Impact Investing

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.

Oops.

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.

Alla prossima,
Mike

———

Manager Selection

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).

Screen Shot 2019-04-06 at 2.40.46 PM

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.

Picture1.png

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.

whw

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.

M: Why are you so obsessed with Bruce Springsteen? Especially since Rage Against the Machine’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” is clearly the better version?

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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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 2019, all rights reserved.

Expectations v. Reality

One thing that never ceases to entertain me is when an institutional investor says s/he expects 3x from an emerging market private equity fund.

“We want to be compensated for the risk we’re taking.”

Makes sense.

But how is that risk measured? People don’t seem to be using a Sharpe ratio, or some such analytic that disaggregates measures of alpha per quantum of risk.

According to Aswath Damodaran, the equity risk premia between developed and emerging markets have converged since the turn of the millennium. One could argue that investors should accordingly expect a lower premium from EM PE over time.

Using the spread between U.S. Treasurys and local sovereigns for a risk premium seems lazy. Private EM companies can be better credits than the countries where they operate, and actually have a lower risk profile than publicly listed companies (e.g., mining, oil & gas).

Also, it’s 2019.

Are we going to act as if many of these countries don’t have banks, and insurance companies, and mobile network operators now? There is a lot more competition, and a lot more capital scouring the landscape for deals (much of which is neither institutional nor residing with asset managers seeking PE-like returns).

Yet these markets are dynamic, and exciting, and they present an opportunity for investors to build great businesses. It’s not like the pass-the-parcel, value-transfer game in developed markets.

To be clear, there absolutely will be EM deals and perhaps some funds that deliver ≥ 3x net DPI at the end of their life. But if you’re an institutional investor investing in institutional-quality funds, what are the odds that you’re going to pick one of these winners?

Low. In all likelihood, you’re probably going to wait until the firm has a track record and built up its back office to satisfy your trustees.

By then, said firm will have scaled and begun investing in larger companies, and the economies and sectors in which they’re investing will have evolved materially.

All of these behaviors are reasonable. But the idée fixe of getting 3x is not.

If you’re going to wait for managers and markets to institutionalize and de-risk, then you should be willing to give up some of the upside. You don’t deserve it.

How realistic is the expectation of 3x, anyway?

Take a look at CalPERS’ experience (see below). Of the 268 PE funds in its portfolio (excluding vintage years 2016-18), only two funds clear the 3x hurdle.

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 8.29.04 AM

Only 36 funds (~13%) have delivered at least 2x. Meanwhile, 80% of the funds sit between 1x and 2x, and nearly half are valued at less than 1.5x.

And lest we forget, these are with PE firms’ marks …

We could tie ourselves in knots in a discussion over the suitability of CalPERS’ portfolio as a data set, but a bogey of 3x in EM just seems unreasonable.

New rule: stop being unreasonable.

Alla prossima,
Mike

———

Liquidity

Investors often talk about the need for private equity firms to harvest an illiquidity premium — an incremental return above that generated in public markets.

The idea makes sense …

… when public markets are liquid.

But what happens when an exchange can’t absorb trading volumes? What if it fails in its job of serving as a market maker?

You should probably ask the people who tried to sell shares of Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd. — one of the largest listed companies on the Singapore Exchange — at the market’s open on January 24th.

Says Bloomberg:

Shares sank just before the regular session began, with about 167,500 changing hands at just $10.99, compared with Wednesday’s close of $66.47. Jardine, the flagship investment firm of a 186-year-old conglomerate, soon recovered from the $41 billion wipeout and ended up closing 0.5 percent higher.

Selling at an 83% discount seems … not to be a great advertisement for the benefits of liquidity.

CMC Markets Singapore analyst Margaret Yang Yan is a bit more candid:

This kind of stupid mistake shouldn’t have happened in an established stock exchange. It is the largest exchange in south-east Asia … It’s ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: not putting in a limit order?

This markdown never would have happened if Jardine Matheson were a PE portfolio company. But then …

———

Sell!

The trickle of exits / distributions from EM PE funds is a fact of life. We often hear about structural reasons for this logjam — the depth of local capital markets, for example.

But, what if it has little do with EM, and more to do with dealmakers’ biases? What if (most) everyone’s actually good investing?

In “Selling Fast and Buying Slow: Heuristics and Trading Performance of Institutional Investors,” a group of researchers analyzed 783 institutional portfolios with an average portfolio value of ~$573m. The dataset included 4.4 million trades between 2000-16.

Say the authors:

We document a striking pattern: while the investors display clear skill in buying, their selling decisions underperform substantially. Positions added to the portfolio outperform both the benchmark and a strategy which randomly buys more shares of assets already held in the portfolio … In contrast, selling decisions not only fail to beat a no-skill strategy of selling another randomly chosen asset from the portfolio, they consistently underperform it by substantial amounts. PMs forgo between 50 and 100 basis points over a 1 year horizon relative to this random selling strategy.

Basically, one way to enhance performance is to become a better seller.

Maybe this could be a new skillset to hire for? Someone who sits at the table during portfolio reviews and offers constructive comments, such as, “Maybe we should sell [company].”

Or someone who walks around the office offering a helpful feedback.

Deal Gal: This promoter is a pain in my rear. The board meetings are a shambles. He won’t listen to anything we have to say.

New Guy: Hmmm … [pauses for dramatic effect and adopts hipster podcaster voice] Have you thought about selling it?

Deal Gal: But he knows what he’s doing! If we hold on to this company for another 18 months we could be looking at a 3-bagger.

New Guy:

———

Emoji Compliance

In Portico’s first research piece, I noted that the growing costs of compliance were taxing the bandwidth of smaller fund managers, and regulatory complexity was making it more difficult for firms to raise capital.

[You can envision billionaires at mega-cap firms pulling up the drawbridge behind them as regulation stifles competition and entrenches their firms’ market position.]

Well, Kirkland & Ellis sent out an update about some recent Delaware decisions regarding text messages, personal emails, and corporate litigation that brought home how absurd the world has become.

Chancellor [Andre] Bouchard added that he often finds texts to include especially probative information, particularly when covered in emojis. In a recent decision (Transperfect), he attached significance to a smiley-face “emoticon” included in one of the party’s texts as evidence of the malign intent of the sender.

Look, I am out of my depth when it comes to the legal implications of emoticons. But what’s the over / under — in months — before a DDQ contains responses to one of the following questions:

  • What is your policy on emoticon use?
  • Have you disabled controversial emoji across all devices, messaging, and email clients?
  • Have you staffed up your emoji compliance function with digital natives who can discern malignant intent amongst the extant universe of 2,500+ emojis?

———

Blackstone Quits Africa

No surprises here. Secondo Il Sole 24:

Il problema, sembra, è che Blackstone non ha trovato grandi operazioni da finanziare [emphasis added]. E la competizione cinese ha complicato la situazione. Anche KKR incontrò difficoltà simili tanto da smantellare nel 2017 il team di persone dedicate al continente africano e vendere il suo unico asset in quella regione, un produttore etiope di rose.”

QED.

———

Inspecting the Books

Catalyzing private capital is one of the core missions of the development finance institutions. Oftentimes, in EM private markets, this takes the form of seeding local managers and building them into institutional-quality firms (see intro).

But, what if there were another way? One that didn’t take so long. One that evoked the spirit of a place, and its people, and it propelled you to book a ticket to visit that manager in Poland or wherever.

Then you might learn about the 1 million family-run businesses that are in need of succession planning. Or the scarcity of expansion capital in a market of ~ 40 million consumers.

You might put down some Żywiec and pierogi, and get lost in Warsaw.

You might, actually, feel alive.

Manager visits wouldn’t be like those depressing trips where you eat Panda Express in a Holiday Inn Express, and the view out your window is of a half-vacant parking lot and a highway.

The EBRD has released the longlist for its 2019 Literature Prize, and until this moment I didn’t think I wanted another job, but I will read books and tell you which ones I like if you pay me to do so.

It’s a pretty cool looking collection from EBRD’s geographies. Hope you find something you like.

———

From the Bookshelf

For the first time in my life I understood that the sense of poverty is not the result of misery but of the consciousness that one is worse off than others.

Providence is no substitute for prudence.

— Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State (Houghlin Mifflin Co.: 1944)

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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 2019, all rights reserved.

Passages

Happy new year. I hope you closed out 2018 with some respite and relaxation.

Our family welcomed the arrival of a new son / little brother shortly after Thanksgiving, so I’m thrilled to be starting the year refreshed and well-rested. 👀

One delightful discovery during the sleepless nights has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s collection of travel writings. Bleary-eyed with baby strapped to my belly, I recited lines of exquisite prose to the bambino, evoking distant lands and daring adventures from a vanished world.

Whilst following the young Fermor’s trek along the Danube toward Constantinople, memories of my own youthful journeys through Mitteleuropa often materialized.

Visions of a glorious hike through the Berchtesgaden Alps; the enveloping warmth of eiderdown on a chilly summer evening; a call to my father from a payphone to wish him happy birthday, after imbibing zwei Maßkrügen of beer.

My dad would die within three years of that call, but I can still hear the mirth in his voice. How I wish he could have met his grandsons. May they forge paths of their own.

It could very well be the delirium, but I’m hoping that this year will be more constructive for EM private markets than 2018 was.

I wish I had something concrete to pin my hopes on, but the sheer degree of negative sentiment is all I’ve got.

Ain’t going to be an easy row to hoe, I’m afraid. So, we might as well get on with it.

Alla prossima,
Mike

P.S. Thanks to those of you who encouraged folks to subscribe to this newsletter. Portico made a donation to Room to Read for each new subscriber, so thanks for contributing to children’s literacy.

———

Profit from Purpose

So, the President of the World Bank Group unexpectedly resigned to join an infrastructure investment firm.

Par for the course. The writing was on the wall a year ago.

(“Jim has a lot of credibility with private equity firms,” said David Rubenstein.)

In an e-mail seen by the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Kim stated:

I’ve concluded that this is the path through which I will be able to make the largest impact on major global issues like climate change and the infrastructure deficit in emerging markets.

Look. I’m sure it stinks to be working with the Trump Administration. And it’s hard to make it in DC on a net-of-tax salary of $500,600 whilst enjoying world-class benefits. From a pecuniary perspective, it’s best to hop near the market top. Now’s better than three years from now.

But may we just pause and reflect on his statement?

What, pray tell, is the point of the World Bank anymore? Why did it need $13 billion in extra capital?

And what does Dr. Kim’s early departure tell us about the ability of the Bank to mobilize private funds?

Also. I am not questioning Dr. Kim’s sincerity regarding private capital’s role in solving development challenges — even if it led to a regrettable endorsement — but given the Bank’s role in financing climate solutions and infrastructure in developing economies, don’t the optics here look a bit Swampy?

Anyway, the Bank’s next President may need to come up with a new mission statement.

Thankfully, s/he likely won’t be Jeffrey Sachs. #huawei

———

Deals!

We kicked off last year with everyone getting bulled-up on EM, and this newsletter offered some cautious optimism about the prospects 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.

Well, we know how that story played out. #sadtrombone

According to data from Thomson Reuters Deals Intelligence, EM saw a 17% reduction in the volume of completed M&A transactions. The downdraft was most pronounced in Africa and Eastern Europe — which both experienced declines of 31% — but the slowdown hit each region (see below).

599e287f-c305-4fad-9210-87bbf61081ba

Fun fact: the Thomson Reuters data show that SoftBank paid out $894m in investment banking fees in 2018.

———

Tough Crowd

Private Equity International released its 2019 LP Perspectives survey. If the 101 respondents are a representative sample — an open question — then it looks like it’s going to be another tough year on the fundraising trail for managers ex-Asia (see below).

26ff7765-5808-4435-a4be-12e8c6fc825f

We’ve discussed LPs’ herd behavior driving a tsunami of capital toward (large-cap) Asia several times over the years. That shows no signs of abating.

Meanwhile, capital scarcity continues to define the rest of EM. History suggests that such conditions are conducive to strong performance, but — as ever — the contrarians seem to be few and far between.

Moose Guen, CEO of MVision, provides a sobering outlook:

The interest in new markets like Latin America or Africa and even parts of Asia is extremely limited. Not because of lack of opportunity or experience, but due to local currency volatility relative to the US dollar and the net dollar returns … Over the next few years, GP headcount in those markets will be inhibited because it’s very difficult to finance them.

———

Risky Business

IFC SME Ventures teamed up with CrossBoundary LLC on a study that explores PE investing in fragile and conflict-affected situations (“FCS”) in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study reaches several conclusions that we’ve advanced in this newsletter — such as the merits of flexible mandates, financings, and fund structures — and it makes a convincing case not to invest in single-country funds in frontier geographies.

I found the most thought-provoking finding to be the determination that:

FCS funds with better net returns tend to either be highly active and in control positions on select investments or deploy standardized (but flexible) debt-like instruments to a larger group of investments … Small funds with a large array of minority equity positions can struggle to both realize liquidity and adequately manage their investments.

a03189d9-a9c4-4936-b738-8948efb3f50b
Source: IFC SME Ventures.

That said, later in the report, an analysis of 312 exits from IFC’s frontier markets PE portfolio reveals that “minority positions have performed almost as well as majority positions in terms of median gross IRR.” I wonder if the discrepancy boils down to geographies (frontier vs. FCS) or a comparison of deal-level vs. fund-level returns.

In any event, the report provides some good food for thought.

———

GP Stakes

In private equity the managers do better than the investors.

The FT recently reported on Dyal Capital and the growing business of firms investing in private equity fund management companies. In essence, the business entails taking a minority stake in the GP — providing the manager an injection of permanent capital — in return for a share of the management fees and carry.

I haven’t seen data on the volume of transactions in this space, but I observed with interest the launch of Meteor5, whose management team includes MVision’s Moose Guen. The firm invests in emerging GPs, and it strikes me that a firm like this can play an important role in seeding new managers and accelerating their time to close — all with the benefit of having visibility on the product that LPs demand.

Whilst I’ve seen EM GPs sell their franchises in whole or in part to other asset managers, I’ve not seen much along the lines of the Dyal / Petershill / Meteor5 / etc. approach.

And I think I know why.

EM PE’s industry-level performance and the harsh fundraising environment raise questions about the viability of firms raising follow-on funds and harvesting investments. How does one get comfortable estimating the terminal value of fee income + carry?

It’s all a bit of a shame, but I wonder if some enterprising, well-capitalized folks might come up with a solution.

———

From the Bookshelf

There are times when hours are more precious than diamonds.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and Water (NYRB Classics: 2005)

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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 2019, all rights reserved.

 

Illusions and Delusions

Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in that nugget, whether applied to issues of a spiritual or temporal wavelength.

It’s also relevant to quotidian things, such as deciding which book to read. For instance, in the decade since I left SAIS, apart from a methodical reading of the Ancient Greek classics, I’ve approached my bookshelves with no real theme or objective in mind.

At least, that’s what I thought.

Whilst reading William Manchester’s droll book on the Medieval mind last week, however, I experienced an epiphany that revealed a pattern amongst the cornucopia of titles.

All these years, most of the most-enjoyable books have dealt with the theme of illusions and delusions.

They covered what Adda Bozeman, in her magisterial Politics and Culture in International History, refers to as the gap between image and reality.
(h/t Ben Welch for the recommendation).

Or, as Barbara Tuchman described it, the periods “when the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, [and] the system breaks down.”
(See A Distant Mirror and The Proud Tower).

Basically, history is littered with episodes when the bottom falls out of everything. Foundational myths, religious and political institutions, social orders, scientific hypotheses — all have cratered in the face of discovery, new knowledge and shifting conditions. They prove to have been illusions and delusions.

Lest we think that these gaps between myth and reality are confined to the distant past, consider this remark from Alan Greenspan in 2007 (as quoted in Adam Tooze’s Crashed):

[We] are fortunate that, thanks to globalization, policy decisions in the U.S. have been largely replaced by global market forces. National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.

Oops.

Or, consider the astonishing scale and duration of the fraud that was Theranos. John Carreyrou’s riveting Bad Blood, which deservedly won the 2018 FT / McKinsey & Co. Business Book of the Year award, is replete with illusions and delusional people — including a credulous board comprised of national security cognoscenti.

Or, revisit our January newsletter (“Bulls on Parade”) in which GMO’s Jeremy Grantham and KKR’s Henry McVey were bulled up on EM. I was too. Illusion! Delusion!

If it’s any consolation, an insight from Jobs’s quote is that it’s virtually impossible to measure the size of the gap between myth and reality in real time.

But man, secondo me, it really does feel like we’re living through a period when the gap between image and reality is wide and widening, and a trapdoor is beneath our feet.

I wonder, though. Which of the foundational beliefs in EM private markets will prove to have been illusions and delusions?

A few motions to debate with yourself and others:

  • There is an abundance of EM companies ripe for PE investment
    (h/t Nadiya Auerbach).
  • U.S. PE will outperform EM PE over the next decade.
  • LPs that have committed to mega-cap Asia / China venture will do well over the next decade.
  • “Impact investing” will continue to be a viable asset-gathering strategy for industrial-sized GPs if / when the yield on the U.S. 10 Year climbs north of 5%.

Anyway, our second son is arriving imminently, so this is Portico’s last newsletter for 2018.

A humble request: if you value our monthly(ish) dispatch, please share it with friends and colleagues. They may sign up for free at this link, and read previous editions here.

Once again, we’re going to make a charitable contribution for each new (human) subscriber we get between now and 30 December. We’ll be donating to Room to Read, a nonprofit active in Africa and Asia that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education.

Health and happiness to you and yours.

Alla prossima,
Mike

401(k)s — The Final Frontier

Private equity is one step closer to accessing the $5.3 trillion 401(k) market in the United States.

The Committee on Capital Markets Regulation has released Expanding Opportunities for Investors and Retirees: Private Equity, a study that provides the intellectual grist for legislative changes that would democratize access to direct investments in PE / VC funds.

I’m of two minds on this issue. Like, of course people should be able to invest in private investment funds. But on the other hand, there just aren’t that many great PE funds that merit one’s investment. Seems like a poor set-up for success.

Moreover, there are limits to PE’s absorptive capacity. For example, according to PitchBook, U.S. PE funds raised $275 billion in capital in 2017. If PE captured just 3% of the current 401(k) market, that’s an incremental $160 billion. Would a 60% increase in capital have a negative impact on returns?

Admittedly, this compares stocks to flows; but it’s worth asking just where all this capital would go. One thing is certain: it would generate a lot of fee income for managers.

It may have been my reading of it, but the study seems to pain itself on using historical performance data to make the case that private equity’s outperformance of public markets is akin to a law of nature. A tad overdone, in my opinion. Private equity is a market of managers; and recent research demonstrates that the persistence of fund managers’ performance is declining.

Honestly, how are retail investors going to select top-quartile managers when professional LPs fail to do so on a regular basis?

The reality is that they won’t. They’ll likely invest in the name-brand mega-cap firms that excel at gathering assets. The best-performing GPs don’t need — or want — Mom & Pop’s money.

Cui bono?

Future Fund

Steve Byrom — head of PE at Australia’s A$150 billion Future Fund — has something to say:

At a big picture level, this asset class is becoming less attractive … Business models aren’t sufficiently differentiated because of the number of GPs in the ecosystem and the amount of capital competing for a reasonably small number of bidders.

Great time for retail to jump in!

Norway on Governance

Norges Bank Investment Management made a couple appearances in the newsletter this year, most notably for calling out private equity’s lack of transparency as a principal reason for their decision not to invest in it.

And since governance has been a key theme this year (and will be at least through Q1 ‘19), I was pleased to see that Norges Bank has released three position papers on key governance issues:

Social Capital

Chamath Palihapitiya — Founder and CEO of Social Capital + Owner of the Golden State Warriors — is an outspoken guy whom I’ve enjoyed listening to and reading over the last few years.

There was a bunch of hubbub in recent months about the exodus of employees from his firm, as well as his decision to transition from a fund structure to a holding company that will invest from its own balance sheet. I don’t know what’s fact or fiction. I don’t really care.

But since the firm is now a holding company, Palihapitiya is emulating Warren Buffett and releasing annual letters. His first letter provides a dour view on U.S. venture capital as an industry, which he colorfully describes as a “multilevel marketing scheme.” It’s worth reading. His cynicism is crisp, refreshing, and effervescent, like a chilled flute of pignoletto.

In the letter, he asserts that “the demands of innovation are going up;” it’s a conclusion that I’m inclined to believe. As I wondered aloud last month, “maybe founders with vision are the scarcest thing around.”

Palihapitiya closes with a cheeky comparison of Social Capital’s performance over its first seven years vis-à-vis Berkshire Hathaway’s. The devil’s in the footnotes, but I must say: hubris is not a good look.

From the Bookshelf

[T]he political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts — more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent — to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology … the decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct …

[This] nostalgia [for the absolute] — so profound, I think, in most of us — was directly provoked by the decline of Western man and society, of the ancient and magnificent architecture of religious certitude … Today at this point in the twentieth century, we hunger for myths, for total explanation: we are starving for guaranteed prophecy …

It was a deeply optimistic belief, held by classical Greek thought and certainly by rationalism in Europe, that the truth was somehow a friend to man, that whatever you discovered would finally benefit the species. It might take a very long time. Much of research clearly had nothing to do with immediate economic or social benefits. But wait long enough, think hard enough, be disinterested enough in your pursuit, and between you and the truth which you had discovered there will be a profound harmony. I wonder whether this is so, or whether this was itself our greatest romantic illusion?

— George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute (Anansi Press: 2004)

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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 Work

September is upon us, and Portico is marking the beginning of its third year in business. We’re not popping champagne bottles to mark the occasion, but it’s pretty dope to be here plugging away. After all, roughly one-third of U.S. businesses close within their first two years.

It’s not all peaches and cream, of course. EM PE is a hard-driving, competitive industry — and it’s one going through hard times.

During a recent discussion with a client, I shared my reservations about launching an advisory firm that caters to a shrinking industry.

“One of the challenges of managing a firm in this business,” he replied, “is that the downcycles are so brutal. Good people get discouraged waiting for the cycle to turn, and they walk.”

If the figures in this EM PE talent management survey are to be believed, fatigue with the industry explains more than 20% of staff turnover. Boy, do I feel that fatigue sometimes — and I’m not even working in an EM PE firm.

All that said, Portico’s still profitable with zero debt. We missed our (über-) aggressive revenue target, but that’s okay. It was at odds with two other goals I had for the year: launching a product (accomplished, but a serious time commitment) and making sure we had happy customers.

On the latter, we conducted a client survey over the summer to gauge our progress. The findings were favorable: all of our clients were “very satisfied” and our Net Promoter Score is maxed out at +100.

The other encouraging indicator is that all of our new clients have come through referrals.

Portico-Net-Promoter-Score

As for new targets, I experienced an epiphany last month. It came to me shortly after I’d achieved one of my personal goals for the year (attaining two stripes on my belt in BJJ). The epiphany was this: the stripes didn’t matter. I still get crushed, sometimes even by people with less experience. The value (and the pleasure) is in the work itself.

So, no hard targets for year three. I’m going to focus on doing the work and being helpful to others.

Entrepreneurship is way overhyped, but the liberty to chart one’s course makes for a gratifying odyssey.

Two closing thoughts:

First, I’m contemplating some content ideas for year three — a podcast (I know, saturated) and / or in-depth interviews with investors, thinkers, writers, etc.

Which of the following interests you most?

  • Podcast exclusively on EM private markets
  • Podcast on EM private markets + other topics
  • Transcripts of interviews exclusively on EM private markets
  • Transcripts of interviews on EM private markets + other topics

Second, I will be in London in October. Please drop me a line if you’d like to grab a coffee.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Advent + Walmart Brazil

Advent International completed its acquisition of 80% of Walmart Brazil, and it’s reportedly planning to invest an additional $485m across its existing stores. As we discussed in February (Always Low Prices), Walmart’s footprint of 471 stores generated revenues of $9.4B in 2016, but delivered seven straight years of operating losses. Why? “[P]oor locations, inefficient operations, labor troubles and uncompetitive prices,” apparently.

Advent purportedly plans to convert Walmart’s hypermarket formats into cash-and-carries, a format that is growing in popularity amongst local consumers. This should help the company improve one of the 5Ps — Price — by extending steeper discounts to customers.

But I’m curious as to how Advent will address another P — Place. Allegedly, Advent does not expect to roll out new stores; how will they address the so-called “poor locations”?

No clue, but it will be one of many interesting stories to watch in Brazil in the months to come.

African PE: Quo vadis?

Earlier this year, EMPEA released a report on The Road Ahead for African Private Equity. It’s quite good and it contains some refreshingly candid observations on the region.

There is a compelling exhibit that hits at one of our biggest frustrations: the concentration of capital in larger segments, and the relative scarcity of capital available for small and mid-size businesses (see below).

EMPEAAfrica

While the chart includes only a handful of countries (and excludes South Africa), I think it’s directionally accurate — the featured countries accounted for roughly half of the investments that took place in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2015-17.

Five additional findings jumped out at me:

  1. Growth equity deals have evaporated, declining by 45% from 2016 to 2017, reaching the lowest total since 2009.
  2. Managers need to bring more than money to the table — operational capabilities are required.
  3. Deal structuring needs to be more flexible and sophisticated. As one endowment representative lamented, “Many GPs are inclined to throw common equity into companies and call it a day.”
  4. Tech-enabled business models are appearing across verticals, creating a richer landscape for VC and PE alike.
  5. Permanent capital vehicles may be a better fit with the investable market than the traditional PE model.

Creador + Goldman Sachs on Asia

Brahmal Vasudevan — founder and CEO of Creador — recently shared some views on PE in Southeast Asia (where performance has been “quite poor”).

Of course, he’s talking his book at a time when Creador is marketing its fourth fund (which it will undoubtedly close at or above target).

Nevertheless, several observations jumped out at me, including:

  • The diversification benefits of regional funds;
  • The merits of maintaining discipline on fund size;
  • The relative scarcity of “high-quality companies that are growing rapidly and need private equity capital” in select markets; and,
  • The potential for adverse selection in control deals.

It’s an interesting contrast with this recent Exchanges at Goldman Sachs discussion about PE in Asia.

Goldman focuses on the “scale and sophistication” of managers, especially in China. But following all the bullishness and capital flooding into the region’s large / megacap funds, I wondered, “who’s the Muppet?”

Like, I don’t have any original insight on this. My rule #1 on China is: nobody knows anything about China — especially me.

But in my passive reading of the headlines from Zhongguo, I’m left with the impression that the winds of change are in the air. Maybe investors have grown complacent.

Mr. China Meets the Mekong

There are few laugh-out-loud books in the world of finance, but Tim Clissold’s Mr. China is one of them. So many instances of an investor being outwitted and outmaneuvered by a crafty operator.

One of the more memorable bits revolves around an acquisition of a Chinese brewery that (naturally) involved a joint venture partner tied to the central government. A few weeks after wiring $60 million to the JV, $58 million appeared to be missing.

Oops.

Missing funds are not at all the issue in this story about a deal-gone-wrong in Vietnam, but as I read the gossip piece, I couldn’t help but laugh.

I mean, it’s not funny … but it is.

Poultry firm Ba Huan JSC has sought the Prime Minister’s intervention in terminating its six-month-old investment partnership with Ho Chi Minh-based asset management firm VinaCapital. The firm said it agreed to investment terms it now claims to be unreasonable because they were initially stipulated in English.

In February, VinaCapital’s flagship fund Vietnam Opportunity Fund (VOF) had invested $32.5 million to acquire a significant minority stake in Ba Huan.

In its petition to the government, the poultry firm noted that VinaCapital is seeking an internal rate of return (IRR) of 22 per cent per year. It claims that the terms of the deal stipulate that in the event of the IRR not being met, Ba Huan will be fined or required to return the investment capital, along with a 22 per cent interest, or it must transfer to VinaCapital (or its partner) at least a 51 per cent stake in the company.

It also alleged that the partnership restricts it from engaging in any other business except chicken and eggs. Its litany of grievances includes what it claims is VinaCapital’s tendency to veto all board decisions, despite it being a minority shareholder.

So many layers.

I don’t know what’s true here … I don’t even have an opinion. I just take the chuckles when they come.

 

A Most Damning Indictment

Several years ago, I was in Marrakech for the UN African Development Forum. As I waited for a car to take me to the airport, a young man in a black suit was lingering nearby, and he was staring at me in a most uncomfortable way.

It got so awkward that I turned to him and asked:

Tatakallam engleezee?

Yes.

Hey man, how’s it going?

I am good, sir. Where are you from?

The United States.

America. I love the United States. I have applied for a fellowship there.

Where?

MIT.

MIT? Are you an engineer?

An economist. I have a master’s degree in applied economics.

Oh. Do you work for the UN here?

No. I am a volunteer. There are no jobs for applied economists in Morocco. Just with the government. I presented my thesis, which [something something labor market, econometrics, etc.]. But they don’t have any jobs. So, I want to go to America to get my PhD and find a job there. It is very nice there.

Have you been?

No.

[Chitchat about Atlanta and T.I. before car rolls up]

Now, as I rode to the airport, I thought about that young man and how frustrating it is to be underemployed — to have knowledge and skills that can be of value to companies and your country, and yet find yourself unwanted. And I thought about the fickle finger of fate that dictates the range of potential life outcomes based on where one’s born and to whom.

I thought about the PE firms pursuing higher education deals in Africa and across the emerging markets. And I thought about all these students (and their parents) paying tuition to get a handhold on the ladder to a better life, and the risk that new graduates might end up like this young man, with a degree that the market doesn’t value.

In development economics, increases in human capital are vital to long-term economic growth. But what happens if the gap between expectations and reality for newly minted college graduates becomes a yawning chasm? I think we know the answer …

Anyway, these musings came to mind recently after I read a most damning indictment of PE investments in for-profit universities. The academic study, When Investor Incentives and Consumer Interests Diverge: Private Equity in Higher Education, explored 88 investments in U.S. for-profit colleges.

What did they find? In summary, following the buyout:

  • Profits↑ by upwards of 3.3x, driven by higher enrollments (↑ 48%) and tuition increases (↑ 17% relative to mean);
  • Graduation rates↓ by 6%;
  • Earnings of graduates↓ by 5.8% relative to a mean across all schools of ~$31k;
  • Per-student debt↑ 12% relative to mean;
  • Educational inputs↓ in absolute number of faculty, with 3% ↓ in share of expenditures devoted to instruction; and,
  • Rent seeking: revenue from public sources (e.g., federal grants and loans) ↑ from 60-70% prior to the transaction to 80%+.

Basically, students end up paying higher prices for inferior products and shittier prospects. Presumably agriculture isn’t a popular field of study, otherwise customers would know where to find the pitchforks.

There are many interesting findings in the paper, such as the nugget that “the returns to for-profit education [for the consumer] are zero or negative relative to community college education.” So, dig in. The online appendix with even more data is available here.

Or, you can look at slides 2, 10-15, and 20 in this presentation to the NY Fed.

From the Bookshelf

In every venture the bold man comes off best, even the wanderer, bound from distant shores.

— Athena in Homer, The Odyssey (Robert Fagles, trans.; Penguin: 1996)

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Haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet? Sign up now.

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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.