Ep. 4: The Rise of Kleptocracy



In today’s episode I speak with Tom Burgis, an investigations correspondent with the Financial Times, and author of two courageous books: The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth and the recently released Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.

I strongly encourage you to buy copies of Tom’s books, read them, and share them with others.

Why?

Because as you’ll hear in this podcast, the themes his books cover constitute an existential threat to democratic institutions and governance — and the rule of law — globally.

They’re absolutely riveting yarns, full of intrigue and consequences.

And my hope is that if more people read Tom’s work, then we’ll stand a better chance of resisting the precipitous slide into kleptocracy that endangers us all.

Courage is contagious.

My discussion with Tom covers:

  • The dots connecting The Looting Machine and Kleptopia.
  • The story of Mukhtar Ablyazov — a Kazakh billionaire whom some say is a freedom fighter, some say is a fraudster, and some say maybe he’s both.
  • The complicity of U.S. and UK professional services firms in facilitating the activities and laundering the funds and reputations of kleptocrats.
  • Some mistaken assumptions behind the ‘convergence’ thesis.
  • How citizens can keep Kleptopia in check and revivify democracy.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of ‘the bezzle’ and where ‘the bezzle’ is biggest now.
  • And, what the rise of Substack and the proliferation of journalists going solo or direct-to-consumer imports for the future of investigative journalism.

I’m fired up about this episode, and I hope you will be, too.

If you enjoy the Portico Podcast, please share it with friends, colleagues, and / or your connections on social media. Thanks!

This podcast was recorded in November 2020.

Ep. 3: Fintech & Financial Inclusion



In the third episode of The Portico Podcast I speak with Monica Brand Engel — a co-founding Partner at Quona Capital, a venture capital firm focused on fintech for inclusion in emerging markets.

If you’ve looked into EM fintech, you’ve probably come across Quona and their portfolio companies.

For example:

  • Sokowatch in East Africa, a working capital provider and last-mile distributor of fast-moving consumer goods to informal retailers;
  • Coins in the Philippines, a mobile, branchless, blockchain-based platform that provides unbanked and underbanked customers with direct access to basic financial services (and which was acquired by Go-Jek in 2019);
  • Or Konfio, a digital banking and software platform for SMEs in Mexico, which received a $100m investment from Softbank as well as a $100m secured credit facility from Goldman Sachs last year.

I was excited to get Monica on the podcast because she has built a career in two of the most compelling themes around: financial inclusion and financial technology.

Our discussion opens with her walking us through her career trajectory. We then talk about the convergence between philanthropic and commercial investment across emerging markets; the commonalities and idiosyncrasies across the markets in which Quona invests; the quality of fintech entrepreneurship in EM; the prospects for technological and business model innovation to migrate from emerging markets to the United States and Western Europe; and the biggest obstacles fintech startups encounter as they attempt to scale, among other topics.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.


This podcast was recorded in October 2020.

Ep. 1: Early-stage VC in Africa



I’m delighted to kick off the podcast with Aniko Szigetvari and Ik Kanu.

Aniko and Ik are the founding partners of Atlantica Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on six of the largest markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Aniko has over 20 years of experience investing in emerging markets, of which over 17 have been focused on the technology, media and telecom vertical.

Aniko has been investing in Africa for the past 15 years and she has built up a wide range of contacts across the continent and other emerging markets. Prior to starting Atlantica Ventures (‘AV’) Aniko was the Global Head of the TMT group at the International Finance Corporation, where she managed a team of ~50 professionals who sat in eight regional hubs from Colombia to Singapore.


Ik has over 10 years of African private equity experience, with an additional nine years working in technology and consulting in the United States.

Prior to starting AV, Ik was a principal at Convergence Partners — an Africa-focused TMT fund — and before that he spent five years with Helios Investment Partners. At both PE funds, Ik was seconded to portfolio companies into temporary operational management positions where he troubleshot issues across different stages — from growth to turnaround. Ik is a Class 23 Kauffman Fellow, one of the world’s premier innovation, leadership, and venture capital-focused programs.


In our discussion, we talk about why Aniko and Ik decided to team up to found a venture capital firm, whether the continent is ready for institutional VC investments, how Africa compares to other emerging markets, and how Covid-19 is impacting the startup landscape in their target markets.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

This podcast was recorded in April 2020.

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.

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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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

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.

 

Does EM PE Scale?

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.