Last month, the New York Times published a fascinating article about the market for followers on Twitter. (Disclosure: shareholder of NYT and TWTR). The manufacture of social capital is something that I hadn’t really thought about before, but now that my eyes have been opened, it’s hard not to notice it.
For example, it’s always been nauseating when someone namedrops to inflate his or her reputation, but I hadn’t considered companies leveraging the brand equity of established firms to magnify their own. Think of all the conferences and august fora where firms’ logos are on display. (Yours, too, could be featured amongst the great and the good for a modest sum).
Or, consider this: have you ever read a profile of a firm or entrepreneur and, en passant, your nose turned up in a visceral reaction? Something just smelled about it? Me too. The article was probably placed. By a PR firm that doesn’t do nuance. Occasionally, these articles include character references from individuals who are compensated by the company being profiled, and yet the credulous journalist didn’t care to ask about potential conflicts.
The currency of currency is all a bit exhausting. I’m reminded of Diogenes the Cynic’s apocryphal confrontation with Plato:
On seeing [Diogenes] washing vegetables, Plato came up to him and quietly remarked, “If you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t need to be washing vegetables,” to which he replied in the same calm tone, “Yes, and if you washed vegetables, you wouldn’t need to be paying court to Dionysius.”
Anyway. Next month, I’ll be at the UNC Alternative Investments Conference, where I will be leading a teach-in session on the role of EM PE in LPs’ portfolios. I’m planning to cover the evolution of emerging markets and explore whether investors are being presented with a richer landscape of opportunities than was available in the past. I’m really looking forward to it. Click here to learn more about the event, and please reach out if you’re planning to attend.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDC Group plc, IFC, and PROPARCO have hired forensic accountants to probe the books of the Abraaj Group. The investigation is focused on the use of funds within the $1 billion Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund.
According to the WSJ, which claims to have reviewed the fund’s quarterly reports to investors, Abraaj called $545 million between October 2016 and April 2017, but had invested $266 million by September 2017. In October 2017, the four LPs are said to have asked for bank statements to show what—if anything—was done with the balance of the funds. Abraaj is said not to have provided them. In December, Abraaj is said to have returned $140 million to the fund’s investors.
A reading of the two articles together suggests that there may be some disagreements over the obligation to return called capital—and the time window for doing so—when projects are delayed rather than canceled. Two hospital projects—one in Karachi and one in Lagos—are said to have been delayed.
The WSJ notes that “construction in Karachi was delayed by a ban on new buildings more than two floors high. The planned hospital had 17 floors.” Local media sources report that the ban went into effect in May 2017 due to water shortages and inadequate civil infrastructure in Karachi. Last month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court approved construction for buildings up to seven-storeys high.
Abraaj released a statement on 4 February saying, “recent media reports … are inaccurate and misleading.” The firm states that it appointed KPMG in January 2018 “to verify all receipts and payments made by the Fund,” and that as of 7 February, “KPMG has now completed its findings and reported that all such payments and receipts have been verified, in line with the agreed upon procedures performed, and that unused capital was returned to investors.”
The forensic accountants’ investigation has either not yet been completed, or the findings have not been disclosed publicly.
To an outsider, this looks quite bad. The investor syndicate that hired the forensic accountants isn’t comprised of neophytes to EM PE and impact investing. On the contrary, they’re the most experienced LPs in the industry. IFC alone has invested in over 200 EM funds over the last decade, while CDC is an active investor in 164 funds in 74 countries—including other Abraaj vehicles. These investors have mainstreamed EM PE as an institutionalized investment strategy. If their concerns are in the newspapers, then it’s worth paying attention.
More broadly, this could have knock-on effects across the broader EM private markets landscape. Integrity and transparency are vital, particularly in an opaque industry and in markets where investors confront information asymmetries. To the extent this story encourages managers to improve their operations and reporting, this is a good thing. However, with one of the largest and most visible EM firms coming under scrutiny regarding its use of funds, there is a risk that more investors will just walk away from EM altogether.
The industry will not thrive without trust, transparency, and quality corporate governance.
Abraaj is currently in the market for a $6 billion mega fund. The WSJ’s sources suggest that the firm has collected $3 billion toward its target. I find that incredible; not only because there have been several senior departures from Abraaj of late, but also because it’s hard for me to make the math work from both a top-down and a bottom-up perspective.
- From a top-down perspective, we explored the absorptive capacity of EM PE in our latest research piece, which, based on an analysis of exits and M&A volumes, suggests that annual flows to traditional fund strategies may need to shrink to $16 billion per year. Can one firm collect a third of that and invest it well? I have my doubts.
- From a bottom-up perspective, Abraaj built its global platform through the acquisition of Aureos, an SME-focused investor that was writing $10 million checks. In recent years, Abraaj has been securing deals through auctions—outbidding established large-cap firms such as Carlyle and TPG—and secondary buyouts from the likes of Actis, Advent International, ECP, and Metier. It seems reasonable to ask about pricing pressures and style drift.
- Finally, the firm has raised an estimated $3B across five funds since 2015 and appears to be in the market for upwards of $7.1B across four funds (see exhibit below). Where are they going to put it all?
Of course, all this may just speak to my failure of imagination.
Several institutional investors have read Hamilton Lane’s reports and clearly disagree with the previous assessments. Washington State Investment Board (approved unanimously, up to $250 million) and Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (approved 6-3, up to $50 million) have committed to the mega fund, while PEI reports that Teacher Retirement System of Texas is on board as well.
Scale has its advantages.
Private Debt in Africa
Runa Alam of Development Partners International co-authored an intriguing article on the prospects for private debt in Africa. There’s clearly demand for more flexible capital solutions amongst local businesses, and my understanding is that some early suppliers of credit / mezzanine solutions on the continent, such as Amethis and Vantage Capital, have done well. As one would expect given the supply-demand imbalance, new entrants emerged:
- Helios Investment Partners launched Helios Credit, its direct lending platform, in 2015.
- Ethos acquired Mezzanine Partners in July 2016 and launched Ethos Mezzanine Partners 3 with a target of $150 million.
- Syntaxis Capital, a Central and Eastern Europe-focused private debt investor launched an Africa strategy in 2016, establishing a presence in Lagos.
Presumably DPI will be joining them.
It’s important to remember, though, as one seasoned private credit manager once put it to me, “leverage is not your friend in emerging markets.” Private credit is more than just a position in the capital stack. It requires a different skillset than growth equity, and a deep understanding of volatility’s impact on balance sheets and cash flows. Choose your partners wisely.
Taking a step back, it’s great to see a broader set of financing options being made available to entrepreneurs on the continent. For LPs willing to look, there are some very interesting managers with vehicles that expand Africa’s investable market. (Drop us a line if you’d like to know more).
Always Low Prices
Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, is reportedly shopping around their Brazilian operations. ACON Investments, Advent International, and GP Investments are said to have been pitched.
According to Thomson Reuters, the company’s 471 local stores generated revenues of $9.4 billion in 2016. However, the company “posted operating losses for seven years in a row after an aggressive, decade-long expansion left it with poor locations, inefficient operations, labor troubles and uncompetitive prices.” In short, apart from the labor troubles, they weren’t Walmart.
Apparently, several retailers took a look at Walmart’s assets in the country, but took a pass on them after concluding the suco ain’t worth the squeeze. A consequence, it seems, of Walmart’s poor customer understanding and a bungled expansion strategy.
It will be interesting to see if a private equity buyer can turn things around, but it’s pretty clear they won’t be paying up for the privilege to do so. In that sense, Walmart’s finally operating true to form: offering bric-a-brac at the deeply discounted prices that shoppers have grown to love.
Currency Risk in Emerging Markets
Sarona Asset Management released the final report of its nearly year-long initiative, “Expanding Institutional Investment into Emerging Markets via Currency Risk Mitigation.”
Sponsored by USAID’s Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise, and in partnership with EMPEA and Crystalus Inc., the initiative sought to develop innovative, practicable solutions to FX risk management in EM PE. The final report contains a wealth of data and information on FX hedging in EM, as well as three new “solution pathways” that the project tested with practitioners:
- New direct currency hedges (i.e., covertures and supported range forwards);
- Proxy hedges (i.e., baskets of liquid, low-cost interest rate, equity, and commodity options); and,
The proxy hedge was piloted through simulated back tests against two EM PE portfolios over 20 years, and the product shows promise. However, as always with hedging, the devil is in the details.
USAID and Sarona have kindly made the report available to the public. Click here to download it.
From the Bookshelf
Recurrent descent into insanity is not a wholly attractive feature of capitalism …
The only remedy, in fact, is an enhanced skepticism that would resolutely associate too evident optimism with probable foolishness and that would not associate intelligence with the acquisition, the deployment, or, for that matter, the administration of large sums of money. Let the following be one of the unfailing rules by which the individual investor and, needless to say, the pension and other institutional-fund manager are guided: there is the possibility, even the likelihood, of self-approving and extravagantly error-prone behavior on the part of those closely associated with money …
A further rule is that when a mood of excitement pervades a market or surrounds an investment prospect, when there is a claim of a unique opportunity based on special foresight, all sensible people should circle the wagons; it is the time for caution. Perhaps, indeed, there is opportunity … A rich history provides proof, however, that, as often or more often, there is only delusion and self-delusion.
— John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin: 1993).
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