The Mission & The Model

Portico’s recent digs at KKR and Blackstone generated some rousing feedback.

I considered taking on Apollo or Carlyle this month to pump the engagement metrics.

Alas, one reader suggested that — in addition to pointing out market failures and emperors wearing no clothes — I should consider profiling lesser-known managers that are attaining success as well.

The Portico Podcast is an attempt at this — a channel where I recede into the background and shine a spotlight on individuals who I find to be bright and entrepreneurial, and who either employ a differentiated investment strategy or have a fresh view on an important topic.

So far, these have included:

And yet, I can’t shake this reader’s comment …

… because it tells me that I’m not channeling enough of my energy toward Portico’s mission: closing the finance gap through the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

* * *

I recently participated in a two-week strategy course, which revealed an inherent tension between our mission and our business / revenue models.

In part, the tension is a function of the long sales and project cycles, which impinge on our ability to create knowledge. But it’s also because we customize our engagements for each client — solving one pain point for one firm.

Specific knowledge is hard to productize and scale.

I’ve been considering a pivot that would have us recommit to Portico’s mission in a holistic manner — creating and disseminating knowledge on the full array of market intelligence, financial, operational, and human capital pain points that individuals and firms face.

But candidly, I wonder whether our stated mission is work that no longer needs to be done.

Is it the case that new knowledge is needed to close the finance gap? Do information asymmetries constitute the critical chokepoint?

I have my doubts. 

The information landscape has diversified in important ways over the last five years, making it easier than ever for people to glean knowledge on new markets.

But I’m also chastened by a statement that an LP recently said to me, “most investors aren’t very bright.”

What’s the point in producing content for people who don’t want to think too hard or act independently?

If scale providers are what global capital seeks, it’s silly to create knowledge when the demand is for advertorials.

And yet, I get the sense that there are humans who are eager for insightful perspectives on global private markets, and useful knowledge that will help them build their businesses.

So, I am asking for your feedback.

I’m exploring the idea of a subscription offering that provides a fulsome menu of differentiated, interactive content (audio + text + visual).

The subscription would also offer opportunities for subscribers to engage directly with industry leaders and subject matter experts, and to shape Portico’s research agenda.

I’m being deliberately light on specifics, but what do you think? 

—Mike


Simon Clark on Arif Naqvi, The Key Man

In the latest episode of the Portico Podcast, I speak with Simon Clark, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and the co-author of The Key Man — the summer’s must-read book about Arif Naqvi and the downfall of The Abraaj Group.

The Key Man is an absolutely riveting book. It has the pace of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, but with an unbelievable cast of credulous characters who fell for a fantasy.

I had four pages of questions for Simon, and while we clearly don’t get to everything on my list, I think you’ll agree that this is an enlightening conversation that tells us much about the manufacture of social capital, and the failures of the world’s most prestigious firms to do an ounce of work.

Check it out on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify


Ray Dalio, Sage, Says: To Understand China, You Need to Understand China

Two years ago, Bridgewater Associates Founder and co-CIO Ray Dalio took to The YouTube to impart his thoughts on why you should probably invest in China.

I shared it at the time because I thought his analysis was stupid, notably his theory about investing behind rising ‘Reserve Currency Empires’ (i.e., Dutch, British, American, and Chinese).

Back then, I wrote:

[O]ne of these empires is not like the other.

Hint: in three of these, the batons were often brought out to protect the interests of capital. In the other, they’re often brought out for other reasons. 

It’s such an obvious point that I didn’t think it needed to be said.

Well, after the recent DiDi hubbub and CCP decision to outlaw profits for education companies, Ray took to LinkedIn to share some incisive commentary:

To understand what’s going on you need to understand that China is a state capitalist system which means that the state runs capitalism to serve the interests of most people and that policy makers won’t let the sensitivities of those in the capital markets and rich capitalists stand in the way of doing what they believe is best for the most people of the country. Rather, those in the capital markets and capitalists have to understand their subordinate places in the system or they will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. For example, they need to not mistake their having riches for having power for determining how things will go.

Look, Ray’s stating the obvious after the fact.

But you need to understand that what Ray’s telling you — even if he’s not saying it — is that China has become uninvestable.

Forget about past performance.

The direction of travel has changed.

There are opportunities elsewhere, in countries where your capital is valued, and where you can finance infrastructure, products, services, and technologies that increase human dignity and wellbeing. 

Adapt and go find them.

As the sage, himself, says:  

[Y]ou need to understand that the global geopolitical environment changing leads to some changes.  


Stablecoins, CBDCs & ZK Proofs

Around the time Ray was saying investors should probably invest in China, this newsletter explored the possibility that a digital currency might replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Gary Gorton (Yale) and Jeffery Zhang (Federal Reserve) have written a fascinating paper on the systemic risks of ‘stablecoins’ and the prospects for a central bank digital currency (‘CBDC’). 

I believe a U.S. CBDC is inevitable.

The questions that follow are:

  1. Does the CBDC take the form of (i) a token, or (ii) a citizen’s deposit account at the Federal Reserve?
  2. How do you protect privacy?

On question 1, the deposit account could enable new, powerful tools for the Fed to achieve macroeconomic objectives (e.g., helicopter money), but at the risk of totalitarian-level control over who can spend how much on what, and where and when they may do so. Not ideal!

On question 2, you could imagine a spectrum from the digital yuan (where the state sees all) to a cryptographically secured, anonymous digital cash. The key unlock for the latter is the advance of zero-knowledge (ZK) proofs.

If you’re keen to learn more, you should read this piece by Aleo co-founder Howard Wu, and Ben Laurie’s paper Selective Disclosure.

#cryptoisthefuture


Things to Watch

Nasdaq Private Market
Very interesting development in the secondary market for shares of private companies: Nasdaq, Silicon Valley Bank, Citi, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley announced a joint venture to spin out Nasdaq Private Market and create a standalone liquidity venue. 

If you know anyone at Nasdaq who would like someone to help build this out across EM, please send them my contact info. I have data. Thx. 🙂

EM SPACs
The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of blank-check companies targeting EM has tripled to reach 60 (⁓12% of the U.S. total).

As someone who put forward the idea of a super-SPAC as a liquidity solution in EM private markets, I must say that the prospects for disastrous governance outcomes are legion.


Wall of Shame

Advent International SPAC faces $800M loss (Bloomberg).


From the Bookshelf

“You’ve come to us just in time Scheisskopf. The summer offensive has petered out, thanks to the incompetent leadership with which we supply our troops, and I have a crying need for a tough, experienced, competent officer like you to help produce the memoranda upon which we rely so heavily to let people know how good we are and how much work we’re turning out. I hope you are a prolific writer.” 

“I don’t know anything about writing,” Colonel Scheisskopf retorted sullenly. 

“Well don’t let that trouble you,” General Peckem continued with a careless flick of his wrist. “Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive. Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it.”

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (Scribner’s: 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 2021, all rights reserved.

Ep. 9: The State of EM Private Markets



One of the questions I’ve often pondered since founding this business is: is emerging markets private equity dying? 

That literally was the name of the first study I published when I launched the company in 2016, and I — perhaps naively — thought that drawing attention to some of the industry’s problems might catalyze people to action.

To put some figures on it, between 2010 and 2015, the number of growth equity funds achieving a close had declined by more than 30%, and fund vehicles greater than or equal to $1 billion in size grew from 40% to 60% of all capital raised. 

So capital was consolidating in fewer, larger managers — mostly in Asia — while at the same time the number of first-time funds holding a final close had been declining by 10% each year. And the development finance institutions were exacerbating the trends, committing to more Funds IV+ than to Funds I, II, or III.

Did things change? 

Suffice it to say that last October I put out a newsletter that reframed the question to: is EM PE dead?

So, I wanted to bring on someone who could speak to the state of EM private markets. 

That guest is Greg Bowes, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Albright Capital — a global investment firm with expertise in special situations, infrastructure, infrastructure services, and real assets.

The label ‘variant perception’ gets bandied about quite a lot, mostly as nonsense. But Greg has a different view on EM private markets than most of the managers I’ve met, and I thought he’d be a great guide to walk through where the industry is in the summer of 2021.

In today’s conversation, Greg and I discuss:

  • Should investors even be investing in EM private markets?
  • The impact of currency depreciations on performance and whether investors should hedge.
  • The shortcomings of the traditional approach to EM private equity and whether it magnifies the impacts of adverse cross-currency movements.
  • The problem of herd behavior.
  • The importance of sound deal structuring in EMs.
  • And much more.

I’ve included some additional readings in the show notes, so dive in if you’re keen to learn more. 

I hope you enjoy the conversation.

This podcast was recorded in June 2021.


Learn more about Albright Capital at https://www.albrightcapital.com.


Portico Advisers resources referenced in this episode include:


Sign up for Portico Perspectives.

Ep. 7: Viktor Shvets on The Great Rupture



In this episode of the Portico Podcast I speak with Viktor Shvets, a global strategist at Macquarie, and the author of the deeply thought-provoking book The Great Rupture, which investigates the past and interrogates current trends to probe the question: do we need to be free to be innovative, prosperous, or even happy?

You know, when I started this company, I laid out three philosophical principles for its ethos: intergenerational equity; value creation > value extraction; and intellectual curiosity — particularly a belief in the importance of contextual and interdisciplinary thinking and open exchange. 

As you’ll hear, Viktor’s comments deftly navigate these three principles.

You may want to grab a pen and some paper to take notes for this episode because Viktor is a polymath who will engage your brain in some important — and at times, unsettling — thought experiments.

In today’s conversation, Viktor and I discuss:

  • Why he wrote a book that looks for lessons in the 12th to 15th Centuries to guide us through the next two decades;
  • Whether the ‘operating system’ of open markets, property rights, and open minds that generated prosperity in the past is in retreat — and even if it were, would it matter;
  • The confluence of the information revolution and financial revolution, and how these two forces are hollowing out the core frameworks of society;
  • The state’s usurpation of the free market and what it means for capitalism and commercial banking;
  • The prospects for emerging markets in an era of de-globalization and the importance of non-tradable sectors across EM; 
  • We even talk about Andrew Yang and the possibility that universal basic income might liberate people from scarcity, and empower them to live lives of their choosing.

But there is so, so much more.

This is a good companion to my interview with Tom Burgis in Episode 4 on The Rise of Kleptocracy, and the topic of corruption comes up a couple times in this episode, so you should check out Episode 4 if you haven’t already. 

And I’ve also included links in the show notes that will point you to a few additional readings that Viktor and I discuss, including some of my own writings over the last decade that have marinated over some similar themes.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.

This podcast was recorded in February 2021.


Learn more about Viktor and the book.

Buy The Great Rupture at AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBoundWaterstones.


Books and articles referenced include:


Some of Mike’s writings on the themes discussed include:

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.