The Decade of Digital Assets

Like many small businesses, Portico had a difficult year.

(It didn’t start off with the best of outlooks, tbh).

Covid shifted project timetables several months to the right, and it materially impacted our clients’ fundraising plans. Some projects we were working on just died on the vine.

As a result, Portico went ~6 months without a penny of cash flow, and some projects we invested scores of hours of energy in delivered $0 to the income statement.

We didn’t take out a PPP loan and dissaved from the company coffers. I think that was the right decision, but it leaves less room for maneuver and new initiatives.

One benefit of this stress test of the business was the affirmation of the need to pivot.

I’ve been testing market demand for a business in the secondary space, but a scalable business model for it remains elusive.

(Last year’s idea fell flat, even though 2020 has been a SPAC bonanza).

Candidly, I’ve been too focused on finding an incremental solution to a problem in a shrinking market, as opposed to starting from first principles and generating a novel idea in a growing market.

The upside is I’ve rectified this recently and unlocked an exciting idea that brings me energy.

One successful initiative for the year was the launch of the Portico Podcast (more below the fold). It’s been a fun experience so far, and I’ve received enthusiastic feedback, which has been nice. 

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So, what next?

A few predictions for the decade ahead …

1. The Decade of Digital Assets

We are in the very early stages of migrating toward an entirely new internet — one that is open, decentralized, and contains extraordinary possibilities for the reconfiguration and exchange of value.

I mentioned Otis last year, but another example you may want to look at is the NBA’s Top Shot — an officially licensed marketplace that enables individuals to own highlight reels of their favorite players. It’s like trading baseball cards but with a globally active secondary market for cards and live transaction comps for pricing. Each asset’s fidelity, scarcity, and ownership are verified through registration on the blockchain.

There’s also bitcoin. I wrote about cryptocurrencies vs. the U.S. dollar last year. But now Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has joined the fray. I think institutional adoption of bitcoin will happen at scale over the next 10 years. (Disclosure: long BTC).

These are just a few examples, but the digitization of assets is going to be enormous.

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2. Single-Asset, GP-led Secondaries

There is a crisis of illiquidity in EM private markets. 

I’ve been digging into this as part of my research into a scalable business model in the secondaries space, and I estimate that there are ~1,200 PE and VC fund managers sitting on ~7,000 un-exited investments across EM.

(These figures are for funds with vintage years 2008-14).

Distributions from EM funds have been poor, and they’ve undershot the global PE benchmark every year (see below).

There is a clear problem here that GP-led secondaries can help solve: identifying sub-scale assets that — once liberated from the confines of the PE fund model — can pursue long-term growth initiatives with a reasonable return profile.

With a different shareholder base and investment structure, companies can pursue a broader range of growth strategies, and investors’ returns may be less contingent on a liquidity event.

I think we’ll see more EM GPs use these vehicles in the decade ahead.

But, if you’re interested in EM direct secondaries in general, I’ve been doing research in this space and may be able to help you out.

Click here to send me a note.

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3. New Financing Structures

DFIs are distancing themselves from the traditional fund model as a means for non-bank financial intermediation in EM. This is unfortunate for smaller fund managers that depend on DFI capital to get / stay in business, but it is what it is.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this will create space for new, creative forms of financing for un- and under-banked enterprises.

As one example, the team at CrossBoundary Group has open sourced their project financing model for mini-grids, and I think this collaborative approach to generating shared prosperity is a glimpse of the future.

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Most of us have been trapped inside and deprived of foreign travel for a calendar year.

I am very much looking for the explosion of energy and excitement that people will exhibit once this pandemic is behind us.

Until then, I have a gift for you.

Please don your favorite set of noise-cancelling headphones and prepare to immerse yourself in 4 minutes and 30 seconds of transcendent bliss. 

Don’t multitask.

Set a timer if you must.

Just click this link to escape to the Cañon del Sumidero in Chiapas, Mexico.

Glimpse majestic natural beauty. Listen to a magical tune. Ponder the possibilities of human ingenuity and creativity.

Health, wealth, and happiness to you and yours.

Abrazos,
Mike


Weijian Shan on Leverage and Turnarounds in Asia

In the latest episode of the Portico Podcast, I interviewed Weijian Shan, the Chairman and CEO of PAG — a leading Asia-focused alternative assets firm with ~$40B in AUM. 

It was a real honor to have Shan on the podcast, as his life story is remarkable.

If you haven’t read his memoir Out of the Gobi yet, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s an extraordinary book that recounts Shan’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution — particularly the six years he spent doing hard labor in a re-education camp — and the transformative impact that the normalization of U.S.-China relations and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reformshad on China generally, and on Shan in particular.

And he’s just written a new book called Money Games, which details the rescue of one of Korea’s largest banks on the heels of the Asian Financial Crisis.

In addition to his books, Shan and I discuss the importance of stakeholder analysis when structuring private equity investments; whether there is a problem of too much debt in the Chinese economy; SOE reform, and the prospects for China’s economic rebalancing toward domestic consumption; the institutionalization of private equity in Asia; and, his advice for younger people who wish to pursue a career in private equity, among other topics.

If you need to catch up on past episodes on your new device over the holidays, we’ve got you covered:


Grab Bag

  • Has persistence persisted in private equity? Evidence from buyout and venture capital funds (link)
     
  • Do private equity investors create value? Evidence from the hotel industry (link)
     
  • The failure of the standard model of institutional investment (link)
     
  • Special deals from special investors: the rise of state-connected private owners in China (link)
     
  • Ben Thompson on Stripe and financial infrastructure (link)
     
  • France broadens retail investor access to private equity (link)
     
  • RBI toying with idea to allow industrial houses into banking (link)
     
  • Are venture capitalists deforming capitalism? (link)

From the Bookshelf

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up. But I don’t think that’s true. My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.

— Peter Thiel, Zero to One (Currency: 2014)

First Move

It has been five months since we released our first research piece, Is Emerging Markets Private Equity Dying?, and though Portico is still in its infancy, we’re excited about the doors this study continues to open, and the conversations we’ve been having with firms across geographic and market cap segments.

Two recent developments suggest that the trends highlighted in Is EM PE Dying? are unlikely to reverse anytime soon:

  • Fundraising data from EMPEA show that the number of final closes for funds <$250m in size continues to decline; meanwhile, capital raised for EM VC and private credit funds has reached all-time highs.
  • Apparently IFC is looking to commit up to $25m to Carlyle’s fifth Asia growth fund, underlining the trend of DFIs supporting established fund managers (that probably should have graduated from DFI capital).

Keep your eyes peeled for Portico’s forthcoming Middle Market Survey. We’d truly value your input. For those suffering survey fatigue, there will be a prize drawing for a Year in Books Subscription from the delightful booksellers at Heywood Hill in Mayfair.

Best wishes,
Mike

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Coming to Southeast Asia in May

I’ll be traveling through Southeast Asia next month, with stops planned for Singapore, Jakarta, and HCMC. I’m looking forward to (re-)connecting with several firms, and to kicking the tires on a hypothesis that the region presents a qualitatively different opportunity set than was on offer five years ago. Back then, investors got bulled up on the region, but had questions about the investable market. Have things changed? (It’s a small sample, but Cambridge Associates Benchmark data show TVPI of 1.07 for 2010-13 vintage Southeast Asia funds).

I’m particularly excited about the visit to Vietnam, where there have been some big deals taking place, including:

  • KKR’s $150m transaction in Masan Nutri-Science, continuing the firm’s quality food thesis (seen with its Modern Dairy and COFCO Meat deals in China);
  • VinaCapital’s joint venture with Warburg Pincus to create a hospitality JV (valued at up to $300m); and,
  • TPG’s intention to acquire a stake in Vietnam Australia International School, providing a potential liquidity event for Mekong Capital.

If you’re in the region, I’d love to meet with you. Drop me a line and I’ll try to find a time that works for you!

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Deal Flow in Africa

AVCA and EY released their latest study on exits in Africa, and the data point that jumps off the screen is the rapid growth of secondary buyouts as an exit channel, which hit *17* last year. There haven’t been more than 7 secondary buyouts / year going back to 2007.

The other dynamic at play—and I haven’t pulled data on this, so it’s just an impression—is a steady drumbeat of GPs co-investing in deals on the continent. Taken together, these two dynamics suggest that deal flow may very well be an issue in Africa (at least for firms managing traditional 10-year, closed-end structures).

But at the same time, the clear growth in secondary buyouts and (suspected) increase in GP co-invests may not necessarily be a bad thing. We could be witnessing a phenomenon similar to tier one PE / VC in the United States, where sequences / consortia of private capital investors scale up winner-take-most (if not all) platforms, or build out category leaders with decent moats. Time will tell!

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The Gift that Keeps on Giving in Eastern Europe 

Speaking of secondary buyouts and private capital building category leaders, Zabka Polska—operator of convenience stores, Freshmarkets, and supermarkets—has been sold to a PE buyer once again. Over the last 17 years, Zabka has changed hands from:

PineBridge Investments Penta Investments Mid Europa CVC

The company’s growth over the last two decades is truly astonishing. For its part, Mid Europa reportedly fetched €1.1B after growing Zabka’s top- and bottom-lines 3x and 4x, respectively, and opening 500 stores / year. Na zdrowie!

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Consumer Sentiment in Latin America

It’s not a good idea to try to call tops or bottoms—so I won’t—but one of the data streams I’ve been monitoring with interest is consumer sentiment in Brazil and Mexico. Given the political and economic turmoil in the former, and the fact that average manufacturing wages have been flat for a decade in the latter, it’s little surprise that consumers in these countries have been gloomy for five years running.

And yet, since the beginning of 2015, there has been a marked divergence in retail sales volumes across these two markets. Brazilian retail sales have declined in line with a contraction in consumer lending. By contrast, Mexican retail sales have been on a tear, fueled, in part, by a rapid expansion in household credit.

Brazilian consumer confidence is recovering, as are retail sales, and consumer credit growth remains restrained. Though the politics are slippery, it appears like a bottoming process is at hand. Mexico’s debt-fueled consumption binge, however, gives one pause. It’s hard to look at the chart below without contemplating a parallel to the morning after a night out in La Condesa, having imbibed too much mezcal and consumed too few tacos.

LatAmConsumer

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From the Bookshelf

Earlier this year, I read Carroll Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations (1961). One of Quigley’s core arguments is that societies create instruments to meet basic human needs (e.g., security, the accumulation of wealth and savings, etc.), but these instruments evolve into institutions, which over time become less effective at achieving their original purposes.

When discussing the interwar period (1919-39), Quigley makes an insightful point about the evolution of the economic system that seems germane to today’s debates about secular stagnation.

The purpose of any economic system is to produce, distribute, and consume goods … As [the economic system] became institutionalized, profits became an end in themselves to the jeopardy of production, distribution, and consumption.

The rub is that the expansion of profit margins through higher prices and lower costs of production ultimately reduced consumption, and increased wealth inequality. Quigley continues:

Such an inequitable distribution of wealth was a very excellent thing as long as lack of capital was prevalent in the economic system, but such a maldistribution of income ceases to be an advantage as soon as the productive system has developed out of all proportion to the processes of distribution and of consumption.To some extent this situation was made worse by the growing separation … between ownership and control of corporations, since this led to an increased accumulation of undistributed profits held by the corporations in control of the management rather than distributed as dividends to the owners. Such undistributed profits became savings with no possibility of serving as consumer purchasing powerIncreasing proportions of the national income were going to those persons in the community who would be likely to save and decreasing proportions were going to those persons in the community who would spend their incomes for consumers’ goods.

As someone who genuinely believes in long-term investment, the passage above left me wondering whether this world awash in capital—one in which U.S. after-tax corporate profits (net dividends) amount to $982 billion (see below) and the pension assets of 22 countries total $36.4 trillion—is one that consigns us all to Keynes’s paradox of thrift.

USCorpProfits

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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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