The Mission & The Model

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

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

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

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

So far, these have included:

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

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

* * *

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

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

Specific knowledge is hard to productize and scale.

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

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

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

I have my doubts. 

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

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

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

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

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

So, I am asking for your feedback.

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

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

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

—Mike


Simon Clark on Arif Naqvi, The Key Man

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

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

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

Check it out on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify


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

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

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

Back then, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget about past performance.

The direction of travel has changed.

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

Adapt and go find them.

As the sage, himself, says:  

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


Stablecoins, CBDCs & ZK Proofs

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

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

I believe a U.S. CBDC is inevitable.

The questions that follow are:

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

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

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

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

#cryptoisthefuture


Things to Watch

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

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

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

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


Wall of Shame

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


From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (Scribner’s: 1996)

# # #

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

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2021, all rights reserved.

The Winner-Take-Most World

Did you know that KKR said it collected $1.4 billion in management fees last year?

And that its annual income from management fees has grown by $710m since 2015?

It blows my mind.

Hats off to the team for executing a bold growth strategy.

But … it just seems like a waste of money, doesn’t it?

The firm collected $6.2B in management fees between 2015-20.

The bulk of that likely flowed to individuals with a low marginal propensity to consume. 

(Comp and benefits accounted for ~70% of expenses between 2018-20, according to the latest 10-K).

And it also flowed to a firm with a low marginal propensity to invest. 

(Based on the historical financials accessed via Koyfin, the firm’s MPI [= ΔI / ΔY] was actually negative comparing 2015 to 2020; it averages out to 0.11 between 2016-20).

What boggles the mind is there are allocators at large institutions who have no compunctions about handing a growing amount of pensioners’ savings over to mega-cap firms, largely to pay the latter’s employees to show up to work.

It’s not as if this is hidden knowledge. It’s laid out in public filings. For instance, here’s KKR’s segmented revenues for 2020:

What an amazing business.
 
(Note that the management fees in the chart are provided on a GAAP basis, and the $1.4B figure cited at the top is based on a KKR presentation featuring recast, non-GAAP financials).

* * *

When I see KKR’s $710m increase in annual management fees, I can’t help but think about several clients that are raising funds and could invest that money in wealth- and health-creating companies. 
 
Alas, these firms aren’t on many LPs’ radar screens because their fund sizes are “sub-scale.” Or they require too much legwork. Or they’re so “risky” that it makes more sense to pay a toll to KKR (and / or Apollo / Blackstone / Carlyle, etc.) than to use it as callable capital.
 
Look. This isn’t just about KKR. They’re a premium brand for a reason.
 
But the specific case is useful for what it tells us about private markets and the world more broadly.
 
And that is that we’re in a winner-take-most economy.
 
The inequalities across multiple vectors have been getting worse for a long time.
 
Just look at this chart from Morgan Stanley global strategist Ruchir Sharma (source):

I believe the consolidation of capital in fewer, large-scale managers is leading to less innovation and more sclerosis. And I think the incentive structures at large LPs and GPs are broken, contributing to poisonous outcomes.

It’s all a bit evocative of Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis’s Trade Wars Are Class Wars, which argues that international trade conflicts are a direct result of domestic inequality. Namely, “a conflict between bankers and owners of financial assets on one side and ordinary households on the other.”

It’s unsustainable.

— Mike


The Caesars Palace Coup

Speaking of mega-cap buyouts, I have a summer book recommendation: The Caesars Palace Coup by Max Frumes and Sujeet Indap.

It’s a riveting telling of the rapacious actions of Apollo and TPG, and the combative restructuring of Caesars Entertainment. 

A taste:

Too many people — and often twenty- and thirty-something-year-old men trying too hard to prove themselves as tough guys — private equity and hedge fund alike, were fighting merely out of vanity. Most of these funds took money from identical pensions — Texas Teachers, CalPERS, CalSTRS. These fights to the death just moved money from different pockets of the same investors.


Mobile Money Metrics

GSMA has released its Mobile Money Metrics portal.
 
Given the vital and growing role that mobile financial services play globally, this is a terrific resource not only to glean insights on the scale of mobile money accounts, agents, and transactions by geography, but also the names of services in each country. 
 
It’s awesome. Check it out.


The Abraaj Fiasco

I wanted to experiment with a different format with the Portico Podcast, and decided to revisit my writings on the Abraaj fraud scandal as they were happening in real time a few years ago.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Abraaj’s governance failures had — and continue to have — on EM private markets. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.


Persistence in PE / VC Performance

fresh look at the persistence of PE & VC funds using Burgiss data.


From the Bookshelf

For decades, the U.S. Treasury’s approach to international finance was driven largely by what made sense for major American commercial and investment banks and the owners of financial capital. The interests of everyone else in the economy were largely ignored, if not outright opposed by counterproductive commitments to maintain a strong dollar. This was always justified on the grounds that deregulating capital and increasing its mobility would lead to the best possible outcomes.
 
The resulting increases in wealth, they explained, would inevitably trickle down to all Americans — never mind that international capital flows are far more likely to be driven by speculation, investment fads, capital flight, and reserve accumulation (often for mercantilist purposes) than by sober investment decisions about the best long-term uses of capital …
 
The world’s rich were able to benefit at the expense of the world’s workers and retirees because the interests of American financiers were complementary to the interests of Chinese and German industrialists. Both complemented the interests of the wealthiest throughout the world, even from the poorest countries. The modern surplus countries do not need colonies to absorb their excess production because they can work with bankers, their willing collaborators in the deficit countries.
 
The perverse result is that deepening globalization and rising inequality have reinforced each other.

— Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis, Trade Wars Are Class Wars (Yale University Press: 2020)

# # #

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

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2021, all rights reserved.

Is EM PE Dead?

When Portico launched four years ago, I asked “Is Emerging Markets Private Equity Dying?

There’s no need to ask the question anymore.

It’s dead.

You don’t have to take my word for it — the DFIs are telling us so.

For instance, Clarisa De Franco, Managing Director for Africa Funds, Funds and Capital Partnerships with CDC Group, recently told PEI:

I also think we will see fewer new funds emerge as fundraising becomes challenging and consolidation plays out. Our strategy now is two-fold: continue our engagement and innovation with teams that are addressing specific market inefficiencies (including first-time teams) and to back strong-performing existing GPs, with fewer new managers than previously because we believe that will help create a stronger industry that can focus on both financial and developmental outcomes.

Or, look at IFC’s recent report on EM PE funds in the era of Covid-19:

Fundraising in EMs is expected to become more challenging in the next two to three years, especially for funds targeting small and midsize companies. These funds will struggle to survive, while larger and more established funds will be less impacted but still need DFI support. The composition of the Limited Partner (LP) base in EMs will shift, with international institutional investors being constrained in their asset allocations to EMs. The life cycle of funds will see a lengthening in light of longer fundraising cycles and longer investee holding periods due to challenges in achieving exits.

(Also, Actis is eschewing the traditional PE model in favor of hard assets.)

Will there be traditional PE fund managers that raise capital in EM?

Of course.

But a vibrant, growing industry?

Forget about it.

There are capacity constraints, and there are different structures for investing in EM private companies.

Work on a Portico Pivot™️ is underway. 

* * *

 I recently recorded a podcast episode about private equity in Russia. I hope we get to release it.

During the conversation, the guest and I got to talking about the transition from the Soviet Union to what came after, and how generations experienced the shift differently. For instance, people aged 40+ often had difficulty adjusting to new conditions, while younger people benefited from a lack of habits and legacy thinking that communism had engrained in the older generations.

The discussion reminded me of a passage from Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler. Recalling events in Germany in 1923, Haffner wrote:

The old and unworldly had the worst of it. Many were driven to begging, many to suicide. The young and quick-witted did well. Overnight they became free, rich, and independent. It was a situation in which mental inertia and reliance on past experience were punished by starvation and death, but rapid appraisal of new situations and speed of reaction were rewarded with sudden, vast riches.

Speaking of Weimar, the feeling that the United States is on the cusp of a crucible is palpable.

It’s banal to say that Covid-19 has been an accelerant for long-standing trends, but in the last couple of months it feels as if the fissures have broken open.

Perhaps it’s the paranoia of a c. 40-year-old American who fears getting caught flat-footed, but the international system that has defined my existence is gone, and it’s not going to be reclaimed.

The urgency to adapt is acute.

 * * *

If you are a U.S. citizen, please vote in this year’s election.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd.

The website www.vote.org is helpful for finding out which voting options are available in your locality (e.g., early in-person, absentee by mail), and locating your polling place. 

Vote!

Alla prossima,
Mike


Asia

Two recent pieces on private equity in Asia caught my eye. 

1.McKinsey & Company interview with Baring Private Equity Asia Founding Partner Jean Eric Salata.

Insightful take on the deepening of the Asian market — not only in terms of the strategies and sectors that attract investment, but also in terms of the evolution of human capital and the professionalization of asset management firms. Particularly thoughtful on the necessity of infusing digital capabilities throughout one’s operations and the investment cycle.

2. BCG report on The Promise for Private Equity in Asia-Pacific

There’s not much new in it, candidly, but it rightly points out the heterogeneity of investors in private markets, and it has a useful data nugget: “As of 2018, China, India, South Korea, and Thailand all ranked in the top 10 countries globally for number of family-owned businesses with market capitalization of over $250 million.”

While Portico has been cautious on investor exuberance toward mega-cap Asia and China-dedicated funds — and we watch the dogpile into Jio / Reliance Retail quizzically — the region is core.

On this point, Benedict Evans put out a thought-provoking essay on “The End of the American Internet.” Upwards of 90% of internet users are outside of the United States; China and India have 5x as many smartphones as the USA; and, the “RoW” (largely China) accounts for nearly half of global venture investment.


Someplace Else

The placement agent Eaton Partners conducted an LP Pulse Survey in September. They asked LPs which region is home to the best private market opportunities. 

The verdict: 

  • North America — 68%
  • Europe — 18%
  • Asia — 14%
  • “Someplace else” — 0%

Josh Lerner on U.S. Venture

One of the assertions I put forward last year is that the institutionalization of U.S. venture capital is leading to less innovation.

Josh Lerner and Ramana Nanda published a paper over the summer that argues a similar point. In short:

Three issues are particularly concerning to us: 1) the very narrow band of technological innovations that fit the requirements of institutional venture capital investors; 2) the relatively small number of venture capital investors who hold and shape the direction of a substantial fraction of capital that is deployed into financing radical technological change; and 3) the relaxation in recent years of the intense emphasis on corporate governance by venture capital firms.


Stash

Sometimes it’s fun to contemplate the embedded assumptions amongst the venture community.
 
For instance, Anish Acharya at Andreessen Horowitz wrote a blurb about Stash, a fintech startup that enables people to earn fractional shares as a reward when they use the Stash debit card at a merchant (i.e., you get a slice of Starbucks stock when you purchase a pumpkin spice latte or whatever).
 
Acharya believes bringing the ‘intelligent default’ to the 401(k) — making it opt-out as opposed to opt-in — is “one of the biggest forces for financial progress.”
 
Oodles of assumptions about financialization, ‘nudge’ psychology, etc.
 
Anyway, Stash is positioned as a way to help regular people build wealth … by spending their money. (There’s a monthly fee of $1 to $9, btw).
 
At first glance, this seems like a good idea. Rather than points or cash back, why not acquire a fraction of a share of stock?
 
But if you think about it for a minute longer, you’ll realize that it ‘nudges’ consumer spending toward large, publicly listed companies, leaving smaller, privately held businesses in a lurch.


From the Bookshelf

The boy thought he smelled wet ash on the wind. He went up the road and come dragging back a piece of plywood from the roadside trash and he drove sticks into the ground with a rock and made of the plywood a rickety leanto but in the end it didnt rain. He left the flarepistol and took the revolver with him and he scoured the countryside for anything to eat but he came back emptyhanded. The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I cant go with you. You need to keep going. You dont know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.

I cant.

It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.

You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.

No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?

I want to be with you.

You cant.

Please.

You cant. You have to carry the fire.

I dont know how to.

Yes you do.

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I dont know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

Just take me with you. Please.

I cant.

Please, Papa.

I cant. I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.

You said you wouldnt ever leave me.

I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.


Will I hear you?

Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up. Okay?

— Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Vintage: 2006)


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# # #

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

Copyright © by Portico Advisers, LLC 2020, all rights reserved.

Expectations v. Reality

One thing that never ceases to entertain me is when an institutional investor says s/he expects 3x from an emerging market private equity fund.

“We want to be compensated for the risk we’re taking.”

Makes sense.

But how is that risk measured? People don’t seem to be using a Sharpe ratio, or some such analytic that disaggregates measures of alpha per quantum of risk.

According to Aswath Damodaran, the equity risk premia between developed and emerging markets have converged since the turn of the millennium. One could argue that investors should accordingly expect a lower premium from EM PE over time.

Using the spread between U.S. Treasurys and local sovereigns for a risk premium seems lazy. Private EM companies can be better credits than the countries where they operate, and actually have a lower risk profile than publicly listed companies (e.g., mining, oil & gas).

Also, it’s 2019.

Are we going to act as if many of these countries don’t have banks, and insurance companies, and mobile network operators now? There is a lot more competition, and a lot more capital scouring the landscape for deals (much of which is neither institutional nor residing with asset managers seeking PE-like returns).

Yet these markets are dynamic, and exciting, and they present an opportunity for investors to build great businesses. It’s not like the pass-the-parcel, value-transfer game in developed markets.

To be clear, there absolutely will be EM deals and perhaps some funds that deliver ≥ 3x net DPI at the end of their life. But if you’re an institutional investor investing in institutional-quality funds, what are the odds that you’re going to pick one of these winners?

Low. In all likelihood, you’re probably going to wait until the firm has a track record and built up its back office to satisfy your trustees.

By then, said firm will have scaled and begun investing in larger companies, and the economies and sectors in which they’re investing will have evolved materially.

All of these behaviors are reasonable. But the idée fixe of getting 3x is not.

If you’re going to wait for managers and markets to institutionalize and de-risk, then you should be willing to give up some of the upside. You don’t deserve it.

How realistic is the expectation of 3x, anyway?

Take a look at CalPERS’ experience (see below). Of the 268 PE funds in its portfolio (excluding vintage years 2016-18), only two funds clear the 3x hurdle.

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 8.29.04 AM

Only 36 funds (~13%) have delivered at least 2x. Meanwhile, 80% of the funds sit between 1x and 2x, and nearly half are valued at less than 1.5x.

And lest we forget, these are with PE firms’ marks …

We could tie ourselves in knots in a discussion over the suitability of CalPERS’ portfolio as a data set, but a bogey of 3x in EM just seems unreasonable.

New rule: stop being unreasonable.

Alla prossima,
Mike

———

Liquidity

Investors often talk about the need for private equity firms to harvest an illiquidity premium — an incremental return above that generated in public markets.

The idea makes sense …

… when public markets are liquid.

But what happens when an exchange can’t absorb trading volumes? What if it fails in its job of serving as a market maker?

You should probably ask the people who tried to sell shares of Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd. — one of the largest listed companies on the Singapore Exchange — at the market’s open on January 24th.

Says Bloomberg:

Shares sank just before the regular session began, with about 167,500 changing hands at just $10.99, compared with Wednesday’s close of $66.47. Jardine, the flagship investment firm of a 186-year-old conglomerate, soon recovered from the $41 billion wipeout and ended up closing 0.5 percent higher.

Selling at an 83% discount seems … not to be a great advertisement for the benefits of liquidity.

CMC Markets Singapore analyst Margaret Yang Yan is a bit more candid:

This kind of stupid mistake shouldn’t have happened in an established stock exchange. It is the largest exchange in south-east Asia … It’s ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: not putting in a limit order?

This markdown never would have happened if Jardine Matheson were a PE portfolio company. But then …

———

Sell!

The trickle of exits / distributions from EM PE funds is a fact of life. We often hear about structural reasons for this logjam — the depth of local capital markets, for example.

But, what if it has little do with EM, and more to do with dealmakers’ biases? What if (most) everyone’s actually good investing?

In “Selling Fast and Buying Slow: Heuristics and Trading Performance of Institutional Investors,” a group of researchers analyzed 783 institutional portfolios with an average portfolio value of ~$573m. The dataset included 4.4 million trades between 2000-16.

Say the authors:

We document a striking pattern: while the investors display clear skill in buying, their selling decisions underperform substantially. Positions added to the portfolio outperform both the benchmark and a strategy which randomly buys more shares of assets already held in the portfolio … In contrast, selling decisions not only fail to beat a no-skill strategy of selling another randomly chosen asset from the portfolio, they consistently underperform it by substantial amounts. PMs forgo between 50 and 100 basis points over a 1 year horizon relative to this random selling strategy.

Basically, one way to enhance performance is to become a better seller.

Maybe this could be a new skillset to hire for? Someone who sits at the table during portfolio reviews and offers constructive comments, such as, “Maybe we should sell [company].”

Or someone who walks around the office offering a helpful feedback.

Deal Gal: This promoter is a pain in my rear. The board meetings are a shambles. He won’t listen to anything we have to say.

New Guy: Hmmm … [pauses for dramatic effect and adopts hipster podcaster voice] Have you thought about selling it?

Deal Gal: But he knows what he’s doing! If we hold on to this company for another 18 months we could be looking at a 3-bagger.

New Guy:

———

Emoji Compliance

In Portico’s first research piece, I noted that the growing costs of compliance were taxing the bandwidth of smaller fund managers, and regulatory complexity was making it more difficult for firms to raise capital.

[You can envision billionaires at mega-cap firms pulling up the drawbridge behind them as regulation stifles competition and entrenches their firms’ market position.]

Well, Kirkland & Ellis sent out an update about some recent Delaware decisions regarding text messages, personal emails, and corporate litigation that brought home how absurd the world has become.

Chancellor [Andre] Bouchard added that he often finds texts to include especially probative information, particularly when covered in emojis. In a recent decision (Transperfect), he attached significance to a smiley-face “emoticon” included in one of the party’s texts as evidence of the malign intent of the sender.

Look, I am out of my depth when it comes to the legal implications of emoticons. But what’s the over / under — in months — before a DDQ contains responses to one of the following questions:

  • What is your policy on emoticon use?
  • Have you disabled controversial emoji across all devices, messaging, and email clients?
  • Have you staffed up your emoji compliance function with digital natives who can discern malignant intent amongst the extant universe of 2,500+ emojis?

———

Blackstone Quits Africa

No surprises here. Secondo Il Sole 24:

Il problema, sembra, è che Blackstone non ha trovato grandi operazioni da finanziare [emphasis added]. E la competizione cinese ha complicato la situazione. Anche KKR incontrò difficoltà simili tanto da smantellare nel 2017 il team di persone dedicate al continente africano e vendere il suo unico asset in quella regione, un produttore etiope di rose.”

QED.

———

Inspecting the Books

Catalyzing private capital is one of the core missions of the development finance institutions. Oftentimes, in EM private markets, this takes the form of seeding local managers and building them into institutional-quality firms (see intro).

But, what if there were another way? One that didn’t take so long. One that evoked the spirit of a place, and its people, and it propelled you to book a ticket to visit that manager in Poland or wherever.

Then you might learn about the 1 million family-run businesses that are in need of succession planning. Or the scarcity of expansion capital in a market of ~ 40 million consumers.

You might put down some Żywiec and pierogi, and get lost in Warsaw.

You might, actually, feel alive.

Manager visits wouldn’t be like those depressing trips where you eat Panda Express in a Holiday Inn Express, and the view out your window is of a half-vacant parking lot and a highway.

The EBRD has released the longlist for its 2019 Literature Prize, and until this moment I didn’t think I wanted another job, but I will read books and tell you which ones I like if you pay me to do so.

It’s a pretty cool looking collection from EBRD’s geographies. Hope you find something you like.

———

From the Bookshelf

For the first time in my life I understood that the sense of poverty is not the result of misery but of the consciousness that one is worse off than others.

Providence is no substitute for prudence.

— Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State (Houghlin Mifflin Co.: 1944)

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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 2019, all rights reserved.

Passages

Happy new year. I hope you closed out 2018 with some respite and relaxation.

Our family welcomed the arrival of a new son / little brother shortly after Thanksgiving, so I’m thrilled to be starting the year refreshed and well-rested. 👀

One delightful discovery during the sleepless nights has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s collection of travel writings. Bleary-eyed with baby strapped to my belly, I recited lines of exquisite prose to the bambino, evoking distant lands and daring adventures from a vanished world.

Whilst following the young Fermor’s trek along the Danube toward Constantinople, memories of my own youthful journeys through Mitteleuropa often materialized.

Visions of a glorious hike through the Berchtesgaden Alps; the enveloping warmth of eiderdown on a chilly summer evening; a call to my father from a payphone to wish him happy birthday, after imbibing zwei Maßkrügen of beer.

My dad would die within three years of that call, but I can still hear the mirth in his voice. How I wish he could have met his grandsons. May they forge paths of their own.

It could very well be the delirium, but I’m hoping that this year will be more constructive for EM private markets than 2018 was.

I wish I had something concrete to pin my hopes on, but the sheer degree of negative sentiment is all I’ve got.

Ain’t going to be an easy row to hoe, I’m afraid. So, we might as well get on with it.

Alla prossima,
Mike

P.S. Thanks to those of you who encouraged folks to subscribe to this newsletter. Portico made a donation to Room to Read for each new subscriber, so thanks for contributing to children’s literacy.

———

Profit from Purpose

So, the President of the World Bank Group unexpectedly resigned to join an infrastructure investment firm.

Par for the course. The writing was on the wall a year ago.

(“Jim has a lot of credibility with private equity firms,” said David Rubenstein.)

In an e-mail seen by the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Kim stated:

I’ve concluded that this is the path through which I will be able to make the largest impact on major global issues like climate change and the infrastructure deficit in emerging markets.

Look. I’m sure it stinks to be working with the Trump Administration. And it’s hard to make it in DC on a net-of-tax salary of $500,600 whilst enjoying world-class benefits. From a pecuniary perspective, it’s best to hop near the market top. Now’s better than three years from now.

But may we just pause and reflect on his statement?

What, pray tell, is the point of the World Bank anymore? Why did it need $13 billion in extra capital?

And what does Dr. Kim’s early departure tell us about the ability of the Bank to mobilize private funds?

Also. I am not questioning Dr. Kim’s sincerity regarding private capital’s role in solving development challenges — even if it led to a regrettable endorsement — but given the Bank’s role in financing climate solutions and infrastructure in developing economies, don’t the optics here look a bit Swampy?

Anyway, the Bank’s next President may need to come up with a new mission statement.

Thankfully, s/he likely won’t be Jeffrey Sachs. #huawei

———

Deals!

We kicked off last year with everyone getting bulled-up on EM, and this newsletter offered some cautious optimism about the prospects 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.

Well, we know how that story played out. #sadtrombone

According to data from Thomson Reuters Deals Intelligence, EM saw a 17% reduction in the volume of completed M&A transactions. The downdraft was most pronounced in Africa and Eastern Europe — which both experienced declines of 31% — but the slowdown hit each region (see below).

599e287f-c305-4fad-9210-87bbf61081ba

Fun fact: the Thomson Reuters data show that SoftBank paid out $894m in investment banking fees in 2018.

———

Tough Crowd

Private Equity International released its 2019 LP Perspectives survey. If the 101 respondents are a representative sample — an open question — then it looks like it’s going to be another tough year on the fundraising trail for managers ex-Asia (see below).

26ff7765-5808-4435-a4be-12e8c6fc825f

We’ve discussed LPs’ herd behavior driving a tsunami of capital toward (large-cap) Asia several times over the years. That shows no signs of abating.

Meanwhile, capital scarcity continues to define the rest of EM. History suggests that such conditions are conducive to strong performance, but — as ever — the contrarians seem to be few and far between.

Moose Guen, CEO of MVision, provides a sobering outlook:

The interest in new markets like Latin America or Africa and even parts of Asia is extremely limited. Not because of lack of opportunity or experience, but due to local currency volatility relative to the US dollar and the net dollar returns … Over the next few years, GP headcount in those markets will be inhibited because it’s very difficult to finance them.

———

Risky Business

IFC SME Ventures teamed up with CrossBoundary LLC on a study that explores PE investing in fragile and conflict-affected situations (“FCS”) in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study reaches several conclusions that we’ve advanced in this newsletter — such as the merits of flexible mandates, financings, and fund structures — and it makes a convincing case not to invest in single-country funds in frontier geographies.

I found the most thought-provoking finding to be the determination that:

FCS funds with better net returns tend to either be highly active and in control positions on select investments or deploy standardized (but flexible) debt-like instruments to a larger group of investments … Small funds with a large array of minority equity positions can struggle to both realize liquidity and adequately manage their investments.

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Source: IFC SME Ventures.

That said, later in the report, an analysis of 312 exits from IFC’s frontier markets PE portfolio reveals that “minority positions have performed almost as well as majority positions in terms of median gross IRR.” I wonder if the discrepancy boils down to geographies (frontier vs. FCS) or a comparison of deal-level vs. fund-level returns.

In any event, the report provides some good food for thought.

———

GP Stakes

In private equity the managers do better than the investors.

The FT recently reported on Dyal Capital and the growing business of firms investing in private equity fund management companies. In essence, the business entails taking a minority stake in the GP — providing the manager an injection of permanent capital — in return for a share of the management fees and carry.

I haven’t seen data on the volume of transactions in this space, but I observed with interest the launch of Meteor5, whose management team includes MVision’s Moose Guen. The firm invests in emerging GPs, and it strikes me that a firm like this can play an important role in seeding new managers and accelerating their time to close — all with the benefit of having visibility on the product that LPs demand.

Whilst I’ve seen EM GPs sell their franchises in whole or in part to other asset managers, I’ve not seen much along the lines of the Dyal / Petershill / Meteor5 / etc. approach.

And I think I know why.

EM PE’s industry-level performance and the harsh fundraising environment raise questions about the viability of firms raising follow-on funds and harvesting investments. How does one get comfortable estimating the terminal value of fee income + carry?

It’s all a bit of a shame, but I wonder if some enterprising, well-capitalized folks might come up with a solution.

———

From the Bookshelf

There are times when hours are more precious than diamonds.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and Water (NYRB Classics: 2005)

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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 2019, 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, “[email protected]&! this [email protected]&! man! [email protected]&! 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.