask them about their business first, instead of jumping right into your pitch.

Brad Feld of Foundry Group recently circulated an article by Elizabeth Clarkson of Sapphire Ventures on the issue of LP-GP fit. While it’s focused on the top questions U.S. venture firms should ask prospective LPs, the nine questions are germane to managers of all types of vehicles, in all types of geographies.

I would encourage all GPs to read it.

Know your audience.

The Perils of Business Travel

So there I was — a few hours into a 15-hour flight, staring at the seat-back screen, watching as the icon of our plane crawled northwest on the map, one interminable pixel at a time. Each pixel representing some untold number of miles further from my family.

Locked in that aluminum can, arcing toward Asia at 35,000 feet, in a most calm and reasonable manner, I said to myself, “F@&! this s@&! man! F@&! it!”

It was then that I decided I was going to take a break from air travel, and I have just about reached the end of my self-imposed one-year flight ban.

It has been as great as I thought it would be.

Alas, as I began gearing up mentally to hit the skies again, I came across an article in HBR — “Just How Bad Is Business Travel for Your Health? Here’s the Data.”

The conclusions are pretty jarring:

  • Compared to those who spent one to six nights a month away from home for business travel, those who spent 14 or more nights away from home per month had significantly higher body mass index scores and were significantly more likely to report the following: poor self-rated health; clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence; no physical activity or exercise; smoking; and trouble sleeping.
  • A study of health insurance claims among World Bank staff and consultants found that travelers had significantly higher claims than their non-traveling peers for all conditions considered, including chronic diseases such as asthma and back disorders. The highest increase in health-related claims was for the stress-related disorders.

Maybe I should extend the ban …

Sharing Is Caring

Nearly two months have gone by, and I’m still thinking about the ODESZA concert I attended.

Their music won’t resonate with everyone, but if you’ve got a soul and enjoy funky beats, it’s pretty dope. Their jams easily boost my productivity by 33%.

ODESZA’s hitting Singapore, Jakarta, and KL in July, and the show is so good that — all protestations about air travel notwithstanding — I’m tempted to make the trip.

My only reservation is that it just takes so long to get there.

And by that I mean from Soekarno-Hatta to the venue.

There’s a 16-minute teaser of one of their earlier albums, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bon appetit.

From the Bookshelf

Although there are significant differences from country to country and from region to region, from a corporate finance point of view these markets actually have far more in common than they have in differences, and they respond in very similar ways to external shocks …
 
An examination of sovereign debt history suggests that there is no obvious conclusion to be drawn about the correlation between, on the one hand, liberal economic policies and sustainable economic growth, and, on the other hand, industrial policies and economic stagnation. During periods of ample global liquidity, most economic policies seem to ‘work’ because of foreign capital inflows, while they all ‘fail’ when liquidity dries up …
 
The once-conventional and still dominant explanation of capital flows focuses on what are called ‘pull’ factors. This approach … argues that rich-country investors continuously evaluate profit opportunities at home and abroad and, when growth prospects in less developed countries seem favorable, they make the decision to invest … The focus of analysis is on local economic fundamentals, and the basic assumption is that improved growth prospects precede and cause investment inflows 
 
The alternative approach … focuses less on local economic conditions and more on changes in the liquidity of rich-country markets. It posits that when investors have excess liquidity — more than can be invested in traditional low-risk markets at home — they look elsewhere for investment opportunities … Here the basic assumption is that capital inflows precede and cause growth

Because the lure of capital inflows is so powerful, it creates a huge incentive for local policy-makers to implement whatever development policies are currently fashionable among rich-country bankers.

I want to stress the word ‘fashionable’ because there is little historical evidence that previous policy packages that were praised and rewarded by investors were, in the end, successful in generating sustainable wealth.

— Michael Pettis, The Volatility Machine (Oxford University Press: 2001)

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

 

Questions of Leadership | May 2018

“There is no global EM champion.”

IFC and EMPEA’s Global Private Equity Conference came and went in a blur, but that comment from Nicolas Rohatyn has remained lodged in my brain. There are many ways to read it.

One is to ask: qué? There are global champions that do well in EM. Warburg Pincus comes to mind.

Equally, there are well-known champions within specific markets. A sampling from the BRICs: Pátria in Brazil; Baring Vostok in Russia; Multiples and True North in India; CDH and Hony Capital in China.

Some are less well-known. Some are in other markets. Some are up-and-coming.

Another is to ask if the issue is the lack of a thought leader, like Jim O’Neill (“Mr. BRIC”), who can articulate a fresh vision for the attractions of emerging markets en masse. I’m a fan of Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma, though he’s a realist not an evangelist. (Maybe that’s why I like him).

Another is to ask if there can ever be a proper EM champion. Can one firm or individual credibly champion all markets at the same time? I think so, but it’s a tough task. Markets across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America are often at different points in the cycle, with idiosyncratic risks that defy generalization.

Rohatyn’s comment came during a panel titled Global Private Equity Leaders on the State of the Industry. The panelists included a few traditional PE funds (Africa, India, global), but also an energy investor, an Asia credit specialist, and Rohatyn’s firm, an EM hedge fund that acquired a global PE firm (CVCI), as well as EM-focused infrastructure and real estate platforms.

If it’s an uphill battle selling the complexity of EM as a geography meriting investment, is it more so when a discussion with “private equity” leaders includes multiple asset classes?

In any event, if EM private markets are confronting a leadership void — and for all my quibbles it’s a view I share — then who will assume the mantle of leadership?

Alas, questions of — and questionable — leadership were top of mind last week, and they infused the four key themes that I took away from the conference:

  • Crises of Governance
  • Managers not Markets
  • Sustainability Now
  • DFIs and the Mid-Market

Before you jump to the write-ups, this is the last blast before the new General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) goes live.

Our policy is simple: we will not send this newsletter to people who have not confirmed that they would like to receive it.

We hope that your find our content thought-provoking and entertaining.

If you’d like to continue receiving our monthly(ish) newsletter — and if you haven’t done so already — please update your subscription settings.

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Thanks for reading and sharing!

Alla prossima,
Mike

 

Crises of Governance

Piggybacking off of last month’s newsletter, governance — or the lack thereof — was the biggest theme I observed throughout the conference, and this was on display across three levels of analysis: the individual / firm, the state, and the international system.

At the individual / firm level, there were numerous discussions about corporate governance, alignment of interests, and deal / fund terms and structures. However, the most powerful comment came from Jim Yong Kim, who said to David Rubenstein, “The biggest problem is the explosion of aspirations around the world.” Relative deprivation amidst a global political awakening is a potent cocktail for radicalization and unrest.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mo Ibrahim provided some memorable commentary bridging the firm and state levels. Madame Sirleaf implored, “It is the responsibility of shareholders to use their boards to ensure transparency and accountability, and improve corporate governance.” Ibrahim quipped, “It’s really hard to improve public governance without improving corporate governance.”

At the international level, Ambassador Chas Freeman gave a rundown of the reasons why “risks are reallocating themselves for reasons that are structural,” and set the stage for numerous discussions about political risk.

Ambassador Freeman also introduced troglonomics to the lexicon — “knuckle-dragging mercantilism that emphasizes bilateral trade balances above all else.” It is a delightful, if depressing, addition for our times.

Freeman’s overarching thesis that “international law no longer protects the weak” evokes Thucydides — not only the Melian Dialogue (“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”), but also the “terrible chapter” on Corcyra’s civil war (see this month’s From the Bookshelf selection).

It’s hard to be constructive, and I’m generally dour on the world’s prospects in the near term. However, I am cautiously optimistic that we are on the cusp of a generational transition — from a culture of fear and anger at losing what was, to one with the confidence and energy to build what can be (h/t Sir Kenneth Clark).

Hopefully this translates to a revivification of a rules-based, harmonious international system.

🤞

Managers not Markets

In years past, much buzz would be made about the market du jour. Panels were populated with prospective private equity kingpins, and the audience would be serenaded with those sonorous words: structural drivers, rising middle class, boots on the ground.

There was an energy and excitement about the prospects of [pick your market]. Never mind that this frequently happened just as the market was topping. It was fun. Remember Mongolia?

Yes, there were regional panels this year (and even one on blockchain), but that invigorating splash of euphoria gave way to more measured discussions around the evolution of the industry (from private equity to private markets), the need for new metrics (on impact), and more practical issues of managing funds and investments.

All of this may be an indicator of a more institutionalized asset class; but it seems to me a subtle endorsement of the idea that it’s managers that make money for investors, not market timing.

One wonders whether it was ever sensible to hype up specific markets, particularly when there are managers that consistently do well in out-of-favor geographies. I’m reminded of a recent interview with the famed short-seller Jim Chanos:

Barry Ritholtz: The last time you and I sat down for a conversation, about three years ago, you mentioned that back in the day there were a few hundred hedge funds, and out of those, 20 or 30 were reliable alpha generators. Today, there’s 11,000 or so hedge funds …

Chanos: And probably 20 or 30 reliable alpha generators.

Sustainability Now

There has been a palpable shift in investor sentiment toward the importance of sustainable investing. The Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) permeated many speakers’ comments, and there seems to be an effort afoot to segment “impact investing” from mainline PE, with the latter being viewed as key partners for attaining the SDGs.

Most allocators are not keen to sacrifice financial returns for “impact” — define the term as you will — but they are looking for managers that deliver responsible, sustainable alpha.

The irony is that some of these managers may very well be “impact investors!”

Nevertheless, the SDGs seem to offer the biggest tent for the array of investors seeking to do well while doing good, and it is manifestly the direction in which large institutional capital is heading.

DFIs and the Mid-Market

Trillions of dollars of private capital will be needed to meet the SDGs. IFC’s CEO, Philippe Le Houérou, spoke about the organization’s new strategy for mobilizing private capital, which includes working with governments to unlock investable projects, and de-risking investments for private capital.

Presumably this was the rationale behind the “DFI Leaders Panel: Moving from Billions to Trillions” — a chance to proselytize about the benefits of investing in emerging / frontier markets before a quasi-captive audience of institutional investors.

And yet, about 15 minutes into an abyss of DFI navel-gazing, a delegate from a university endowment turned to me and asked, “What’s a DFI?”

🤣

The DFIs do amazing work. But I do worry that the emphasis on mobilizing large volumes of private capital will exacerbate the financing gap for mid-market funds and businesses.

To wit, there’s scuttlebutt that some DFIs may be spending less energy on fund investments going forward. Who will intermediate capital flows to smaller companies?

We’ll see; but these discussions brought to mind two of the findings from our July 2017 report The Mid-Market Squeeze.

Basically, are DFIs catalyzing private capital into EM PE funds if: (1) their preferred ticket size is in the sweet spot of commercial investors; and, (2) most commercial LPs would not be more likely to commit to a fund < $250m in size if its investors include DFIs?

No sé.

CrowdinginoroutVertical

From the Bookshelf

Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice; the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.

— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin Classics: 1972).

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

Transparency & Governance | Apr 2018

I’ve been meditating on transparency and governance rather frequently of late. Not out of a sense of righteousness, mind you, but largely because they are inescapable in my morning reading of the newspaper: Abraaj, Norway (both discussed below), FacebookMartin SorrellSean Hannity, &c.

The only firm conclusion I’ve reached is that quality governance — corporate or otherwise — is the most underappreciated necessity. A world awash in capital is also a world awash in unaccountable bullshit. People just don’t seem keen to ask — let alone field — questions when the money’s rolling in. Plus ça change …

Say what you will about younger generations, but they’re pretty quick to raise the BS flag and ask uncomfortable questions (so much so that it has become a meme, apparently). I was reminded of this recently while giving a guest lecture at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. The students were super sharp, and they asked hard-hitting questions … including one that made me ponder some life choices.

In short, they’re awesome. They rekindled my belief that the future is going to be amazing. Hopefully their incessant questioning will continue as they assume positions of leadership, thus contributing to more transparent and accountable governance. On verra bien …

Speaking of the future, Portico’s first product launch is in the works. We’re making it easier than ever for first- (and second-, and third-, &c.) time funds to produce institutional-quality marketing materials, at a price point that delivers enormous value. Stay tuned!

Finally, I’m really looking forward to IFC’s Global Private Equity Conference next month (hosted in association with EMPEA). It’s the 20th anniversary of the event and it should be a good one. I’m excited to reconnect with friends and make new connections. Drop me a line if you’re planning to attend.

If you haven’t registered, you may learn more about the event at this link. Hope to see you there!

Alla prossima,
Mike

GPEC Banner

Abraaj: Fin?

[This is the third — and final — in a series; see Part I and Part Deux]

“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.”

So read the conclusion to my take on the drama at Abraaj in last month’s newsletter.

I don’t know whether the investors drove the process, but Houlihan Lokey was brought in to find a solution to the Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund debacle, and the FT reports that Abraaj subsequently offered to step down as manager of the fund. An interim manager is reportedly in the cards until a permanent replacement / solution is found.

A few thoughts / observations:

  • Key Person Provisions — More senior departures were reported over the last month, including those of Sev Vettivetpillai and Mustafa Abdel-Wadood, both of whom reportedly attempted to resign late last year but were asked to stay. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the firm now has lost half its managing partners and a third of its partners in the past year.” At this point, given the flood of senior departures, it stands to reason that Key Person termination provisions likely have been triggered across several Abraaj funds. If so, then I imagine investors will be looking for (a) new GP(s) to manage out the assets.
  • Sharks Circling — The firm is reportedly considering a sale of its private equity business to raise cash, and reducing headcount by 15% to cut costs. It is also moving forward with its planned listing of the South African FMCG company Libstar.
    Kenyan sources report that the firm is evaluating a sale of its stake in Nairobi Java House, which it acquired from ECP last year. (I talked about the deal here). The same article reports that sales of Avenue Hospital, Brookside Dairies, and Seven Seas Technologies may be under consideration as well. With all these headlines, management teams and fund managers may be sensing an opportune moment to scoop up shares at a discount from a stressed seller.
  • Exit Closed — In recent years, Abraaj had become an active buyer of PE-backed companies, particularly in Africa (e.g., Java House, Libstar, Mouka). Had its $6 billion mega fund come to market, I imagine Abraaj would have become a sought-after exit channel for GPs. In a way, it could have become to EM private markets what the SoftBank Vision Fund is to venture investors: a deus ex machina of liquidity.
  • &c. — Its portfolio company Stanford Marine has reportedly breached covenants and is seeking to restructure $325 million in debt. Reuters reports that it is seeking repayment of $12.4 million in loans to Nigeria’s C&I Leasing. Deloitte has been called in to look into its governance and control issues. &c.

I’m tired of writing about Abraaj. I don’t plan on including anything about the firm in next month’s newsletter.

The news articles are likely to keep coming, though, and the developments over the last month suggest that it will take a long time to clean up the detritus from this unfortunate turn of events. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t contribute to investors’ exodus from EM private markets altogether.

Norway: Part Deux

In January’s newsletter, we mentioned that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund had submitted a recommendation to the finance ministry that it be allowed to invest in and alongside private equity funds. At the time, we held out a grandiose vision of a world in which the fund might build a genuinely differentiated approach to EM private markets.

Well, the finance ministry has issued its report, and fund managers’ hopes for a veritable tsunami of cash have been put on hold.

Indefinitely.

The preliminary, unofficial translation of the report provided a fairly damning assessment of the asset class’s fees and opacity:

Low costs are characteristic of the GPFG. External equity management costs in the listed market are about 0.5 percent … measured relative to assets under management. In comparison, the annual cost of investing in private equity funds can be estimated at about 6 percent of assets under management …

Transparency is an important prerequisite for broad support for, and confidence in, the management of the GPFG. Many private equity funds disclose little information about their activities …

High prospective returns aren’t a sufficient argument for new money to come into the asset class — especially when its citizens’ savings. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the industry will not thrive without trust, transparency, and quality corporate governance.

Bain & Co.

Two findings jumped out at me from Bain & Co.’s Global Private Equity Report 2018:

  1. Entry pricing is … inauspicious.As of year-end 2016, the percentage of deals priced at <7x EBITDA (~10%) was the lowest it had been since at least 2007, while 54% of deals were done for >11x EBITDA (compared to ~35% in 2007). “Our presumption is that we’ll be exiting at smaller multiples,” says Alan Jones of Morgan Stanley Global Private Equity. Agree
  2. Long-hold funds can outperform. Bain ran an analysis comparing a theoretical long-hold fund selling an investment after 24 years against a buyout fund selling four successive companies over the same period. Their finding: “By eliminating transaction fees, deferring capital gains taxation and keeping capital fully invested, the long-hold fund outperforms the short-duration fund by almost two times on an after-tax basis.” [emphasis added]

At Portico, we’re privileged to work with firms that are pursuing non-traditional and longer hold strategies. We think it’s only a matter of time before more investors come to see the benefits of these approaches.

Grab Bag

  • Into Africa—The FT reports that the EBRD is considering an expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa. The politics of getting this approved might be tricky, but EBRD could do a lot of good on the continent. 🤞
  • India — IFC’s Ralph Keitel gives a masterclass on PE in India in this interview.
  • Management Fees— Dave Richards of Capria has an interesting view on how GPs should be determining their management fees. Hint: they should be predictable and budgeted, rather than a percentage of committed / invested capital.
  • Theranos— “It has been pretty obvious for a few years now that Theranos Inc. was a huge fraud.” Matt Levine’s take on the Blood Unicorn, Elasmotherium haimatos. And, its solicitation for cash after its CEO settled fraud charges?

From the Bookshelf

Make friends with those who are good and true, not those who are bad and false.

— Eknath Easwaran (trans.), The Dhammapada (Nilgiri Press: 2007).

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

The White Stripe | Mar 2018

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!

Alla prossima,
Mike

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?

 

giphy2

“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!

Or not.

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!

FRchartv2

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.

lostdecade

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).

cambridge

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.

giphy1

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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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

Veritas | Feb 2018

Last month, the New York Times published a fascinating article about the market for followers on Twitter. (Disclosure: shareholder of NYT and TWTR). The manufacture of social capital is something that I hadn’t really thought about before, but now that my eyes have been opened, it’s hard not to notice it.

For example, it’s always been nauseating when someone namedrops to inflate his or her reputation, but I hadn’t considered companies leveraging the brand equity of established firms to magnify their own. Think of all the conferences and august fora where firms’ logos are on display. (Yours, too, could be featured amongst the great and the good for a modest sum).

Or, consider this: have you ever read a profile of a firm or entrepreneur and, en passant, your nose turned up in a visceral reaction? Something just smelled about it? Me too. The article was probably placed. By a PR firm that doesn’t do nuance. Occasionally, these articles include character references from individuals who are compensated by the company being profiled, and yet the credulous journalist didn’t care to ask about potential conflicts.

The currency of currency is all a bit exhausting. I’m reminded of Diogenes the Cynic’s apocryphal confrontation with Plato:

On seeing [Diogenes] washing vegetables, Plato came up to him and quietly remarked, “If you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t need to be washing vegetables,” to which he replied in the same calm tone, “Yes, and if you washed vegetables, you wouldn’t need to be paying court to Dionysius.”

Anyway. Next month, I’ll be at the UNC Alternative Investments Conference, where I will be leading a teach-in session on the role of EM PE in LPs’ portfolios. I’m planning to cover the evolution of emerging markets and explore whether investors are being presented with a richer landscape of opportunities than was available in the past. I’m really looking forward to it. Click here to learn more about the event, and please reach out if you’re planning to attend.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Abraaj

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDC Group plc, IFC, and PROPARCO have hired forensic accountants to probe the books of the Abraaj Group. The investigation is focused on the use of funds within the $1 billion Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund.

According to the WSJ, which claims to have reviewed the fund’s quarterly reports to investors, Abraaj called $545 million between October 2016 and April 2017, but had invested $266 million by September 2017. In October 2017, the four LPs are said to have asked for bank statements to show what—if anything—was done with the balance of the funds. Abraaj is said not to have provided them. In December, Abraaj is said to have returned $140 million to the fund’s investors.

A reading of the two articles together suggests that there may be some disagreements over the obligation to return called capital—and the time window for doing so—when projects are delayed rather than canceled. Two hospital projects—one in Karachi and one in Lagos—are said to have been delayed.

The WSJ notes that “construction in Karachi was delayed by a ban on new buildings more than two floors high. The planned hospital had 17 floors.” Local media sources report that the ban went into effect in May 2017 due to water shortages and inadequate civil infrastructure in Karachi. Last month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court approved construction for buildings up to seven-storeys high.

Abraaj released a statement on 4 February saying, “recent media reports … are inaccurate and misleading.” The firm states that it appointed KPMG in January 2018 “to verify all receipts and payments made by the Fund,” and that as of 7 February, “KPMG has now completed its findings and reported that all such payments and receipts have been verified, in line with the agreed upon procedures performed, and that unused capital was returned to investors.”

The forensic accountants’ investigation has either not yet been completed, or the findings have not been disclosed publicly.

To an outsider, this looks quite bad. The investor syndicate that hired the forensic accountants isn’t comprised of neophytes to EM PE and impact investing. On the contrary, they’re the most experienced LPs in the industry. IFC alone has invested in over 200 EM funds over the last decade, while CDC is an active investor in 164 funds in 74 countries—including other Abraaj vehicles. These investors have mainstreamed EM PE as an institutionalized investment strategy. If their concerns are in the newspapers, then it’s worth paying attention.

More broadly, this could have knock-on effects across the broader EM private markets landscape. Integrity and transparency are vital, particularly in an opaque industry and in markets where investors confront information asymmetries. To the extent this story encourages managers to improve their operations and reporting, this is a good thing. However, with one of the largest and most visible EM firms coming under scrutiny regarding its use of funds, there is a risk that more investors will just walk away from EM altogether.

The industry will not thrive without trust, transparency, and quality corporate governance.

Abraaj is currently in the market for a $6 billion mega fund. The WSJ’s sources suggest that the firm has collected $3 billion toward its target. I find that incredible; not only because there have been several senior departures from Abraaj of late, but also because it’s hard for me to make the math work from both a top-down and a bottom-up perspective.

  • From a top-down perspective, we explored the absorptive capacity of EM PE in our latest research piece, which, based on an analysis of exits and M&A volumes, suggests that annual flows to traditional fund strategies may need to shrink to $16 billion per year. Can one firm collect a third of that and invest it well? I have my doubts.
  • From a bottom-up perspective, Abraaj built its global platform through the acquisition of Aureos, an SME-focused investor that was writing $10 million checks. In recent years, Abraaj has been securing deals through auctions—outbidding established large-cap firms such as Carlyle and TPG—and secondary buyouts from the likes of Actis, Advent International, ECP, and Metier. It seems reasonable to ask about pricing pressures and style drift.
  • Finally, the firm has raised an estimated $3B across five funds since 2015 and appears to be in the market for upwards of $7.1B across four funds (see exhibit below). Where are they going to put it all?

Of course, all this may just speak to my failure of imagination.

Several institutional investors have read Hamilton Lane’s reports and clearly disagree with the previous assessments. Washington State Investment Board (approved unanimously, up to $250 million) and Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (approved 6-3, up to $50 million) have committed to the mega fund, while PEI reports that Teacher Retirement System of Texas is on board as well.

Scale has its advantages.

Abraaj2

Private Debt in Africa

Runa Alam of Development Partners International co-authored an intriguing article on the prospects for private debt in Africa. There’s clearly demand for more flexible capital solutions amongst local businesses, and my understanding is that some early suppliers of credit / mezzanine solutions on the continent, such as Amethis and Vantage Capital, have done well. As one would expect given the supply-demand imbalance, new entrants emerged:

  • Helios Investment Partners launched Helios Credit, its direct lending platform, in 2015.
  • Ethos acquired Mezzanine Partners in July 2016 and launched Ethos Mezzanine Partners 3 with a target of $150 million.
  • Syntaxis Capital, a Central and Eastern Europe-focused private debt investor launched an Africa strategy in 2016, establishing a presence in Lagos.

Presumably DPI will be joining them.

It’s important to remember, though, as one seasoned private credit manager once put it to me, “leverage is not your friend in emerging markets.” Private credit is more than just a position in the capital stack. It requires a different skillset than growth equity, and a deep understanding of volatility’s impact on balance sheets and cash flows. Choose your partners wisely.

Taking a step back, it’s great to see a broader set of financing options being made available to entrepreneurs on the continent. For LPs willing to look, there are some very interesting managers with vehicles that expand Africa’s investable market. (Drop us a line if you’d like to know more).

Always Low Prices

Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, is reportedly shopping around their Brazilian operations. ACON Investments, Advent International, and GP Investments are said to have been pitched.

According to Thomson Reuters, the company’s 471 local stores generated revenues of $9.4 billion in 2016. However, the company “posted operating losses for seven years in a row after an aggressive, decade-long expansion left it with poor locations, inefficient operations, labor troubles and uncompetitive prices.” In short, apart from the labor troubles, they weren’t Walmart.

Apparently, several retailers took a look at Walmart’s assets in the country, but took a pass on them after concluding the suco ain’t worth the squeeze. A consequence, it seems, of Walmart’s poor customer understanding and a bungled expansion strategy.

It will be interesting to see if a private equity buyer can turn things around, but it’s pretty clear they won’t be paying up for the privilege to do so. In that sense, Walmart’s finally operating true to form: offering bric-a-brac at the deeply discounted prices that shoppers have grown to love.

Currency Risk in Emerging Markets

Sarona Asset Management released the final report of its nearly year-long initiative, “Expanding Institutional Investment into Emerging Markets via Currency Risk Mitigation.”

Sponsored by USAID’s Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise, and in partnership with EMPEA and Crystalus Inc., the initiative sought to develop innovative, practicable solutions to FX risk management in EM PE. The final report contains a wealth of data and information on FX hedging in EM, as well as three new “solution pathways” that the project tested with practitioners:

  • New direct currency hedges (i.e., covertures and supported range forwards);
  • Proxy hedges (i.e., baskets of liquid, low-cost interest rate, equity, and commodity options); and,
  • Insurance.

The proxy hedge was piloted through simulated back tests against two EM PE portfolios over 20 years, and the product shows promise. However, as always with hedging, the devil is in the details.

USAID and Sarona have kindly made the report available to the public. Click here to download it.

From the Bookshelf

Recurrent descent into insanity is not a wholly attractive feature of capitalism …

The only remedy, in fact, is an enhanced skepticism that would resolutely associate too evident optimism with probable foolishness and that would not associate intelligence with the acquisition, the deployment, or, for that matter, the administration of large sums of money. Let the following be one of the unfailing rules by which the individual investor and, needless to say, the pension and other institutional-fund manager are guided: there is the possibility, even the likelihood, of self-approving and extravagantly error-prone behavior on the part of those closely associated with money …

A further rule is that when a mood of excitement pervades a market or surrounds an investment prospect, when there is a claim of a unique opportunity based on special foresight, all sensible people should circle the wagons; it is the time for caution. Perhaps, indeed, there is opportunity … A rich history provides proof, however, that, as often or more often, there is only delusion and self-delusion.

— John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin: 1993).

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

 

Bulls on Parade | Jan 2018

The animal spirits are palpable. Though U.S. markets have seemed to be fully valued for some time, the price action since the ball dropped on 2018 is saying, “these go to 11.”

Jeremy Grantham of GMO captures the sentiment in his piece, “Bracing Yourself for a Possible Near-Term Melt-Up.” The punchline: Grantham says it’s possible that we’ll see a melt-up to 3,400–3,700 (!) on the S&P 500 over the next nine to 18 months. I mean, it’s possible (probable?) that we won’t, but I think he’s more right than wrong.

If you missed it, Grantham laid down a gauntlet of a thought exercise late last year: imagine that you are Stalin’s pension fund manager and you are told to generate 4.5% real returns for 10 years, or else. Where do you allocate your capital?

Grantham’s answer: EM equity. In size.

I imagine that many investors—particularly those with 7%+ return assumptions—are asking themselves the question: am I sufficiently overweight in EM?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that extends to EM private markets. However, a bull cycle in EM public markets should boost multiples and be conducive for exits. Here’s hoping that we see sustained portfolio and direct investment flows, and GPs seizing the opportunity to distribute capital back to their LPs.

Separately, thanks to those of you who encouraged people to subscribe to our newsletter. Our plea resulted in a donation to Room to Read, so thanks for contributing to children’s literacy.

Finally, If you missed our most recent research piece over the holidays, Does the EM PE Asset Class Scale?, it’s available for free on our website.

Happy new year. Let’s make it a good one.

Alla prossima,
Mike

McVey Calls a Secular Bull Market in EM

KKR’s Henry McVey issued his hefty investment outlook for 2018, “You Can Get What You Need.” The takeaway for readers of this newsletter is his conclusion that EM are in a secular bull market that should last for three to five years. Inshallah.

McVeyEM

Of note, McVey ran a DuPont analysis and discovers “that operating margins are finally improving across all of EM after a five-year bear market, which is now boosting return on equity.” Commodity-related companies are a major driver of this swing, so it pays to keep an eye on commodity prices for a potential turn.

One interesting tidbit in the outlook is his forecast for private equity returns over the next five years, which he estimates will decline to 9.6% (the highest across asset classes; see below).

McVeyReturns

Norway

No, not that story.

Norway’s $1.1 trillion sovereign wealth fund has submitted a recommendation to the finance ministry that it be given greater latitude to invest in and alongside private equity funds. This would be a fairly significant development for the private equity industry, given the volume of capital that it could unlock for the asset class.

In my dreams, I envision them building a team with a global mandate to identify small- and mid-cap managers with compelling strategies. Exploiting the advantage of being a genuinely long-term investor, and seizing the opportunity to build an edge in private markets.

But in my waking hours, I see billions flowing directly to Blackstone.

Brazil on the Move

Brazil’s auto industry is moving product: vehicle exports are expected to hit an all-time high of 750,000 in 2017, according to reports in the FT. We highlighted the bottoming process in Brazil in our April 2017 newsletter, when we juxtaposed the contraction in consumer lending and declining retail sales in the country with the fiesta in Mexico. If one were fishing for a macro long-short idea, this might be one place to look for pairs.

More to the point, we expect some large Brazilian funds to come to market in 2018. Will investors commit, or take a pass?

Not Interested

“Emerging market interest remained low this year.”

So concludes Probitas Partners, the global placement advisory firm, in its Private Equity Institutional Investor Trends for 2018 survey (n=98). Emerging markets are one of the least attractive segments within global private equity, with only 9% of respondents planning to focus their attention on EM this year (see below).

Probitas2

Managers in EM just are not a priority.

Within EM, surveyed LPs find China, India, and Southeast Asia most attractive, while ~15% of respondents express interest in LatAm and Brazil. Notably, 38% of respondents report that they do not invest in EM.

The full survey is available at this link (registration required).

From the Bookshelf

There are Croakers in every Country always boding its Ruin.

— Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (Oxford World’s Classics: 1993).

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2018, all rights reserved.

Does EM PE Scale? | Dec 2017

Does the emerging markets private equity asset class scale?

No. I don’t believe it does.

In fact, I think the absorptive capacity of EM PE / VC is as low as $16 billion in new flows per year, compared to the $40 billion in fundraising we’ve seen on average since 2011. At least, that’s my finding in Portico’s most recent research piece: Does the Emerging Markets Private Equity Asset Class Scale?

The inspiration for this think piece comes from Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures, who wrote a fascinating blog post in 2009 on “The Venture Capital Math Problem.” If you haven’t read it, you should. In it, Fred concluded that the volume of exits in U.S. venture right-sized the industry between $15 billion and $17 billion in flows per year, remarkably similar to the conclusion I reached.

While this piece isn’t likely to win me many friends, I hope that it provides some food for thought, and that it sparks some lively conversations. I’d love to hear your feedback!

A humble request. We’re trying to grow our (monthly-ish) newsletter’s audience in 2018. If you enjoy this newsletter and / or know someone who would, then please feel free to share it with them. It’s free to sign up for future issues at www.tinyurl.com/porticonewsletter, while previous editions are available here.

For each new (human) subscriber we get between now and 30 December, we’ll make a donation to Room to Read, a nonprofit active in Africa and Asia that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education.

Happy holidays to you and yours, and best wishes for health and happiness in 2018.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Mea Culpa

A mea culpa is in order. In last month’s newsletter, I (somewhat cheekily) called out IFC for committing $25M to Carlyle’s $5B Asia Partners V; it was actually to their ($1B target) Asia *Growth* Partners V. Sloppy mistake. I apologize. Thank you to the discerning reader who noticed my error and called me out on it.

That said, I still don’t understand why IFC is funding a fifth-series Carlyle fund. According to IFC’s disclosure of the commitment, as of 31 December 2016, Carlyle held approximately $158B in AUM. This figure is ~70% greater than IFC’s total assets, ~4x the value of IFC’s total investments, and nearly 12x the value of IFC’s equity investments (as of 30 June 2017; see IFC’s consolidated balance sheets at this link).

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

KKR Quits Africa

We’ve dedicated a decent number of pixels in our newsletters to the issue of large-cap deal flow in Africa. Late last month, KKR decided to disband its Africa team for good. Several of the team’s dealmakers left earlier this year, in part, it seems, because they were investing out of KKR’s European fund and were losing out to French, German, etc. deals in IC meetings.

But a KKR spokesman breaks it down pretty plainly: “To invest our funds we need deal-flow of a certain size. It was especially the deal-size that wasn’t coming through.”

Invariably, KKR’s spokesman continues, “There was enough deal-flow at a smaller level.”

The Power of Compounding

Albright Capital recently released an enjoyable piece on “The Power of Compounding” in an EM portfolio. The firm compares the returns that three hypothetical long-only investors would have received from the MSCI EM, based on their (in)ability to time the market.

It’s an original thought experiment with results that might surprise you.

Will Robots Disrupt Private Equity?

McKinsey Global Institute released its analysis of the impact of automation on jobs. They estimate that “up to 375 million people may need to switch occupational categories” by 2030, with up to one-third of the U.S. and German workforces—and half of Japan’s—needing to learn new skills and pursue new occupations.

Will “private equity investor” be one of these disrupted occupations? Could robots do a better job at allocating capital? Given the recent performance figures, at least in EM, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

There’s an alluring argument that private markets are less ripe for disruption than public markets: not only is there less data available, but also the manager can apply sophisticated judgment and hard-earned pattern recognition skills to source proprietary deals, construct a quality portfolio, and create value.

I’m not entirely convinced. Consider an analysis from Dan Rasmussen of Verdad, who, whilst at Bain Capital, examined 2,500 deals representing $350 billion of invested capital:

About one-third of the deals analyzed accounted for more than 100% of profits (no surprise there) and the majority of the deals in the sample fell well short of the forecasts built into the financial models. The biggest predictor of whether a company would be a big winner or not was the purchase price paid. The dividing line seemed to be 7x earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). When PE firms paid more than 7x EBITDA, their chance of success plummeted — regardless of how much managerial magic they threw at it. The 25% of the cheapest deals accounted for 60% of the profits. The most expensive 50% of deals accounted for only about 10% of profits.

In other words, all the fancy analysis and financial models performed worse than the simple rule “buy all deals at less than 7x EBITDA” [emphasis added]. A simple quantitative rule worked better than expert judgment.

I was recently speaking with Abby Phenix—formerly of Advent International, now assisting PE firms with customer due diligence—and we ended up riffing on this topic for a bit. In the past, she raised some thought-provoking points about the automation prospects for manager selection (think funds of funds) and investment analysis (think associates), which could enhance productivity and reduce costs (think management fees).

What is it that investors want? Cost-effective exposure to the investable asset or the privilege of paying fees to the middleman?

Is it Possible to Short Graduate Schools?

This statistic surprised me: the stock of U.S. student loan debt ($1.3 trillion) is now equal to the size of the U.S. junk bond market. Astonishing.

Estimates from The New America Foundation suggest that upwards of 40% of this is tied to graduate school debt. If I could short the graduate education market directly, I would.

Consider that in 2012, 25% of graduate students were burdened with at least $100,000 of student loan debt. Meanwhile, in 2016, the median incomes for master’s degree holders in the United States were roughly $80,000 for males and $58,000 for females. The math doesn’t work, prospective students know it, and there’s a broad-based slowdown in applications (see below).

ex71

Effectively, the market for graduate education experienced a debt-financed positive demand shock, universities expanded supply, and now there is a negative demand shock. Schools will need to cut tuition and take a hard look at which costs can be cut.

If you’re keen to learn more about just how much of a mess this is, I wrote a piece about this on my personal blog (source of the exhibit above).

Lots of data. Lots of charts. Oodles of other content.

From the Bookshelf

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
(Matthew 16: 26)

The Bible: Authorized King James Version (Oxford World’s Classics: 2008).

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The information presented in this newsletter is for informational purposes only. Portico Advisers does not undertake to update this material and the opinions and conclusions contained herein may change without notice. Portico Advisers does not make any warranty that the information in this newsletter is error-free, omission-free, complete, accurate, or reliable. Nothing contained in this newsletter should be construed as legal, tax, securities, or investment advice.

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2017, all rights reserved.