The Decade of Digital Assets

Like many small businesses, Portico had a difficult year.

(It didn’t start off with the best of outlooks, tbh).

Covid shifted project timetables several months to the right, and it materially impacted our clients’ fundraising plans. Some projects we were working on just died on the vine.

As a result, Portico went ~6 months without a penny of cash flow, and some projects we invested scores of hours of energy in delivered $0 to the income statement.

We didn’t take out a PPP loan and dissaved from the company coffers. I think that was the right decision, but it leaves less room for maneuver and new initiatives.

One benefit of this stress test of the business was the affirmation of the need to pivot.

I’ve been testing market demand for a business in the secondary space, but a scalable business model for it remains elusive.

(Last year’s idea fell flat, even though 2020 has been a SPAC bonanza).

Candidly, I’ve been too focused on finding an incremental solution to a problem in a shrinking market, as opposed to starting from first principles and generating a novel idea in a growing market.

The upside is I’ve rectified this recently and unlocked an exciting idea that brings me energy.

One successful initiative for the year was the launch of the Portico Podcast (more below the fold). It’s been a fun experience so far, and I’ve received enthusiastic feedback, which has been nice. 

* * *

So, what next?

A few predictions for the decade ahead …

1. The Decade of Digital Assets

We are in the very early stages of migrating toward an entirely new internet — one that is open, decentralized, and contains extraordinary possibilities for the reconfiguration and exchange of value.

I mentioned Otis last year, but another example you may want to look at is the NBA’s Top Shot — an officially licensed marketplace that enables individuals to own highlight reels of their favorite players. It’s like trading baseball cards but with a globally active secondary market for cards and live transaction comps for pricing. Each asset’s fidelity, scarcity, and ownership are verified through registration on the blockchain.

There’s also bitcoin. I wrote about cryptocurrencies vs. the U.S. dollar last year. But now Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has joined the fray. I think institutional adoption of bitcoin will happen at scale over the next 10 years. (Disclosure: long BTC).

These are just a few examples, but the digitization of assets is going to be enormous.

 * * *

2. Single-Asset, GP-led Secondaries

There is a crisis of illiquidity in EM private markets. 

I’ve been digging into this as part of my research into a scalable business model in the secondaries space, and I estimate that there are ~1,200 PE and VC fund managers sitting on ~7,000 un-exited investments across EM.

(These figures are for funds with vintage years 2008-14).

Distributions from EM funds have been poor, and they’ve undershot the global PE benchmark every year (see below).

There is a clear problem here that GP-led secondaries can help solve: identifying sub-scale assets that — once liberated from the confines of the PE fund model — can pursue long-term growth initiatives with a reasonable return profile.

With a different shareholder base and investment structure, companies can pursue a broader range of growth strategies, and investors’ returns may be less contingent on a liquidity event.

I think we’ll see more EM GPs use these vehicles in the decade ahead.

But, if you’re interested in EM direct secondaries in general, I’ve been doing research in this space and may be able to help you out.

Click here to send me a note.

* * *

3. New Financing Structures

DFIs are distancing themselves from the traditional fund model as a means for non-bank financial intermediation in EM. This is unfortunate for smaller fund managers that depend on DFI capital to get / stay in business, but it is what it is.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this will create space for new, creative forms of financing for un- and under-banked enterprises.

As one example, the team at CrossBoundary Group has open sourced their project financing model for mini-grids, and I think this collaborative approach to generating shared prosperity is a glimpse of the future.

 * * *

Most of us have been trapped inside and deprived of foreign travel for a calendar year.

I am very much looking for the explosion of energy and excitement that people will exhibit once this pandemic is behind us.

Until then, I have a gift for you.

Please don your favorite set of noise-cancelling headphones and prepare to immerse yourself in 4 minutes and 30 seconds of transcendent bliss. 

Don’t multitask.

Set a timer if you must.

Just click this link to escape to the Cañon del Sumidero in Chiapas, Mexico.

Glimpse majestic natural beauty. Listen to a magical tune. Ponder the possibilities of human ingenuity and creativity.

Health, wealth, and happiness to you and yours.

Abrazos,
Mike


Weijian Shan on Leverage and Turnarounds in Asia

In the latest episode of the Portico Podcast, I interviewed Weijian Shan, the Chairman and CEO of PAG — a leading Asia-focused alternative assets firm with ~$40B in AUM. 

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 reformshad 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.

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.

If you need to catch up on past episodes on your new device over the holidays, we’ve got you covered:


Grab Bag

  • Has persistence persisted in private equity? Evidence from buyout and venture capital funds (link)
     
  • Do private equity investors create value? Evidence from the hotel industry (link)
     
  • The failure of the standard model of institutional investment (link)
     
  • Special deals from special investors: the rise of state-connected private owners in China (link)
     
  • Ben Thompson on Stripe and financial infrastructure (link)
     
  • France broadens retail investor access to private equity (link)
     
  • RBI toying with idea to allow industrial houses into banking (link)
     
  • Are venture capitalists deforming capitalism? (link)

From the Bookshelf

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up. But I don’t think that’s true. My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.

— Peter Thiel, Zero to One (Currency: 2014)

The Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portico-Net-Promoter-Score

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

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

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

Two closing thoughts:

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

Which of the following interests you most?

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

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

Alla prossima,
Mike

Advent + Walmart Brazil

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

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

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

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

African PE: Quo vadis?

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

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

EMPEAAfrica

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

Five additional findings jumped out at me:

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

Creador + Goldman Sachs on Asia

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

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

Nevertheless, several observations jumped out at me, including:

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. China Meets the Mekong

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

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

Oops.

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

I mean, it’s not funny … but it is.

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

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

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

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

So many layers.

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

 

A Most Damning Indictment

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

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

Tatakallam engleezee?

Yes.

Hey man, how’s it going?

I am good, sir. Where are you from?

The United States.

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

Where?

MIT.

MIT? Are you an engineer?

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

Oh. Do you work for the UN here?

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

Have you been?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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