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.

Ep. 10: Simon Clark on The Key Man



This episode features an interview 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.

Most listeners and followers of Portico will be familiar with the background of the Abraaj story. But if you’re not, I’d recommend that you go back and listen to Episode 8.

But even more, I’d recommend you purchase a copy of The Key Man for yourself (USAUK). It’s 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. 

In today’s conversation, Simon and I discuss:

  • The origins of Abraaj, some of its early transactions, and the oft-asked question: where did they get their money?
  • Abraaj’s acquisition of Aureos and how it unlocked the firm’s ability to scale.
  • The manufacture of social capital — the people and firms who testified to the greatness of Arif and Abraaj, seemingly without conducting an ounce of due diligence.
  • The Karachi Electric deal.
  • The $6B mega-fund.
  • The promise of impact investing.
  • The necessity of greater transparency in private equity.
  • And much more.

I had four pages of questions for Simon, so we clearly didn’t get to everything on my list — and candidly some of the unasked questions may be better over a pint.

But do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the book.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.

This podcast was recorded in July 2021.


Buy The Key Man |  USA  |  UK

Follow Simon on Twitter

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.

Ep. 8: The Abraaj Fiasco



I wanted to experiment with a different format for this episode and share my writings on the Abraaj fraud scandal as they were happening in real time a few years ago.

Now, for those who don’t know Abraaj, it was one of the largest — and probably the flashiest — private equity firms dedicated to investing in emerging markets. It was spearheading a big push into impact investing and was marketing a $6B fund when it collapsed in insolvency under allegations of fraud.

There are a few reasons why I wanted to revisit my articles:

  • First, the founder of Abraaj — a man named Arif Naqvi — had been fighting a battle in UK courts to avoid extradition to the United States. He lost that fight earlier this year.

  • Second, there’s a book coming out in July called The Key Man: The True Story of How the Global Elite Was Duped by a Capitalist Fairy Tale by two reporters at The Wall Street Journal — Simon Clark and Will Louch. I’m keen to bring them on the podcast to discuss the book and I wanted to provide some context in the hopes that one or both of them will join me in a few months’ time.

  • Third, the Abraaj story is a useful prism for seeing the world as it is — unvarnished. As you listen, I encourage you to think about how social capital, branding, and reputation are manufactured; how an industry that talks about due diligence did little to none; and the credulity that money buys.

So, there will be four parts to the story I share today. The first three were from the FebruaryMarch, and April 2018 editions of Portico’s much-beloved, monthly newsletter, Portico Perspectives.

The final part comes from the July 2018 edition.

As noted, this is an experiment, so please let me know what you think about the format and content. 

This podcast was recorded in April 2021.


Sign up for Portico Perspectives.

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)

# # #

Haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet? Sign up now.

# # #

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).

# # #

Haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet? Sign up now.

# # #

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

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

The White Stripe

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

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

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

Consider this dispatch from my BJJ journal:

2/10 – Open Mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alla prossima,
Mike

Abraaj: Part Deux

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

The situation is serious, indeed:

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

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

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

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

EM Fundraising: Coming Full Circle?

 

giphy2

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

Or not.

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

FRchartv2

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

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

lostdecade

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

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

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

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

cambridge

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

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

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

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

giphy1

Private Equity: Overvalued and Overrated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistence in Private Equity

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

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

Je ne sais pas.

From the Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

Haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet? Sign up now.

# # #

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.

Veritas

Last month, the New York Times published a fascinating article about the market for followers on Twitter. (Disclosure: shareholder of NYT and TWTR). The manufacture of social capital is something that I hadn’t really thought about before, but now that my eyes have been opened, it’s hard not to notice it.

For example, it’s always been nauseating when someone namedrops to inflate his or her reputation, but I hadn’t considered companies leveraging the brand equity of established firms to magnify their own. Think of all the conferences and august fora where firms’ logos are on display. (Yours, too, could be featured amongst the great and the good for a modest sum).

Or, consider this: have you ever read a profile of a firm or entrepreneur and, en passant, your nose turned up in a visceral reaction? Something just smelled about it? Me too. The article was probably placed. By a PR firm that doesn’t do nuance. Occasionally, these articles include character references from individuals who are compensated by the company being profiled, and yet the credulous journalist didn’t care to ask about potential conflicts.

The currency of currency is all a bit exhausting. I’m reminded of Diogenes the Cynic’s apocryphal confrontation with Plato:

On seeing [Diogenes] washing vegetables, Plato came up to him and quietly remarked, “If you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t need to be washing vegetables,” to which he replied in the same calm tone, “Yes, and if you washed vegetables, you wouldn’t need to be paying court to Dionysius.”

Anyway. Next month, I’ll be at the UNC Alternative Investments Conference, where I will be leading a teach-in session on the role of EM PE in LPs’ portfolios. I’m planning to cover the evolution of emerging markets and explore whether investors are being presented with a richer landscape of opportunities than was available in the past. I’m really looking forward to it. Click here to learn more about the event, and please reach out if you’re planning to attend.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Abraaj

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDC Group plc, IFC, and PROPARCO have hired forensic accountants to probe the books of the Abraaj Group. The investigation is focused on the use of funds within the $1 billion Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund.

According to the WSJ, which claims to have reviewed the fund’s quarterly reports to investors, Abraaj called $545 million between October 2016 and April 2017, but had invested $266 million by September 2017. In October 2017, the four LPs are said to have asked for bank statements to show what—if anything—was done with the balance of the funds. Abraaj is said not to have provided them. In December, Abraaj is said to have returned $140 million to the fund’s investors.

A reading of the two articles together suggests that there may be some disagreements over the obligation to return called capital—and the time window for doing so—when projects are delayed rather than canceled. Two hospital projects—one in Karachi and one in Lagos—are said to have been delayed.

The WSJ notes that “construction in Karachi was delayed by a ban on new buildings more than two floors high. The planned hospital had 17 floors.” Local media sources report that the ban went into effect in May 2017 due to water shortages and inadequate civil infrastructure in Karachi. Last month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court approved construction for buildings up to seven-storeys high.

Abraaj released a statement on 4 February saying, “recent media reports … are inaccurate and misleading.” The firm states that it appointed KPMG in January 2018 “to verify all receipts and payments made by the Fund,” and that as of 7 February, “KPMG has now completed its findings and reported that all such payments and receipts have been verified, in line with the agreed upon procedures performed, and that unused capital was returned to investors.”

The forensic accountants’ investigation has either not yet been completed, or the findings have not been disclosed publicly.

To an outsider, this looks quite bad. The investor syndicate that hired the forensic accountants isn’t comprised of neophytes to EM PE and impact investing. On the contrary, they’re the most experienced LPs in the industry. IFC alone has invested in over 200 EM funds over the last decade, while CDC is an active investor in 164 funds in 74 countries—including other Abraaj vehicles. These investors have mainstreamed EM PE as an institutionalized investment strategy. If their concerns are in the newspapers, then it’s worth paying attention.

More broadly, this could have knock-on effects across the broader EM private markets landscape. Integrity and transparency are vital, particularly in an opaque industry and in markets where investors confront information asymmetries. To the extent this story encourages managers to improve their operations and reporting, this is a good thing. However, with one of the largest and most visible EM firms coming under scrutiny regarding its use of funds, there is a risk that more investors will just walk away from EM altogether.

The industry will not thrive without trust, transparency, and quality corporate governance.

Abraaj is currently in the market for a $6 billion mega fund. The WSJ’s sources suggest that the firm has collected $3 billion toward its target. I find that incredible; not only because there have been several senior departures from Abraaj of late, but also because it’s hard for me to make the math work from both a top-down and a bottom-up perspective.

  • From a top-down perspective, we explored the absorptive capacity of EM PE in our latest research piece, which, based on an analysis of exits and M&A volumes, suggests that annual flows to traditional fund strategies may need to shrink to $16 billion per year. Can one firm collect a third of that and invest it well? I have my doubts.
  • From a bottom-up perspective, Abraaj built its global platform through the acquisition of Aureos, an SME-focused investor that was writing $10 million checks. In recent years, Abraaj has been securing deals through auctions—outbidding established large-cap firms such as Carlyle and TPG—and secondary buyouts from the likes of Actis, Advent International, ECP, and Metier. It seems reasonable to ask about pricing pressures and style drift.
  • Finally, the firm has raised an estimated $3B across five funds since 2015 and appears to be in the market for upwards of $7.1B across four funds (see exhibit below). Where are they going to put it all?

Of course, all this may just speak to my failure of imagination.

Several institutional investors have read Hamilton Lane’s reports and clearly disagree with the previous assessments. Washington State Investment Board (approved unanimously, up to $250 million) and Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (approved 6-3, up to $50 million) have committed to the mega fund, while PEI reports that Teacher Retirement System of Texas is on board as well.

Scale has its advantages.

Abraaj2

Private Debt in Africa

Runa Alam of Development Partners International co-authored an intriguing article on the prospects for private debt in Africa. There’s clearly demand for more flexible capital solutions amongst local businesses, and my understanding is that some early suppliers of credit / mezzanine solutions on the continent, such as Amethis and Vantage Capital, have done well. As one would expect given the supply-demand imbalance, new entrants emerged:

  • Helios Investment Partners launched Helios Credit, its direct lending platform, in 2015.
  • Ethos acquired Mezzanine Partners in July 2016 and launched Ethos Mezzanine Partners 3 with a target of $150 million.
  • Syntaxis Capital, a Central and Eastern Europe-focused private debt investor launched an Africa strategy in 2016, establishing a presence in Lagos.

Presumably DPI will be joining them.

It’s important to remember, though, as one seasoned private credit manager once put it to me, “leverage is not your friend in emerging markets.” Private credit is more than just a position in the capital stack. It requires a different skillset than growth equity, and a deep understanding of volatility’s impact on balance sheets and cash flows. Choose your partners wisely.

Taking a step back, it’s great to see a broader set of financing options being made available to entrepreneurs on the continent. For LPs willing to look, there are some very interesting managers with vehicles that expand Africa’s investable market. (Drop us a line if you’d like to know more).

Always Low Prices

Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, is reportedly shopping around their Brazilian operations. ACON Investments, Advent International, and GP Investments are said to have been pitched.

According to Thomson Reuters, the company’s 471 local stores generated revenues of $9.4 billion in 2016. However, the company “posted operating losses for seven years in a row after an aggressive, decade-long expansion left it with poor locations, inefficient operations, labor troubles and uncompetitive prices.” In short, apart from the labor troubles, they weren’t Walmart.

Apparently, several retailers took a look at Walmart’s assets in the country, but took a pass on them after concluding the suco ain’t worth the squeeze. A consequence, it seems, of Walmart’s poor customer understanding and a bungled expansion strategy.

It will be interesting to see if a private equity buyer can turn things around, but it’s pretty clear they won’t be paying up for the privilege to do so. In that sense, Walmart’s finally operating true to form: offering bric-a-brac at the deeply discounted prices that shoppers have grown to love.

Currency Risk in Emerging Markets

Sarona Asset Management released the final report of its nearly year-long initiative, “Expanding Institutional Investment into Emerging Markets via Currency Risk Mitigation.”

Sponsored by USAID’s Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise, and in partnership with EMPEA and Crystalus Inc., the initiative sought to develop innovative, practicable solutions to FX risk management in EM PE. The final report contains a wealth of data and information on FX hedging in EM, as well as three new “solution pathways” that the project tested with practitioners:

  • New direct currency hedges (i.e., covertures and supported range forwards);
  • Proxy hedges (i.e., baskets of liquid, low-cost interest rate, equity, and commodity options); and,
  • Insurance.

The proxy hedge was piloted through simulated back tests against two EM PE portfolios over 20 years, and the product shows promise. However, as always with hedging, the devil is in the details.

USAID and Sarona have kindly made the report available to the public. Click here to download it.

From the Bookshelf

Recurrent descent into insanity is not a wholly attractive feature of capitalism …

The only remedy, in fact, is an enhanced skepticism that would resolutely associate too evident optimism with probable foolishness and that would not associate intelligence with the acquisition, the deployment, or, for that matter, the administration of large sums of money. Let the following be one of the unfailing rules by which the individual investor and, needless to say, the pension and other institutional-fund manager are guided: there is the possibility, even the likelihood, of self-approving and extravagantly error-prone behavior on the part of those closely associated with money …

A further rule is that when a mood of excitement pervades a market or surrounds an investment prospect, when there is a claim of a unique opportunity based on special foresight, all sensible people should circle the wagons; it is the time for caution. Perhaps, indeed, there is opportunity … A rich history provides proof, however, that, as often or more often, there is only delusion and self-delusion.

— John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin: 1993).

# # #

Haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet? Sign up now.

# # #

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.