Illusions and Delusions

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

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

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

At least, that’s what I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

A few motions to debate with yourself and others:

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

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

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

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

Health and happiness to you and yours.

Alla prossima,
Mike

401(k)s — The Final Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cui bono?

Future Fund

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

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

Great time for retail to jump in!

Norway on Governance

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

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

Social Capital

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Transparency & Governance

I’ve been meditating on transparency and governance rather frequently of late. Not out of a sense of righteousness, mind you, but largely because they are inescapable in my morning reading of the newspaper: Abraaj, Norway (both discussed below), FacebookMartin SorrellSean Hannity, &c.

The only firm conclusion I’ve reached is that quality governance — corporate or otherwise — is the most underappreciated necessity. A world awash in capital is also a world awash in unaccountable bullshit. People just don’t seem keen to ask — let alone field — questions when the money’s rolling in. Plus ça change …

Say what you will about younger generations, but they’re pretty quick to raise the BS flag and ask uncomfortable questions (so much so that it has become a meme, apparently). I was reminded of this recently while giving a guest lecture at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. The students were super sharp, and they asked hard-hitting questions … including one that made me ponder some life choices.

In short, they’re awesome. They rekindled my belief that the future is going to be amazing. Hopefully their incessant questioning will continue as they assume positions of leadership, thus contributing to more transparent and accountable governance. On verra bien …

Speaking of the future, Portico’s first product launch is in the works. We’re making it easier than ever for first- (and second-, and third-, &c.) time funds to produce institutional-quality marketing materials, at a price point that delivers enormous value. Stay tuned!

Finally, I’m really looking forward to IFC’s Global Private Equity Conference next month (hosted in association with EMPEA). It’s the 20th anniversary of the event and it should be a good one. I’m excited to reconnect with friends and make new connections. Drop me a line if you’re planning to attend.

If you haven’t registered, you may learn more about the event at this link. Hope to see you there!

Alla prossima,
Mike

GPEC Banner

Abraaj: Fin?

[This is the third — and final — in a series; see Part I and Part Deux]

“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.”

So read the conclusion to my take on the drama at Abraaj in last month’s newsletter.

I don’t know whether the investors drove the process, but Houlihan Lokey was brought in to find a solution to the Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund debacle, and the FT reports that Abraaj subsequently offered to step down as manager of the fund. An interim manager is reportedly in the cards until a permanent replacement / solution is found.

A few thoughts / observations:

  • Key Person Provisions — More senior departures were reported over the last month, including those of Sev Vettivetpillai and Mustafa Abdel-Wadood, both of whom reportedly attempted to resign late last year but were asked to stay. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the firm now has lost half its managing partners and a third of its partners in the past year.” At this point, given the flood of senior departures, it stands to reason that Key Person termination provisions likely have been triggered across several Abraaj funds. If so, then I imagine investors will be looking for (a) new GP(s) to manage out the assets.
  • Sharks Circling — The firm is reportedly considering a sale of its private equity business to raise cash, and reducing headcount by 15% to cut costs. It is also moving forward with its planned listing of the South African FMCG company Libstar.
    Kenyan sources report that the firm is evaluating a sale of its stake in Nairobi Java House, which it acquired from ECP last year. (I talked about the deal here). The same article reports that sales of Avenue Hospital, Brookside Dairies, and Seven Seas Technologies may be under consideration as well. With all these headlines, management teams and fund managers may be sensing an opportune moment to scoop up shares at a discount from a stressed seller.
  • Exit Closed — In recent years, Abraaj had become an active buyer of PE-backed companies, particularly in Africa (e.g., Java House, Libstar, Mouka). Had its $6 billion mega fund come to market, I imagine Abraaj would have become a sought-after exit channel for GPs. In a way, it could have become to EM private markets what the SoftBank Vision Fund is to venture investors: a deus ex machina of liquidity.
  • &c. — Its portfolio company Stanford Marine has reportedly breached covenants and is seeking to restructure $325 million in debt. Reuters reports that it is seeking repayment of $12.4 million in loans to Nigeria’s C&I Leasing. Deloitte has been called in to look into its governance and control issues. &c.

I’m tired of writing about Abraaj. I don’t plan on including anything about the firm in next month’s newsletter.

The news articles are likely to keep coming, though, and the developments over the last month suggest that it will take a long time to clean up the detritus from this unfortunate turn of events. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t contribute to investors’ exodus from EM private markets altogether.

Norway: Part Deux

In January’s newsletter, we mentioned that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund had submitted a recommendation to the finance ministry that it be allowed to invest in and alongside private equity funds. At the time, we held out a grandiose vision of a world in which the fund might build a genuinely differentiated approach to EM private markets.

Well, the finance ministry has issued its report, and fund managers’ hopes for a veritable tsunami of cash have been put on hold.

Indefinitely.

The preliminary, unofficial translation of the report provided a fairly damning assessment of the asset class’s fees and opacity:

Low costs are characteristic of the GPFG. External equity management costs in the listed market are about 0.5 percent … measured relative to assets under management. In comparison, the annual cost of investing in private equity funds can be estimated at about 6 percent of assets under management …

Transparency is an important prerequisite for broad support for, and confidence in, the management of the GPFG. Many private equity funds disclose little information about their activities …

High prospective returns aren’t a sufficient argument for new money to come into the asset class — especially when its citizens’ savings. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the industry will not thrive without trust, transparency, and quality corporate governance.

Bain & Co.

Two findings jumped out at me from Bain & Co.’s Global Private Equity Report 2018:

  1. Entry pricing is … inauspicious.As of year-end 2016, the percentage of deals priced at <7x EBITDA (~10%) was the lowest it had been since at least 2007, while 54% of deals were done for >11x EBITDA (compared to ~35% in 2007). “Our presumption is that we’ll be exiting at smaller multiples,” says Alan Jones of Morgan Stanley Global Private Equity. Agree
  2. Long-hold funds can outperform. Bain ran an analysis comparing a theoretical long-hold fund selling an investment after 24 years against a buyout fund selling four successive companies over the same period. Their finding: “By eliminating transaction fees, deferring capital gains taxation and keeping capital fully invested, the long-hold fund outperforms the short-duration fund by almost two times on an after-tax basis.” [emphasis added]

At Portico, we’re privileged to work with firms that are pursuing non-traditional and longer hold strategies. We think it’s only a matter of time before more investors come to see the benefits of these approaches.

Grab Bag

  • Into Africa—The FT reports that the EBRD is considering an expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa. The politics of getting this approved might be tricky, but EBRD could do a lot of good on the continent. 🤞
  • India — IFC’s Ralph Keitel gives a masterclass on PE in India in this interview.
  • Management Fees— Dave Richards of Capria has an interesting view on how GPs should be determining their management fees. Hint: they should be predictable and budgeted, rather than a percentage of committed / invested capital.
  • Theranos— “It has been pretty obvious for a few years now that Theranos Inc. was a huge fraud.” Matt Levine’s take on the Blood Unicorn, Elasmotherium haimatos. And, its solicitation for cash after its CEO settled fraud charges?

From the Bookshelf

Make friends with those who are good and true, not those who are bad and false.

— Eknath Easwaran (trans.), The Dhammapada (Nilgiri Press: 2007).

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

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

Bulls on Parade

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

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

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

Grantham’s answer: EM equity. In size.

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

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

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

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

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

Alla prossima,
Mike

McVey Calls a Secular Bull Market in EM

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

McVeyEM

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

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

McVeyReturns

Norway

No, not that story.

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

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

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

Brazil on the Move

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

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

Not Interested

“Emerging market interest remained low this year.”

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

Probitas2

Managers in EM just are not a priority.

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

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

From the Bookshelf

There are Croakers in every Country always boding its Ruin.

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

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

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