The Boring Twenties?

How many times in the last three months have you heard someone say, ‘it’s going to be the Roaring Twenties’?

Dozens?

Scores?

Hundreds?

I’ve lost count.

In all my life, I can’t remember a more ubiquitous sentiment.

Perhaps this is one of those phenomena that humanity wills into existence, but I keep wondering: where were you people living during the last decade? Under a rock?

Like, what if the Roaring decade already happened? And you missed it?!

I’m no historian, but I enjoy reading histories. And I’m no expert, but I’m as capable as Ian Bremmer at spouting spurious nonsense.

Consider a few parallels:

  • Mass communication — the Roaring Twenties had the radio and movies; but the 2010s saw communications technology supercharged at a level people in the 1920s could never imagine. I mean, global mobile and smartphone adoption, Twitter, YouTube, the societal parasite that is Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, etc. etc. etc. 
     
  • Consumerism — the 2010s were the era of the “emerging consumer.” According to World Bank data, global household expenditures grew by $10.7 trillion (in real terms) between 2010-2019, with China accounting for 25% of that. Choose most any country of sufficient scale, and you will find an e-commerce platform, on-demand media / delivery, etc.
     
  • Corruption and fraud — “We are in the golden age of fraud.” Corruption and fraud are omnipresent, at a scale humanity has never seen.
     
  • Sexual revolution — I wasn’t around in the 1920s, but I have watched Babylon Berlin, and it’s inconceivable that anything back then could compare to the meat market that is Tinder. 
     
  • Stock market — went totally gangbusters!

Don’t get me wrong — I think there will be an explosion of hedonism and euphoria on the back end of the pandemic.

I, myself, daydream of escaping to Beirut to see a Tala Mortada gig … 
dancing / sweating / in a smoke-filled club / with bass so hard / it hurts.

Or trekking to Central Asia and touring the Silk Road to get as far away as possible from my sons (whom I love more than anything … it’s just been way too long without a breather).

But … most of us know what lies in wait in those deserts.

And I’m not referring to the diarrhea.

I mean the nostalgia for home.

think the surprise is that people will crave genuine connection and intimacy after a decade in the Matrix.

Alas, instead of the Roaring Twenties, I wonder if we’re more likely to see the Boring Twenties.

Less flash. Less sizzle. Deeper, more meaningful relationships, work, and — dare I say — innovation.

And I must confess: given the economic, environmental, (geo)political, and social risks brewing and bubbling beneath the surface of our Botoxed world, a bit of boredom would be positively delightful.

On verra bien.

— Mike


Why Tiger Is Going to Eat VC

Everett Randle @ Founders Fund wrote a thought-provoking essay on Tiger Global and its two structural innovations — maximizing deployment velocity & better / faster / cheaper capital for founders — that are upending growth-stage (ICT) VC investing. (“Playing different games”)


Great Wall of Capital: Part Deux

A few years ago I observed that seven Asia-focused buyout funds were in the market for $34B — a figure that was “on par with the aggregate hauls for EM PE funds in each of the last two years.”

Well.

Fast forward to today, and KKR has announced the close of its $15B Asian Fund IV. 

If the CalPERS & CalSTRS disclosures are anything to go by, the markups on Fund III appear quite good relative to those for Fund II, so the demand makes sense.

But.

If KKR keeps compounding its fund size at 9.9% each year, then they’ll be raising a $38B fund in a decade.

And that honestly doesn’t seem crazy anymore.

Either way, I don’t want to be writing about it.


Jamie Dimon & Fintech

Motive Partners highlighted the following passage from Jamie Dimon’s annual letter

Banks fiercely compete with each other and now face fierce competition from multiple vectors.

Banks already compete against a large and powerful shadow banking system. And they are facing extensive competition from Silicon Valley, both in the form of fintechs and Big Tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and now Walmart), that is here to stay. As the importance of cloud, AI and digital platforms grows, this competition will become even more formidable. As a result, banks are playing an increasingly smaller role in the financial system.

Financial services are going to be integrated into everything. Legacy banks face daunting challenges.


The Saving Glut of the Rich

Fascinating paper.


From the Bookshelf

There are two forces: fate and human effort …
Two, since actions succeed neither by fate,
Nor sheer exertion alone, but through their bond.



Activated, human effort succeeds through fate,
And then that action’s fruit falls to the actor.
But even the effort of industrious men,
Working together, is fruitless in the
World devoid of fate.
Because of this, idle and unperceptive men
Despise exertion — the wise know better.
For generally action bears some productive fruit,
While to abstain altogether produces
Nothing but the heavy fruit of suffering.

Two kinds of men are seldom found — those who achieve
Their ends fortuitously, without exertion,
And those who, having acted, still do not succeed.
The industrious man, rejecting idleness,
Is fit to live; it is he, and not the idler,
Who increases happiness — it is he
Who desires the welfare of his fellow beings.
If the industrious man, through taking action,
Does not succeed, he should not be blamed for that —
He still perceives the truth.  

— The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahābhārata (Oxford World’s Classics: 1998)

# # #

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 2021, all rights reserved.

Ep. 5: Weijian Shan on Leverage and Turnarounds in Asia



In this episode, I speak with Weijian Shan, the chairman and CEO of PAG — a leading Asia-focused alternative investments firm with ~ $40 billion of assets under management.

Prior to PAG, Shan was a co-managing partner of TPG Asia (formerly known as Newbridge Capital).

It was a real honor to have Shan on the podcast, as his life story is remarkable.

If you haven’t read his memoir Out of the Gobi yet, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s an extraordinary book that recounts Shan’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution — particularly the six years he spent doing hard labor in a re-education camp — and the transformative impact that the normalization of U.S.-China relations and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had on China generally, and on Shan in particular.

And he’s just written a new book called Money Games, which details the rescue of one of Korea’s largest banks on the heels of the Asian Financial Crisis.

I reached out to Shan after finishing Money Games because — in addition to providing one of the few narratives to detail a private equity transaction from sourcing through exit — I think his book offers tremendous insights into the art of private equity deal-making, and I wanted to explore some of the themes it raises.

In addition to his books, Shan and I discuss the importance of stakeholder analysis when structuring private equity investments; whether there is a problem of too much debt in the Chinese economy; SOE reform, and the prospects for China’s economic rebalancing toward domestic consumption; the institutionalization of private equity in Asia; and, his advice for younger people who wish to pursue a career in private equity, among other topics.

Shan’s thoughtful comments prompted me to rethink some of my own analyses and assumptions. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I hope you will, too.

This podcast was recorded in December 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.

Is EM PE Dead?

When Portico launched four years ago, I asked “Is Emerging Markets Private Equity Dying?

There’s no need to ask the question anymore.

It’s dead.

You don’t have to take my word for it — the DFIs are telling us so.

For instance, Clarisa De Franco, Managing Director for Africa Funds, Funds and Capital Partnerships with CDC Group, recently told PEI:

I also think we will see fewer new funds emerge as fundraising becomes challenging and consolidation plays out. Our strategy now is two-fold: continue our engagement and innovation with teams that are addressing specific market inefficiencies (including first-time teams) and to back strong-performing existing GPs, with fewer new managers than previously because we believe that will help create a stronger industry that can focus on both financial and developmental outcomes.

Or, look at IFC’s recent report on EM PE funds in the era of Covid-19:

Fundraising in EMs is expected to become more challenging in the next two to three years, especially for funds targeting small and midsize companies. These funds will struggle to survive, while larger and more established funds will be less impacted but still need DFI support. The composition of the Limited Partner (LP) base in EMs will shift, with international institutional investors being constrained in their asset allocations to EMs. The life cycle of funds will see a lengthening in light of longer fundraising cycles and longer investee holding periods due to challenges in achieving exits.

(Also, Actis is eschewing the traditional PE model in favor of hard assets.)

Will there be traditional PE fund managers that raise capital in EM?

Of course.

But a vibrant, growing industry?

Forget about it.

There are capacity constraints, and there are different structures for investing in EM private companies.

Work on a Portico Pivot™️ is underway. 

* * *

 I recently recorded a podcast episode about private equity in Russia. I hope we get to release it.

During the conversation, the guest and I got to talking about the transition from the Soviet Union to what came after, and how generations experienced the shift differently. For instance, people aged 40+ often had difficulty adjusting to new conditions, while younger people benefited from a lack of habits and legacy thinking that communism had engrained in the older generations.

The discussion reminded me of a passage from Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler. Recalling events in Germany in 1923, Haffner wrote:

The old and unworldly had the worst of it. Many were driven to begging, many to suicide. The young and quick-witted did well. Overnight they became free, rich, and independent. It was a situation in which mental inertia and reliance on past experience were punished by starvation and death, but rapid appraisal of new situations and speed of reaction were rewarded with sudden, vast riches.

Speaking of Weimar, the feeling that the United States is on the cusp of a crucible is palpable.

It’s banal to say that Covid-19 has been an accelerant for long-standing trends, but in the last couple of months it feels as if the fissures have broken open.

Perhaps it’s the paranoia of a c. 40-year-old American who fears getting caught flat-footed, but the international system that has defined my existence is gone, and it’s not going to be reclaimed.

The urgency to adapt is acute.

 * * *

If you are a U.S. citizen, please vote in this year’s election.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd.

The website www.vote.org is helpful for finding out which voting options are available in your locality (e.g., early in-person, absentee by mail), and locating your polling place. 

Vote!

Alla prossima,
Mike


Asia

Two recent pieces on private equity in Asia caught my eye. 

1.McKinsey & Company interview with Baring Private Equity Asia Founding Partner Jean Eric Salata.

Insightful take on the deepening of the Asian market — not only in terms of the strategies and sectors that attract investment, but also in terms of the evolution of human capital and the professionalization of asset management firms. Particularly thoughtful on the necessity of infusing digital capabilities throughout one’s operations and the investment cycle.

2. BCG report on The Promise for Private Equity in Asia-Pacific

There’s not much new in it, candidly, but it rightly points out the heterogeneity of investors in private markets, and it has a useful data nugget: “As of 2018, China, India, South Korea, and Thailand all ranked in the top 10 countries globally for number of family-owned businesses with market capitalization of over $250 million.”

While Portico has been cautious on investor exuberance toward mega-cap Asia and China-dedicated funds — and we watch the dogpile into Jio / Reliance Retail quizzically — the region is core.

On this point, Benedict Evans put out a thought-provoking essay on “The End of the American Internet.” Upwards of 90% of internet users are outside of the United States; China and India have 5x as many smartphones as the USA; and, the “RoW” (largely China) accounts for nearly half of global venture investment.


Someplace Else

The placement agent Eaton Partners conducted an LP Pulse Survey in September. They asked LPs which region is home to the best private market opportunities. 

The verdict: 

  • North America — 68%
  • Europe — 18%
  • Asia — 14%
  • “Someplace else” — 0%

Josh Lerner on U.S. Venture

One of the assertions I put forward last year is that the institutionalization of U.S. venture capital is leading to less innovation.

Josh Lerner and Ramana Nanda published a paper over the summer that argues a similar point. In short:

Three issues are particularly concerning to us: 1) the very narrow band of technological innovations that fit the requirements of institutional venture capital investors; 2) the relatively small number of venture capital investors who hold and shape the direction of a substantial fraction of capital that is deployed into financing radical technological change; and 3) the relaxation in recent years of the intense emphasis on corporate governance by venture capital firms.


Stash

Sometimes it’s fun to contemplate the embedded assumptions amongst the venture community.
 
For instance, Anish Acharya at Andreessen Horowitz wrote a blurb about Stash, a fintech startup that enables people to earn fractional shares as a reward when they use the Stash debit card at a merchant (i.e., you get a slice of Starbucks stock when you purchase a pumpkin spice latte or whatever).
 
Acharya believes bringing the ‘intelligent default’ to the 401(k) — making it opt-out as opposed to opt-in — is “one of the biggest forces for financial progress.”
 
Oodles of assumptions about financialization, ‘nudge’ psychology, etc.
 
Anyway, Stash is positioned as a way to help regular people build wealth … by spending their money. (There’s a monthly fee of $1 to $9, btw).
 
At first glance, this seems like a good idea. Rather than points or cash back, why not acquire a fraction of a share of stock?
 
But if you think about it for a minute longer, you’ll realize that it ‘nudges’ consumer spending toward large, publicly listed companies, leaving smaller, privately held businesses in a lurch.


From the Bookshelf

The boy thought he smelled wet ash on the wind. He went up the road and come dragging back a piece of plywood from the roadside trash and he drove sticks into the ground with a rock and made of the plywood a rickety leanto but in the end it didnt rain. He left the flarepistol and took the revolver with him and he scoured the countryside for anything to eat but he came back emptyhanded. The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I cant go with you. You need to keep going. You dont know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.

I cant.

It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.

You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.

No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?

I want to be with you.

You cant.

Please.

You cant. You have to carry the fire.

I dont know how to.

Yes you do.

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I dont know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

Just take me with you. Please.

I cant.

Please, Papa.

I cant. I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.

You said you wouldnt ever leave me.

I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.


Will I hear you?

Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up. Okay?

— Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Vintage: 2006)


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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 2020, 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.

 

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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