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.

 

The Wealth of Nations

A few years ago, my wife and I enjoyed a marvelous walking safari through the bush of Tanzania.

After camping in the village of Nainokanoka, we set off early with Moloton, our Maasai guide, and we trekked amongst the buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest, and zebra on our way to a campsite at Empakaai, a gorgeous crater lake that legions of flamingos call home.

It was positively Edenic … I still can’t believe my wife did it while pregnant …

Anyway, as we walked through some of the villages, I noticed an abundance of domesticated animals grazing around the boma — cattle, goats, sheep, chickens.

Since this was a long hike, I had lots of time to get lost in thought. And I kept pondering one question: who’s wealthier, a Maasai elder or your average American?

I’ve finally written down my take on this thought experiment, which you may read at this link.

Having hit publish on the piece a day after closing on a house (and thus taking on a mortgage for the next three decades), I’ve found myself acutely sensitive to the role credit plays in the U.S. economy. This machine runs on debt … future earnings are earmarked for today’s consumption.

There have been numerous articles of late warning about an impending crisis amongst over-leveraged emerging market companies and governments. A strong dollar / dollar shortage, higher borrowing costs and roll risk are genuine challenges, indeed. As Michael Pettis warned, capital structure matters bigly (see this month’s From the Bookshelf).

However, I think the sensitivity of U.S. households to rising rates is underappreciated. Personal consumption expenditures constitute nearly 70% of U.S. GDP. With higher interest expenses and higher prices due to “trade wars” — and with as-yet-unseen meaningful wage inflation — I think many American households are going to be wondering what happened to the purchasing power of their tax cuts. #youvebeenduped

On the other hand, I think many emerging market countries’ households have stronger, more resilient balance sheets. See, for example, our Maasai elder:

Maasai2

According to EMPEA statistics, only $5 billion was raised for EM PE / VC funds ex-Asia last year, and a measly $397 million in Q1 2018.

The scarcity of long-term capital flowing to these markets tells me that few investors see the world this way. And that may suggest we’re on the cusp of one of the most promising moments for wealth creation that EMs have seen in the last decade.

Have a great summer.

Alla prossima,
Mike

Mekong

Vietnam has been one of the hottest markets of late. Understandably so! It’s an alluring country with tremendous energy.

Chris Freund, founder of Mekong Capital, has been working and investing in Vietnam since the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1994. He has written a refreshingly candid piece on the origin and evolution of his firm, and its role in the development of Vietnam’s private sector.

While the article provides lessons that the Mekong team learned across multiple funds — the perils of strategy drift, the challenges of building strong management teams — it’s also a chronicle that can be read as an embodiment of EM PE’s evolution over the last two decades.

Mekong reportedly plans to go to market with Mekong Enterprise Fund IV.

I wish them well.

LP-GP Fit

The majority of times I meet with GPs, they’re eager to start pitching — which is often why we’re meeting in the first place and is an exciting part of my job. But I usually like to ask if I can talk to you about Sapphire first to give an overview of who we are what our investment thesis is.

That way, we can find out early in the conversation if there is alignment between the fund you’re raising and what we’re investing in. If there isn’t alignment, you’ve just been spared making your well thought out pitch only to find out that your fund is out of scope for Sapphire. Additionally, often times a LP will offer critical clues about what they care about which will allow you to tailor your pitch to what that LP cares about.

So when you walk into a meeting with an LP, pause to ask them about their business first, instead of jumping right into your pitch.

Brad Feld of Foundry Group recently circulated an article by Elizabeth Clarkson of Sapphire Ventures on the issue of LP-GP fit. While it’s focused on the top questions U.S. venture firms should ask prospective LPs, the nine questions are germane to managers of all types of vehicles, in all types of geographies.

I would encourage all GPs to read it.

Know your audience.

The Perils of Business Travel

So there I was — a few hours into a 15-hour flight, staring at the seat-back screen, watching as the icon of our plane crawled northwest on the map, one interminable pixel at a time. Each pixel representing some untold number of miles further from my family.

Locked in that aluminum can, arcing toward Asia at 35,000 feet, in a most calm and reasonable manner, I said to myself, “F@&! this s@&! man! F@&! it!”

It was then that I decided I was going to take a break from air travel, and I have just about reached the end of my self-imposed one-year flight ban.

It has been as great as I thought it would be.

Alas, as I began gearing up mentally to hit the skies again, I came across an article in HBR — “Just How Bad Is Business Travel for Your Health? Here’s the Data.”

The conclusions are pretty jarring:

  • Compared to those who spent one to six nights a month away from home for business travel, those who spent 14 or more nights away from home per month had significantly higher body mass index scores and were significantly more likely to report the following: poor self-rated health; clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence; no physical activity or exercise; smoking; and trouble sleeping.
  • A study of health insurance claims among World Bank staff and consultants found that travelers had significantly higher claims than their non-traveling peers for all conditions considered, including chronic diseases such as asthma and back disorders. The highest increase in health-related claims was for the stress-related disorders.

Maybe I should extend the ban …

Sharing Is Caring

Nearly two months have gone by, and I’m still thinking about the ODESZA concert I attended.

Their music won’t resonate with everyone, but if you’ve got a soul and enjoy funky beats, it’s pretty dope. Their jams easily boost my productivity by 33%.

ODESZA’s hitting Singapore, Jakarta, and KL in July, and the show is so good that — all protestations about air travel notwithstanding — I’m tempted to make the trip.

My only reservation is that it just takes so long to get there.

And by that I mean from Soekarno-Hatta to the venue.

There’s a 16-minute teaser of one of their earlier albums, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bon appetit.

From the Bookshelf

Although there are significant differences from country to country and from region to region, from a corporate finance point of view these markets actually have far more in common than they have in differences, and they respond in very similar ways to external shocks …
 
An examination of sovereign debt history suggests that there is no obvious conclusion to be drawn about the correlation between, on the one hand, liberal economic policies and sustainable economic growth, and, on the other hand, industrial policies and economic stagnation. During periods of ample global liquidity, most economic policies seem to ‘work’ because of foreign capital inflows, while they all ‘fail’ when liquidity dries up …
 
The once-conventional and still dominant explanation of capital flows focuses on what are called ‘pull’ factors. This approach … argues that rich-country investors continuously evaluate profit opportunities at home and abroad and, when growth prospects in less developed countries seem favorable, they make the decision to invest … The focus of analysis is on local economic fundamentals, and the basic assumption is that improved growth prospects precede and cause investment inflows 
 
The alternative approach … focuses less on local economic conditions and more on changes in the liquidity of rich-country markets. It posits that when investors have excess liquidity — more than can be invested in traditional low-risk markets at home — they look elsewhere for investment opportunities … Here the basic assumption is that capital inflows precede and cause growth

Because the lure of capital inflows is so powerful, it creates a huge incentive for local policy-makers to implement whatever development policies are currently fashionable among rich-country bankers.

I want to stress the word ‘fashionable’ because there is little historical evidence that previous policy packages that were praised and rewarded by investors were, in the end, successful in generating sustainable wealth.

— Michael Pettis, The Volatility Machine (Oxford University Press: 2001)

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

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