Impact Investing

The haters are coming out of the woodwork to kick impact investing while it’s down. Following the Abraaj fiasco and the sordid charges filed against Bill McGlashan, formerly CEO of The Rise Fund, people seem fairly gleeful to pronounce the death of impact investing.

I was particularly tickled reading PEI’s prognosis a few weeks back (“Has Bill McGlashan poisoned the impact well?”), which oddly failed to mention that PEI itself named McGlashan “Game Changer of the Year” in 2018.

Oops.

The pickings were so easy that even I couldn’t resist tweeting, “Spare a moment for the LPs in the Abraaj healthcare fund …” (Nobody liked it).

Look, I of all people am skeptical about the term “impact investing.” It’s super squishy.

It is manifest that large asset managers are embracing the impact label to hoover up assets and collect management fees. And, it is nauseating listening to investors whose public appearances contain little more than sanctimonious virtue signaling, and whose marketing copy makes one retch in one’s mouth.

But before everyone dances on the grave of impact investing, let’s pause at GIIN’s recent research suggesting that the impact investing market has doubled to $502 billion.

And, while the financial services industry is teeming with unethical people, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are decent, earnest individuals in the industry who actually live and breathe an impact mission. Investors who are actually building sustainable businesses and improving lives. Most of them just are not as well known.

I was reminded of this recently after I recited the previous paragraph to a journalist whose work I respect.

“Name one,” s/he said.

“[Firm],” I said.

“Never heard of ‘em.”

Skepticism is warranted. But where, I ask, was the skepticism when the banquets and award ceremonies were being thrown, and the ingratiating articles were being written?

Maybe — maybe — people shouldn’t chase shiny objects.

Alla prossima,
Mike

———

Manager Selection

Sometimes, the asset management industry is revealed for the grand kabuki dance it is: overpaid, mostly smart people developing overly complex narratives to justify their jobs / fees.

I am no Luddite.

I value data and evidence.

But who among us can quantify the life energy that has been spent datamining backtesting investment strategies to uncover a finding that has no utility in the real world?

It’s not just the asset managers. Consider the lifetimes that asset owners have spent developing frameworks for manager selection, or the billions of pensioners’ dollars spent on investment consultants in a quest to pick top-quartile funds.

Loads of acronyms. Loads of analytics and equations. Loads of paperwork and spreadsheets and meetings. Countless hours nudging shapes in PowerPoint.

And then you see a chart that lays bare how silly it is to think that anybody could reliably pick winners. Dan Rasmussen of Verdad uncovered a golden nugget from the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund (OPERF) demonstrating that “despite 30 years of experience and the best advisors money can buy, OPERF has been unable to consistently identify top-quartile managers” (see below).

Screen Shot 2019-04-06 at 2.40.46 PM

And yes, that analysis is weighed by dollars allocated, not number of commitments.

To be fair, it’s more flattering when done by the latter — which comically is a lesson the consultant (and the team?) learned for the 2019 report (see page 111).

But, it’s still less than one-quarter that fall in the top quartile. 😞

———

Winds of Change

One of the things we like to talk about around here is whether EM PE — as distinct from EM private markets — is an industry in structural decline. I’ve had too many conversations with investors lately to change my opinion. The anecdotes are becoming anecdata.

And one of the genres of marination we often ponder is the DFIs’ direction of travel on PE funds. On this ponderable, the chart below from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s performance review of CDC is quite telling.

Whilst CDC underwent a strategy shift in 2012, it’s rather remarkable to track the rate of change in the value of the organization’s funds portfolio (i.e., “intermediated equity”) on both an absolute (£2.6B ➡︎ £2B) and relative basis (88% ➡︎ 52%!) since 2014.

Picture1.png

Marinate on the decline for a bit and what it suggests about industry performance. We can surmise where the preponderance of future investment flows are likely to head (hint: direct debt and equity).

Whither EM PE (ex-mega-cap Asia)?

———

My Friend Wrote a Book

This is not at all related to EM private markets, but my friend, John Gans, wrote a book about the National Security Council. It rocketed to the top of the New Release charts on Amazon a couple weeks ago.

You should buy it!

And maybe even read it!

To whet your appetite, I conducted a bite-sized interview with the author.

Thumbnail on John: Previously chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, senior speechwriter for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. He also worked with Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton, is published widely, and has an MA and PhD from SAIS. Big Bruce Springsteen fan.

Mike: First, thank you for writing a book that’s less than 300 pages.

Our newsletter has readers all over the world, many of whom may not have heard of the National Security Council. Why should people read this book?

John: This is the exact reason I tried to write an accessible book. The NSC is the most important and powerful entity in the U.S. government, with the influence to shape decisions that affect the lives of people in the United States and around the world. Yet few Americans can name a single member of the staff. This book introduces readers — for the first time — to the people and the power of the NSC staff. If you’re an American, these are your staffers, you should know them, judge them, and if necessary change them.

M: You interviewed an astonishing group of people for this book, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Gates, Susan Rice, and H.R. McMaster. What did you learn about the nature of leadership?

J: The most important take away for me is that each of these leaders is human. At the beginning of every course I teach about how government works, I start by reminding students that they are not that different than the people sitting in the Situation Room.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Susan Rice, are not much different than you and me. They may like politics more and be driven by a hunger for power, but they also have good days and bad, they laugh, they feel stress, and they worry about what people think about them. One of the keys to good leadership is remembering your own humanity and the humanity of those who you want to lead.

whw

M: Your book includes a series of case studies in which entrepreneurial civil servants develop and then sell a policy shift to the president — frequently during war or exigent circumstances.

Our clients are mostly entrepreneurs who sell people on investment strategies in emerging and frontier markets — frequently these are outside of institutional investors’ comfort zone. What made for an effective ‘sales’ technique for difficult decisions across presidencies?

J: My bet is that exigent circumstances make it easier to sell one’s ideas. After all, there are few better places to sell life preservers than on a sinking ship, and few easier places to sell an idea about war than in the Oval Office with a president who does not want to lose.

That said, as someone who has worked in government and now written a book about it, I think the critical lesson is not to count on getting lucky — always having the right idea at the right time in the right place — but rather in persisting with your core ideas and principles. Eventually the right time will come for you. And if you’re ready in that moment, you’ll win the day.

M: In my previous life working with former NSC staffers, a uniform sentiment was that personalities trump process. I’ve also found this to be a prevalent sentiment while exploring the topic of governance in EM private markets.

Did you find this to be true in your interviews and research? If so, are there processes we can embrace to insulate America and the world from the consequences of misguided personalities?

J: There is no process that can make a mediocre, misguided, or malevolent person a good one. But good process can minimize the risks posed by the middling or mischievous, and make good personalities soar.

I think a lot of process — in government, in academia, in the business world — is bad because too few people are self aware enough to know what works for them and what doesn’t.

One of the early doubts I heard in working on this book was that the individuals did not matter much to the power of the NSC. But that’s one reason why no one gets what the NSC is capable of — they haven’t spent any time figuring out what makes these people tick. That’s a lesson for understanding our government, or running one’s business.

M: Why are you so obsessed with Bruce Springsteen? Especially since Rage Against the Machine’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” is clearly the better version?

J: Fandom does not require an explanation, which is probably a good thing since love is hard to explain. But the assertion appears to answer the question: Springsteen wrote a rock song so good that a newsletter about private equity is talking about Tom Joad. How many artists can do that?

———

From the Bookshelf

… reporters, more often than not, heavily rely upon the help of powerful institutions, go through the motions of acting adversarial without affecting substance, and are distracted from the public interest by profit-minded news organizations and the changing demands for advancing journalistic careers.

— Timothy E. Cook, in Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (ed.), The Press (Oxford University: 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.

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.

 

The Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portico-Net-Promoter-Score

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

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

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

Two closing thoughts:

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

Which of the following interests you most?

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

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

Alla prossima,
Mike

Advent + Walmart Brazil

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

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

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

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

African PE: Quo vadis?

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

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

EMPEAAfrica

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

Five additional findings jumped out at me:

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

Creador + Goldman Sachs on Asia

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

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

Nevertheless, several observations jumped out at me, including:

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. China Meets the Mekong

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

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

Oops.

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

I mean, it’s not funny … but it is.

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

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

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

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

So many layers.

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

 

A Most Damning Indictment

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

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

Tatakallam engleezee?

Yes.

Hey man, how’s it going?

I am good, sir. Where are you from?

The United States.

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

Where?

MIT.

MIT? Are you an engineer?

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

Oh. Do you work for the UN here?

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

Have you been?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

 

An Extractive Industry

I remember it like it was yesterday.

30 years ago, my father — God rest his soul — dragged me to the hardware store, with the promise that yet another of my boyhood weekends would be spent “building character.”

But this weekend was different.

Instead of heading home after securing the lumber and dirt, we stopped by a Toys “R” Us.

Dad told me to look around while he spoke with a manager, and when I sauntered back to the front of the store, the manager was retrieving — ever so delicately — a Nintendo Entertainment System from a locked display case. My Dad’s outstretched hands rose to the ceiling, as if offering a prayer, ready to catch the box should the manager tumble from the ladder.

Nintendo. Humankind’s third-greatest invention (after the wheel and the Gutenberg press).

That trip to Toys “R” Us was one of the most joyful moments of my childhood. I am certain that I am not alone — Toys “R” Us was an iconic company that enriched the lives of millions of children.

And private equity destroyed it.

Let’s not mince words: leveraged buyouts (LBOs) constitute an extractive industry.

In the case of Toys “R” Us, Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado took the company private in a $6.6B LBO in 2005. It is now bankrupt and closing all of its stores — without paying employees any severance.

In the year of the acquisition, the company generated $11.2B in annual sales, and the linked article says their biggest competitors at the time were the discount retailers Wal-Mart and Target. (Amazon’s shares were ~$35, fwiw).

Revenue was never a problem. Net sales never dipped below $11.3B (in fact they exceeded $13B between 2007-13). However, according to SEC filings, Toys “R” Us’s debt burden jumped from $1.86B at acquisition to $5.5B in the fiscal year after the deal, and annual interest expense climbed from $130m in the year of the acquisition to $400m+ beginning in 2006 (see charts). Optimizing capital structures for whom, one might ask.

ToysRUs2

The LBO firms were on the take from the get-go. According to SEC filings, “upon consummation of the Merger, [Toys “R” Us] paid the Sponsors a fee in the aggregate amount of $81 million for services rendered and out-of-pocket expenses.”

In addition, SEC filings show that between 2005-17, Toys “R” Us paid out aggregate “Sponsor management and advisory fees” of $204m. An analysis in The Atlantic suggests there may have been $128m in (incremental?) transaction fees as the company bought up KB Toys (another Bain Capital bankruptcy special) and other toy retailers.

Consider that between 2014-16, when Toys “R” Us was posting losses of $867m, $256m, and $48m, the company paid out advisory fees of $22m, $18m, and $6m. In other words, in the three years that the private equity sponsors were overseeing losses before taxes of nearly $1.2B, they still drew fees of $46m.

That giant sucking sound you hear is LBO firms hoovering out the value from a cash-generating company. One that likely could have remained a going concern, had the LBO firms not forced down such an onerous debt burden.

Again, 30,000 employees were fired without receiving severance. This is Dickensian villainy at its finest. It evokes The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The FT reports that some of KKR’s pension fund clients “are re-examining their relationship with the investment group amid anger over the treatment of workers at the bankrupt retailer.” They should.

But they shouldn’t stop there — they should re-evaluate their investments in LBOs altogether.

Here’s the dirty little secret: when pensions invest in LBO funds, they are fueling inequality.

The entire LBO model is predicated on bogging down cash-generating businesses with debt, and compelling managements’ hands to create efficiency gains (i.e., layoffs). In other words, thousands of people must lose their jobs and benefits, and be plunged into a state of precarity, in order for pensioners to remain secure in their stipends. It is absolutely zero-sum.

One of the most rigorous takedowns of the LBO model is Eileen Applebaum and Rosemary Batt’s Private at Equity Work. I highly recommend it.

Notably, one of their conclusions is that, unlike LBOs, private equity investments in small and midsize companies can drive meaningful business growth and innovation. I — and others — would argue that the opportunities for shared value creation are even greater in emerging and frontier markets.

When I came up with Portico’s ethos, I jotted down the following:

Value creation > value extraction
Build something that increases the general welfare. While there are riches to be made in value extraction, we do not believe in doing well at the expense of others. Spread dignity.

The fate of Toys “R” Us is precisely the type of BS I had in mind when I wrote those lines.

I would encourage all investors to consider the long-term consequences of the LBO model, and to eschew such extractive forms of investment.

Alla prossima,
Mike

P.S. The newsletter is taking a hiatus in August. See you in September.

Raising a Fund

At Portico, we believe in fund managers who are trying to build businesses and increase prosperity across the world.

In a sense, Portico was founded as an anti-gatekeeper. We believe that too many service providers in this industry operate in a black box, and that this lack of transparency ultimately hurts everyone.

With that in mind, we created the Informal Guide to Raising Your First Fund. Our goal with this product is to empower fund managers with the knowledge they need to develop an institutional-quality pitchbook. We’ve bundled it with a 27-page sample pitchbook to maximize its practical utility, and the feedback we’ve received tells us it’s equally relevant for managers raising funds III, IV, and beyond.

Given the exceedingly difficult fundraising environment, we’re pleased to announce that we are now offering it for only $149. It’s more important to us that a greater number of firms succeed — and that the industry develop — than that we sit on useful knowledge.

Invest in yourself. As our next story demonstrates, it’s only going to get tougher for EM managers to raise capital.

Abraaj: Redux

(For background, read parts III, and III)

This is way bigger an exposure than anyone expected … What is shocking is that the company invested almost 10 percent of its total assets and all their investment book with one company.

I am surprised that the company had more than 70 percent of its 1.5 billion-dirham investment portfolio exposed to a single fund and this was never flagged by the auditors or questioned by the shareholders.

These two quotes come from a Bloomberg article on Air Arabia’s disclosure that it faces a $336m exposure to funds managed by Abraaj.

That is a lot of granola. But it’s only part of the story.

Abraaj executed a pre-IPO investment in Air Arabia in 2007, and it secured two board seats in the process. Arif Naqvi retained his position on the board through 2017 (though he didn’t show up to the first three meetings in 2017).

Somehow, nobody seemed to see a conflict of interest in Air Arabia directing “all their investment book” to a board member’s firm?

It gets worse. The Wall Street Journal reports that, “Money originating from Air Arabia was used to replenish the [Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund], according to people familiar with the situation. KPMG’s review of the fund didn’t mention this, one of those people said.”

KPMG, you may recall, was the firm Abraaj selected to examine the books of its healthcare fund after this whole imbroglio erupted in the press. KPMG is also the auditor of Air Arabia (among other Abraaj portfolio companies).

And then there’s the bombshell.

A separate Wall Street Journal article reveals that PricewaterhouseCoopers, a provisional liquidator for Abraaj Holdings, “have ‘been unable to obtain standalone annual financial statements or management accounts’ for the holding company, a situation they described as ‘highly irregular.’”

Absolutely extraordinary. It’s a sentence worth reading again.

According to the Journal, the PwC report goes on to say:

This lack of financial record-keeping raises the question of how the company’s directors were able to ensure the company was solvent and being effectively managed.

Investment management fees revenue had, for some years, been insufficient to meet its operating costs.

Any liquidity shortfall was largely funded through new borrowings.

Reuters reporting adds that “Abraaj’s total debt stood at $1.07 billion … including $501.4 million in unsecured debt and $572.4 million [in] secured debt.”

The launch of the $6B mega-fund may be viewed in a new light.

The whole situation stinks.

And the stink is on many hands.

Who was doing due diligence? With what documents? Where was the fund administrator?

Institutions were throwing money at Abraaj. Washington State Investment Board, for example, unanimously approved an investment of up to $250m, plus fees and expenses, in the mega-fund, “based on Abraaj’s solid overall investment performance, large, institutionalized team … [and] a consistent investment and risk underwriting process applied globally.”

During the preceding Private Markets Committee meeting, Hamilton Lane “discussed [Abraaj’s] approach to investing, reputation, culture, track record, and currency risk” and supported the staff’s recommendation to invest in the fund.

They’re not the only ones. It’s just that their minutes are public.

Consider, for example, the long list of third parties that provided Abraaj the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval:

  • Abraaj reportedly received its third A+ rating from the UN Principles for Responsible Investment last year.
  • Arif Naqvi was on the Board of the UN Global Compact and a Founding Commissioner of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission
  • He is also a member of “The B Team” — a self-appointed group of business leaders that seeks to advance ESG, etc. Literally the first challenge on their website is, “Drive full transparency: be open, transparent and free from corruption, with good governance and accountability at all levels of our organizations.”
  • The Harvard Business School and Kennedy School connections.
  • The World Economic Forum.
  • Gatekeepers.
  • Auditors.
  • PR firms and the press.
  • Etc.

If there is one lesson from this fiasco, it is that it pays to do your own work.

Also, don’t chase shiny objects.

Fin.

P.S. As we suggested in March, it appears that LPs in the Africa fund are looking for a new GP to manage out the assets.

Small Is Beautiful in CEE

EMPEA recently released a report on private markets in CEE and it’s really quite good. My fundamental takeaway from the report is that the region attracts little capital — between $500m and $1.5B annually between 2009-17 — but this lack of capital is why (a handful of) investors like it.

Consider that, according to the PitchBook data in the study, the median Eastern European buyout multiple between 2006-17 was 5.8x — the lowest multiple globally.

Admittedly, there were few transactions that provided data points for PitchBook, so let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: as of December 2016, EBRD’s portfolio of CEE funds — which is, like, every CEE fund ever — has delivered roughly 7.5% net across all vintages. It’s not an exceptional number, but private equity’s not about investing in an index.

Moreover, it’s not like pension funds — which aren’t pursuing EBRD’s development mandate — are doing much better. According to the American Investment Council’s 2018 Public Pension Study, the median U.S. pension fund’s private equity portfolio delivered a 10-year annualized net return of 8.6%.

Anyway, as I read the briefing, I reflected upon Portico’s thought piece from last December — Does EM PE Scale? — and decided that what’s happening in CEE is a beautiful outcome. The GPs and LPs interviewed for EMPEA’s piece seemed happy with the status quo: most investors have mistaken perceptions of the region’s risks, so they don’t invest in it; and those LPs that do invest in the region have found manager relationships they value across cycles.

Maybe EM PE is an artisanal industry.

Insomnolent in India

Bain & Co. released the 2018 edition of their India Private Equity Report. Lots of charts. Lots of things moving up and to the right.

Bain asked respondents to its survey, “What keeps you awake at night?”

The top three responses:

  • Mismatch in valuation expectations (~75% of respondents)
  • Challenges to maintain high level of returns (~55% of respondents)
  • Lack of attractive deal opportunities (~50% of respondents)

Those seem like … the core elements of running a PE business? No wonder so many Indian GPs are happy to take my calls at 2am IST — they’re not sleeping!

Funnily enough, respondents were least concerned about, “Approaching end of fund life with unliquidated assets” (~3% of respondents).

Now, Bain’s survey had 39 respondents out of a universe of active investors they estimate at 491. But I wonder, would the percentage be much different if the sample size quadrupled?

Zombie4

Turkey: Value Trap?

Last November, we asked if Turkven’s Seymur Tari was precipitating a market turn in Turkey. After seven years of declining business and consumer confidence, was the country on the cusp of a resurgence?

Well. After the latest round of elections, the president’s appointment of his son-in-law as the head of the country’s treasury and finance ministry, and changes to the rules for appointing the central bank governor, one wonders if all those assets trading at a discount might constitute a value trap.

The IMF forecasts gross external financing requirements of ~25% of GDP (equal to ~$200B) each year through 2023.

Turkey’s policymakers confront a delicate dance, indeed.

From the Bookshelf

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Bantam Books: 1970)

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

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