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.

 

The White Stripe

A small print of Jody Clark’s “Keep Treading” hangs on a wall in my office. It’s a picture that I first saw at the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (“BJJ”) gym where I started training last fall. It shows a man in a gi trying to stay afloat in the ocean. An eel is wrapping around his legs and pulling him asunder, while a collection of sea nettles threatens to sting him if he reaches out his arms.

It’s an apt metaphor for the travails of a white belt in BJJ. As Sam Harris describes it, “The experience … is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat—and you will fail.”

That is an accurate one-word summation of my first five months in BJJ: failure. Relentless, unmitigated failure. Soul- and ego-crushing failure.

Consider this dispatch from my BJJ journal:

2/10 – Open Mat

Performed poorly. Got smashed. Decent defense but too passive. Need to be more aggressive. Neck got crushed while in turtle. Honestly I just feel dejected.

There are days when the hardest thing is showing up to class or open mat. The certainty of being smashed, submitted, and in pain makes it all seem like a futile exercise. It’s so tempting to quit in the face of near-certain failure.

But, you have to keep treading. It’s all a bit of a metaphor for life as a whole.

Last week, I received my first stripe on my white belt. I know it’s foolish to place much stock in outward signs of progress, but this promotion—this piece of tape—was one of the more hard-earned accomplishments in my life. And yet, it’s merely the first rung on the ladder. Progress. One aching, small step at a time.

In other news, I’m looking forward to joining some folks from General Atlantic next month for a conversation with students at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. Should be fun!

I’ve also created a video of the presentation that I delivered at the UNC Alternative Investments Conference last week (some of the slides are featured below). If you’re keen to see a 30-minute overview of EM PE, check it out on YouTube!

Alla prossima,
Mike

Abraaj: Part Deux

In last month’s newsletter we discussed the drama at Abraaj following revelations that four LPs had hired forensic accountants to probe the books of the Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund.

The situation is serious, indeed:

  • Abraaj’s fund management business is being split off into a separate entity with an independent board “to which internal audit and compliance will directly report.”
  • Abraaj’s founder, Arif Naqvi, relinquished management of the funds business, though he is expected to serve on its investment committee.
  • The firm announced a halt to investment activities.
  • Private Equity News reports that Themis, the energy team that Abraaj acquired in March 2016, sought to end its partnership with the firm as early as mid-2017. Denham Capital announced a new platform agreement with Themis earlier this month.
  • The WSJ reports that the firm is weighing job cuts as its fundraising is put on hold; existing investors in its $6B target mega fund are asking for their money back; investors in other funds are considering selling their stakes; and, lenders are reviewing credit lines for their capital call facilities.
  • The FT reports that the firm’s CFO departed.

Meanwhile, the firm is still unable to secure an exit from K-Electric, a divestiture it announced in October 2016. Abraaj was slated to receive a consideration of $1.77B from Shanghai Electric Power, a subsidiary of the State Power Investment Corporation of China; however, the transaction has been dogged by delays.

According to a local news report dated 9 March, the Pakistani government still had not cleared the sale, in part because it has not received a copy of the sale-purchase agreement, in part on national security grounds, and in part because the company is alleged to owe “dues” upwards of PKR139 billion (~$1.25B). Arif Naqvi is reported to have met with government ministers this week in an attempt to accelerate the sale.

What a mess. I’m left wondering if investors in the firm’s funds will seek (a) new GP(s) to manage out the assets.

EM Fundraising: Coming Full Circle?

 

giphy2

“Coming Full Circle.” So reads the adulatory headline from EMPEA’s year-end 2017 statistics, which show $61 billion in EM fundraising across PE, private credit, and infrastructure and real assets—the highest level since 2008. Break out the champagne glasses and lace up those dancing shoes. EM PE is back!

Or not.

Looking at fundraising for buyout and growth equity funds, the volumes remain stagnant since 2011 (see below). Though 2017 shows a rebound, the aggregate figure is deceptive: KKR Asia III clocked in at $9.3B and Affinity Asia closed on $6B, which means these two funds account for 40% of the capital raised for buyout and growth strategies. That leaves about $20B for the rest of EM. It’s peanuts!

FRchartv2

The trends we highlighted in November 2016 are continuing apace, with only 75 growth equity funds achieving a close in 2017—a 44% decline since 2010. In addition, new entrants are struggling to get traction. EMPEA’s own analyses show that first-time growth equity funds have declined from 30% of the capital raised for the strategy in 2008-09 to less than 10% over the last four years.

At issue is a lack of distributions and a lost decade for LPs in EM buyout and growth equity funds (see below). There is a sharp drop-off in distributions beginning in 2007 / 08 when fundraising exploded. It’s a decade later, and the breakpoint for top-quartile funds beginning in 2008 hasn’t returned investors’ capital.

lostdecade

These performance indicators from Cambridge Associates are damning, and it’s no surprise why LPs have been walking away from “traditional” EM PE in greater numbers.

But there’s something about this exhibit that bothers me. I know many established managers that refuse to provide their performance figures to Cambridge. One global manager was befuddled when I presented these figures; s/he noted that their EM deals generated IRRs well north of 30%.

It’s worth asking whether Cambridge’s benchmarks are a worthy benchmark in EM. I have my doubts.

For example, a quick sketch comparing the universe of EM buyout and growth equity funds—as collected by EMPEA—to those in Cambridge Associates’ database show that CA has between 4% and 21% of the total number of funds by count, and between 29% and 60% by total capitalization (excluding 2011; see below).

cambridge

The industry is poorly served by these benchmarks. I should probably stop using them, but there is no credible alternative.

If only there were an organization that could serve as a utility for the industry—one that provided impartial data on private capital performance … 🤔

In any event, as bearish as I’ve been about the prospects for the EM PE industry, I am cautiously optimistic that we’re close to reaching a bottom. If flows to EM public equities continue, then the exit windows should stay open, managers should distribute cash to their LPs, and then capital can be recycled to new commitments.

While I don’t expect EM-dedicated growth equity and buyout funds to come “full circle” to the $58 billion they raised in 2007 anytime soon, the scarcity of capital allocated to the sub-$1 billion segment portends well for the performance of current vintages. And if history is any guide, LPs will herd back into these markets after the “easy” money has been made.

giphy1

Private Equity: Overvalued and Overrated?

Dan Rasmussen of Verdad is not making friends with many people in private equity. His former colleagues at Bain Capital must wish he’d stop talking. Like him or hate him, Dan puts out thought-provoking, empirically driven takes on the myths and realities of U.S. buyouts (see last December’s newsletter for an example).

In his latest piece, “Private Equity Overvalued and Overrated?”, Dan probes three premises about which there is “near-complete consensus:”

  • PE firms make money by creating value in portfolio companies;
  • PE is less volatile / risky than public equity; and,
  • PE will significantly outperform other investments.

Rasmussen’s most interesting conclusion pertains to the first bullet: the myth of value creation. Verdad constructed a database of 390 deals—representing more than $700 billion in enterprise value—for which the PE firm issued debt to finance the acquisition. This enabled Verdad to compare underlying companies’ financial performance both pre- and post-acquisition. What did they find?

In 54 percent of the transactions we examined, revenue growth slowed. In 45 percent, margins contracted. And in 55 percent, capex spending as a percentage of sales declined. Most private equity firms are cutting long-term investments, not increasing them, resulting in slower growth, not faster growth.

If PE firms are not growing businesses faster, investing more in growth, or gaining much operational efficiency, just what are they doing?

In 70 percent of cases, PE firms are leveraging up the businesses they buy. PE firms typically double the amount of debt on the balance sheet, from 2.5x EBITDA to 5x EBITDA—the biggest financial change apparent from our study.

With $1.7 trillion in dry powder, rising rates, and average U.S. LBO entry multiples hitting 11.2x EBITDA, this just does not seem like an attractive value proposition.

Persistence in Private Equity

McKinsey’s Global Private Markets Review has a fascinating finding on the decline of persistence in private equity performance. Notably, “follow-on performance is converging towards the 25 percent mark—that is, random distribution.”

At a time when capital is flooding to mega-cap funds and, at least in emerging markets, established GPs with a track record, I wonder whether new techniques are needed for manager selection. Perhaps the winning LPs will be those with the liberty to chase a variant perception of value; those less hamstrung by rigid asset allocation buckets and / or institutional constraints.

Je ne sais pas.

From the Bookshelf

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching (Vintage: 1989).

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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.