Illusions and Delusions

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

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

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

At least, that’s what I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

A few motions to debate with yourself and others:

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

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

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

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

Health and happiness to you and yours.

Alla prossima,
Mike

401(k)s — The Final Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cui bono?

Future Fund

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

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

Great time for retail to jump in!

Norway on Governance

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

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

Social Capital

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Wealth of Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasai2

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

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

Have a great summer.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Mekong

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

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

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

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

I wish them well.

LP-GP Fit

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

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

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

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

I would encourage all GPs to read it.

Know your audience.

The Perils of Business Travel

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

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

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

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

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

The conclusions are pretty jarring:

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

Maybe I should extend the ban …

Sharing Is Caring

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Questions of Leadership

“There is no global EM champion.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alla prossima,
Mike

 

Crises of Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🤞

Managers not Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chanos: And probably 20 or 30 reliable alpha generators.

Sustainability Now

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

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

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

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

DFIs and the Mid-Market

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

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

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

🤣

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

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

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

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

No sé.

CrowdinginoroutVertical

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

Bulls on Parade

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

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

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

Grantham’s answer: EM equity. In size.

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

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

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

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

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

Alla prossima,
Mike

McVey Calls a Secular Bull Market in EM

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

McVeyEM

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

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

McVeyReturns

Norway

No, not that story.

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

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

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

Brazil on the Move

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

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

Not Interested

“Emerging market interest remained low this year.”

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

Probitas2

Managers in EM just are not a priority.

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

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

From the Bookshelf

There are Croakers in every Country always boding its Ruin.

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

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

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

Does EM PE Scale?

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.

Super Sized

Earlier this month I spoke with an MD at one of the largest private markets advisory firms about the landscape of managers in EM. While discussing the consolidation of capital in fewer, larger EM funds, he raised the question of whether this dynamic is a function of greater distributions from these funds.

While the data were too close to call in The Mid-Market Squeeze (DPI of ~0.5x across fund size segments), I decided to run a fresh analysis incorporating greater granularity on fund size and vintage year. The figure below shows that EM funds >$1B (orange) are not reliably distributing cash at higher rates than smaller EM funds (shades of blue). In addition, they are generally underperforming their >$1B peers in Asia, Western Europe and the United States (shades of grey).

DPI.jpeg

All in all, I’m not convinced that distributions from larger funds are driving industry consolidation. That said, analyses based on Cambridge Associates’ benchmarks do have their limitations. A fund-by-fund analysis may very well tell a different story.

In any event, this is one of several topics I’m looking forward to discussing next month in a closed-door session with ~100 LPs at the Private Equity Research Consortium Conference. I’ll be on a panel exploring “Global Markets for Buyouts and VC” with Professor Steven Kaplan from Chicago Booth, as well as representatives from Warburg Pincus and Adams Street Partners. Here’s hoping for an interactive, no-holds-barred session.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Indonesia’s First Startup IPO

Last month’s newsletter asked the question: Who Will Make Money in EM Venture? This month, we learned that Indonesia’s first IPO by a startup was … not venture backed.

“The path that startups take is normally to look for venture capital, angel investors and so on … We feel that by taking the IPO route, that’s the method that is the most fair and transparent,” said Jasin Halim, CEO of O2O e-commerce firm Kioson. Throwing shade on VCs, he continued, “Let the market value our company.”

And so it did, at an issuance price of IDR300 / share with a book that was 10x oversubscribed. It promptly proceeded to shoot the moon.

Regulators stepped in and temporarily halted trading this Tuesday (16 Oct.) to allow for a “cooling off” period. It resumed trading on Wednesday and closed at IDR2,650 / share. #9bagger

🎉

If the valuations for startups that go public trade at a premium to those held in private hands, Indonesia may be in store for a redux of the pre-IPO craze that hit China a few years back: alchemy in the form of public-private multiple arbitrage. The China parallel is a sentiment I heard from VCs in Jakarta over the summer, and though I’m always skeptical of comparisons to China, this is a space worth watching.

SoftBank

The PwC / CB Insights Q3 data are in and SoftBank, managers of the $93 billion Unicorn Bailout Fund—sorry, Vision Fund—took the top three spots on the league table for largest deals in the United States, and the top four spots on the league table for the largest global deals (Grab, WeWork, Flipkart, Roivant Sciences). And they’re just getting warmed up!

In other news, last month SoftBank placed a $20 billion bond sale (in 7- and 10-years), with the 10s priced at 5.125%. Market participants’ comments in the FT’s write-up of the sale should be preserved for future historians so that they fully appreciate the degree to which, in 2017, all caution had been thrown to the wind:

Everyone is asking the same question: what am I investing in here? Am I investing in a company’s operations or am I providing unsecured financing to fund equity contributions to the Vision Fund?

My view is that bond investors are thoroughly unimpressed, but they’re being sucked in by the price. I find the whole structure of the Vision Fund completely perplexing, but as it’s my job to make money, we were in the [order] book.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(SME) Death and Taxes in India

Saurabh Mukherjea of Ambit Capital is a bit of a downer on the impacts of New Delhi’s economic reforms on India’s (relatively unproductive) small businesses:

My reckoning is that for a substantial number of SMEs, their margin was tax evasion. As the government steps up forcing people to comply with GST, a lot of small businesses that managed to stay in the shadows will find themselves sucked into the tax net. Either their profitability will be vastly diminished — or it will go away completely.

How many companies globally would lose their margin if they actually paid taxes? I wonder.

Heavy Stuff

Last month the New York Times ran a provocative piece tying Nestlé to the rise of obesity in Brazil, which they followed up with an in-depth article on KFC in Ghana [full disclosure: Mike is a shareholder of NYT]. Regardless of one’s views on who / what is culpable for the deteriorating health of Brazilians and Ghanaians, (I mean, processed foods are certainly part of the problem), the fact is that Brazil and Ghana are not exceptions: lifestyle diseases are increasing rapidly across the emerging markets.

To wit, obesity rates are skyrocketing in each EM region (see below for a sampling). In China, the number of obese adults (≥ 30% body mass index, or BMI) has compounded at 9% since 1976, growing from ~3 million to more than 80 million, while the number of overweight adults (≥ 25% BMI) grew 7x over the period to nearly 400 million. There are more overweight adult Chinese than there are people in the United States and Canada combined. Astonishingly, on a global basis, the number of obese children and teenagers has increased 10-fold over the last 40 years.

Calories

In a similar vein, the number of deaths due to diabetes is growing rapidly. While roughly 62,000 people in Europe and the United States died from diabetes in 2015, representing a 6.4% increase on the figure for 2000 (entirely driven by Americans), nearly 600,000 died across EMs, representing a 64% increase over the same period (see below).

Lifestyles

It’s not solely multinationals that are driving the ubiquity in unhealthy eating habits and processed foods. Private equity firms have been enablers of these trends, tapping into the “emerging consumer” through deals in FMCG, quick service restaurants (QSR), etc. For example, Thomson Reuters data show PE firms have invested in 61 EM QSR companies over the last decade.

That said, you can’t say PE firms aren’t also investing in potential solutions—GPs inked twice as many deals (138) in hospitals and clinics over the same period. Nevertheless, one wonders about the firms that are “investing across the lifecycle”—selling obesity-inducing foods to local populations on the front end, and lifestyle disease solutions on the back end. A fairly perverse way of creating demand where none should exist, no?

From the Bookshelf

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

— Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House: 2014).

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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. 

Status Update

It’s an exciting time at Portico as we mark our first anniversary in business. It has been a great year professionally and personally. I’m grateful to all of you who opened your doors for a meeting, picked up your phones when I called, shared our research with colleagues, and last but certainly not least, engaged us as a client. Thank you!

It ain’t an easy road, entrepreneurship. I underappreciated both the amplitude and frequency of the journey’s highs and lows before I got underway, but it is genuinely gratifying to wake up each day and create something of value for other people.

The best part of this endeavor is demonstrating to my son, through actions rather than words, that he should never be afraid to assume some risk and pursue the life of his choosing.

A few highlights from year one:

  • We assisted our clients through a variety of engagements, including strategy, fundraising, marketing documents and materials, pitchbooks, AGMs, custom research, and transaction advisory.
  • Portico released two original research pieces—Is Emerging Markets Private Equity Dying? and The Mid-Market Squeeze—which have been viewed over 1,000 times, and opened doors with firms we’d not yet met. Thank you again for reading and sharing!
  • We’re profitable with zero debt. At the outset of this adventure, I set a revenue target for December 2017. We beat it within 12 months of launch. Clear takeaway: aim higher and *get after it.*

All in all, it’s a great start out of the blocks, but we’re focused on staying humble, staying hungry, and identifying ways that we can deliver more value to our clients in the year ahead. I hope you’ll share the journey with us.

Alla prossima,
Mike

The Societal Parasite that Is Facebook

Speaking of Status Updates, John Lanchester has a superb article in the LRB (“You Are the Product”) on the societal parasite that is Facebook. Lanchester’s article came out before the NY Times [disclosure: Mike is a shareholder] revealed the company’s role in facilitating the information operations that influenced the U.S. election. (Oops!)

Frankly, the entire tech sector is overdue for greater regulatory scrutiny and enforcement. Whether it’s Airbnb, Alphabet (fka Google), Amazon, Facebook, or Uber, the laundry list of unpaid taxes, unethical conduct, and outright illegal activities never fails to astound. Firms active in emerging markets often speak about a “social license to operate.” At what point do these firms’ licenses get revoked?

Parenthetically, will Uber be the biggest write-off in the history of venture capital?

On a related note, we’ve mothballed Portico’s Twitter account. It’s a channel that doesn’t deliver value for the company, so we will not spend energy on it.

Who Will Make Money in EM Venture?

Henry Nguyen of IDG Ventures Vietnam made some thought-provoking comments at an AVCJ event in Ho Chi Minh City a few months ago. In a nutshell, he noted that the tech giants—Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Tencent, among others—have radically transformed the venture ecosystem. Not only are these companies scouring the same landscape for deals as VCs, but they’re also doing so with the advantages of: 1) a longer time horizon; and, 2) a lower cost of capital.

These seem like … insurmountable advantages for an investor?

Intuitively, this might leave some space for early-stage investors to front-run their later stage and corporate venture peers; but, I do wonder.

What I don’t wonder about: whether entrepreneurs will build great companies, or whether economic value will be created. These are certainties. The question is: who will capture the value?

I suspect a number of LPs in EM venture funds are asking themselves the same question. Having seen individual deals rocket in value, LPs are seeing appetizing write-ups on paper, but they remain hungry for realizations (see below).

Mind the Gap

This World Awash in Capital

Consider the following. Since 2006:

We have been living amidst a transition from a world in which financial capital was relatively scarce to one in which it has become abundant. Bottlenecks remain, of course, and there’s ample room to expand access to finance for productive enterprises, particularly in our geographies. Nevertheless, this development has profound implications, and I’ve been pondering a few thoughts as of late:

  • Corporations are asset managers. Thirty U.S. companies hold more than $800 billion of *fixed income* investments. This sum is greater than the combined AUM of Blackstone, Apollo, KKR, and Oaktree.
  • Passive investing is a freight train. If capital is becoming commoditized, why should managers earn excess fees for investing it? Investors are voting with their feet en masse, with upwards of 40% of AUM now managed through passive vehicles. Vanguard’s AUM hit $4.4 trillion in the first half of 2017 (up from ~$1.6 trillion as of year-end 2011).Prices go up when there are more buyers than sellers. Therefore, in a world awash in capital, the biggest driver of performance is fund flows. If flows are channeling into ETFs and index products, then active managers that don’t buy the index will have a hard time outperforming, let alone justifying their fees (and most of them aren’t worth the fees to begin with). The passive trend is likely to end in tears, with a resurgence in fundamental-driven investment one day; but this freight train is leaving destruction in its wake.
  • There is a scarcity of assets. The stock of quality, publicly available, investable assets is not keeping pace with the growth in global savings. To take one example, the number of publicly listed domestic companies in the United States has declined by 46% over the last two decades. Or, consider the rapidly growing pension schemes across emerging markets, whose asset bases are growing faster than investment managers can find places to invest it prudently.The relative scarcity of investable products leaves markets prone to bubbles and the misallocation of capital. The rise of passive investing and ETFs only exacerbates this problem.
  • Private markets hold opportunity. Given their inherent inefficiency, private markets are likely to remain an attractive place to deploy capital (though not necessarily via traditional LP-GP structures). Technology-based platforms already exist to intermediate private transactions within the United States, and we should expect these to develop globally, as owners of capital climb further out the risk curve and get more hands-on with co-investment and direct investing.
  • U.S. housing is a political time bomb. The stock of housing is neither keeping pace with the growth in population, nor accounting for the impact of cross-border flows on housing supply.For example, foreign buyers accounted for 10% of the value of existing U.S. home sales between April 2016 and March 2017, and they’re increasingly buying houses that are out of reach for most Americans. To wit, the average price for all U.S. home purchases grew at a CAGR of 5% from 2010-2017. Meanwhile, the prices paid by foreign buyers grew at 8%, and those by Chinese buyers grew at 10%. Moreover, while 50% of Americans can’t afford a down payment and 30% can’t secure a mortgage, 72% of non-resident foreign buyers paid all-cash (see below).

housingtimebomb1housingtimebomb2

From the Bookshelf

The world is always full of the sound of waves.

The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?

— Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi (Kodansha International: 1995).

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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.