Speak Like the Locals

[Originally written as the guest column for the PEHub Wire, Sept 22, 2010]

In Brooklyn, Old O’Malley would tell us boys about being a Flatbush kid in the Marines in 1942.  He often laughed about meeting hundreds of guys from around America who didn't seem to speak any English.  "Fugghedabouit!  Dose guys all spoke Texan!"

And, indeed, such a language divergence plagues private equity today.  After all, our performance touchstones – quartiles – emphasize the relative in an increasingly absolute world; we’re speaking one dialect and the asset allocators another.  Interestingly, relative metrics gained sway because of the dis-integration of portfolios.  Armed with copies of Pioneering Portfolio Management, asset allocators knew they wanted PE, but they found it challenging to integrate the asset class – with its illiquidity, irregular cashflows, and stale prices – into portfolio analytics.  As a result, this thrilling, but naughty asset became a part of the portfolio, while apart from it in many ways.

Having been a source of illiquid heartache during the downturn, private equity entered its post-heroic phase and many investment committees are contemplating how to re-integrate PE into their portfolios so they can think holistically again; as a result, crises of confidence abound with respect to taking on new commitments.  And perhaps the most serious problem right now is that people around the asset allocation table all speak different languages. 

In fact, a Monday meeting at an endowment or plan sponsor can be like a European Parliament meeting: there's the cat that covers VC, he's speaking a sun-drenched, passionate language analogous to Italian ("sprazzo di sole" has the same hopeful cadence as "cashflow breakeven.")  The real estate manager speaks the frenetic Merseyside Scouse of a BBC sportscaster who's seen too much hooliganism.  Meanwhile, the public market folks speak a frugal Dutch, as they haggle over single basis points in manager fees.  The hedge fund team speaks a precise, formal language that is the finance equivalent of German (too much time thinking about Sortino Ratio can give you weltschmerz, no?)

In such an environment, crowing about top quartile performance, or telling stories about “impact companies” can fall on deaf ears, particularly with the liquid asset constituents of the portfolio still resent that their portfolios were used as ATMs for increasingly frequent PE capital calls between 2004 and 2008.

So how can a GP raising a fund speak in terms that resonate across the portfolio?  First, I think we all in PE need to be more thoughtful in articulating our return expectations while taking an honest accounting of risks.  Focus not just on rear-view performance – which should properly be considered a lagging indicator, not a leading one – but also on implicit assumptions: why are your returns achievable?  In what environments will the fund outperform?  Underperform?    

Said another way, asset allocators live in worlds of probability distributions, observed risks, and well-established performance calculation; they measure and predict performance.  By failing to give thought to their metrics, we are perceived as soft and non-rigorous.  They speak the language of efficiency while we tout inefficiency; they’re from Mars and we’re from Venus.

Remember, PE is a return enhancing asset, one that must be considered in the context of the opportunity cost of equity capital; for asset allocators that cost includes the drag from the cash they have to keep at the ready for PE capital calls. 

To that end, it can be helpful to give people a sense for expectations of capital calls and distributions, with a particular eye toward what one’s doing to accelerate cashflows.  Today, liquidity is prized and it seems most folks are trying to shorten the duration of their portfolios.  Asset allocators worry about facing negative PE cashflows ad infinitum; any visibility into when cash might come back is critical.  After all, there’s nothing like returns to silence critics.  A little “moolah in the coolah” goes a long way toward answering the question on everyone’s lips when it comes to PE: “why bother?”

One View of the Future of VC Allocations

So I'm working on a blog post with some fundraising tips for PE and VC pros that are making the rounds.  The thesis is: you've got to come to meetings armed with better rhetoric, as many institutions have become wildly cynical about private equity strategies after feeling the acute sting of illiquidity during the downturn.  Said another way, people realized that the cost of illiquidity was much higher than they had estimated and many asset allocators are now (re)asking the questions: "are we getting adequately compensated for the risk and illiquidity of privates?" and, more importantly, "why bother?"  Talking about being top quartile will get you nowhere when the person across the table reports to a CIO who's obsessed with the opportunity costs of their capital. 

But before I finished that post, I thought I'd put up a slide deck that I pulled together a few months ago; I've presented variants of this storyline to a few different groups since the beginning of the year.  It's a review of some dynamics that impact institutional investor attitudes towards VC, but I think several of the thoughts are generalizable across private equity. 

Now, I don't think there are necessarily any earth-shattering insights embedded in the slides; it's more of a refresher of first principles.  On the other hand, I continue to be surprised at the number of GPs with whom I speak that think LPs will return en masse with open checkbooks at any moment.  I didn't want to be all gloomy and doom-y, so I tried to end the presentation on a optimistic note, but I do hope that people understand that we've crossed over to a new paradigm that's different from the illiquidity bull market that marked the better part of the last 15 years.  This isn't just a "get-a-mulligan" detour on the way back to 2006; instead, I think the fundraising equilibrium we find over the coming quarters and years will feel a lot more like the tough slogs of the late 80s and early 90s.

I sometimes teach "The Yale Case" (insert reverent pause here,) at business schools and I always open by asking the students what they think the key lessons are.  "Diversification!"  "Equity Bias!"  "Asset Allocation!" come the cries from the well-scrubbed students.  "Nope," I tell them.  "the real lesson of the Yale Case is: don't try this at home . . . "  I fear that many institutions have now learned that lesson the hard way and may be reluctant to return for some time.  And, as always, people will return when they see money being made, but, as with the lottery, the worst time to buy a ticket is typically just after somebody else has won the big jackpot . . .

VC Presentation May 2010http://d1.scribdassets.com/ScribdViewer.swf?document_id=32095003&access_key=key-286car1il8kko71w718v&page=1&viewMode=slideshow

Fat Startups, BMI and The Lorax

So, there I was hanging out in Denver airport again, reading the back-and-forth between Ben Horowitz and Fred Wilson on fat versus thin startups.  They’re both cats that I respect and I think they both make carefully reasoned, nuanced arguments that have far more depth than a quick summary can articulate. 

But all this talk of heft got me thinking about the Body Mass Index; those hip to the BMI calculation know that it's a measure of weight relative to height.  Doctors tend to be fans because it's a decent indicator of body fat which correlates with increased risk of morbidity and mortality.

And BMI tends to work pretty well, except when it doesn't.  For example, serious athletes tend to have more muscle per unit of height than the rest of us and thus have unusually high BMIs: Arnold Schwarzenegger's BMI clocks in at 33 (the "ideal weight range" runs from 18.5 to 24.9).  Even George Clooney clocks in at 29, just shy of the "obese" cutoff of 29.9.

The beauty of muscle, though, is that it's so much more metabolically active than fat.  That's why one can be heavy, but fit; the two are not mutually exclusive.  And  neither, necessarily, are capital efficiency and cash abundance in the startup world.  Indeed, while I do find myself more firmly in Fred's "lean" camp, I am sympathetic to the notion that sometimes a
company with a lot of dollars on hand can pivot more quickly as business
conditions change, or scale faster to
discourage new
entrants or
build competitive advantages
that give them a leg up on existing rivals.  Companies can be well-funded but hungry.  I get it.

But here's my question: sure, bigger companies can earn bigger exits, but if they burn more cash on the way to a big outcome, isn't it almost inevitable that return multiples will be depressed?  Indeed, there can be some positive externalities associated with a big outcome, but as an LP — the money behind the money — what I care most about is multiple on investment.  I'm focused on the numerator and the denominator.

And then I started thinking about some of the cleavages of interest that may arise from fatter startups.  Most directly, the dollar value of carry to a GP of 2x outcome on a $100 million investment is greater than that of a 5x on $10 million.  I know which outcome I would rather have, but I'm not sure that a random GP's answer would be the same.  Then you get into non-economic motivations: having big outcomes can help build a brand, almost regardless of the profits.  Few people know what multiple Sequoia, for example, generated on Cisco's IPO twenty years ago, It could be a 100x, or it could be a 2x.  Most likely, it's somewhere in between, but either way it's an awfully spiffy logo to have on the web page.  Entrepreneurs, too, can get a lot of jazz from landing a big round of funding; it's an endorsement of their idea and the vote of confidence that makes for good press releases and generates respect.

Further, aiming to build a large enterprise fundamentally changes a startup's optionality profile.  No longer are a wide range of exit scenarios compelling; suddenly, a happy outcome for all becomes limited to one of the handful of large exits that take place in a given year.  With expectations of a modest number of IPOs (which I fear is a structural thing,) and a few dozen M&A transactions in excess of $250M, all those fat startups are like so many well-prepped high school seniors looking to land a spot at Top College.  It's just tough arithmetic.  It may be a fun ride for the entrepreneurs and GPs, but it can be nerve-racking for us LPs at the tail end of the whip.

And the risks are different, as well.  "Fatter" startups imply either fewer portfolio investments or larger funds (or perhaps even imbalanced funds where a few large bets compete for GP time with many small ones).  None of these are particularly positive outcomes for fund investors. 

I could go on, but it would start to stress me out.  And one of my sources of stress is that entrepreneurs and GPs are pretty well represented in these discussions, but we LPs tend to be distant observers.  Who speaks for us? I wondered out loud.  And just at that moment a little man appeared out of the breeze:

[With apologies to Dr. Seuss]

“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
“I am the Lorax.  I speak for LPs
I speak for LPs for LPs have no tongues.
And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs” –
He was extremely upset as he warned retribution –
“What’s that THING they have done with our cash contribution?”

“Look, Lorax,” I said, “it's easy to get crotchety.
GPs deploy billions; it sometimes still bothers me.
In fact,” I continued, “some think it’s a lottery.
A lottery whose tickets can be a new social network,
A diversion to give cube-dwellers ways to shuck work.
But it has other uses.  No, we’re not out of the woods.
You can use it to serve ads or sell virtual goods.
Or crowdsource a date or find homes in new ‘hoods.”

The Lorax said,
“Sir! You are crazy from drinking the potion.
There is no one on earth who would buy that fool notion!”

But the very next moment we were shown to be wrong.
For, just at that moment, a ‘tween came along.
And she thought that the club we’d just ridiculed was great.
She happily subscribed for thirty-three ninety-eight.

I laughed with the Lorax.  “You poor stupid guy!
You never can tell what some people will buy.”

“I repeat,” cried the Lorax,
“I speak for LPs!”

“All GPs are top quartile,” I told him.
“Those marks are a tease.”

Careening with Smeed

So there I was, thinking about how I was going to start this blog post; I'd been meaning to compare investing to Smeed's Law — a behavioral theory that predicts the rate of traffic fatalities — for a while.  Determined to come up with something vaguely witty and quasi-relevant to kick off this post, I sat in my car for a moment before going into the 7-Eleven for my morning Double-Gulp when WHAM!it hit me!

I mean, really, it hit me … some cat driving an Audi A4 ran into me in the parking lot.  Seriously, dude?!?  Who runs into a parked car?!?  Oh well, as Old Man O'Malley used to say through the fog of cigar smoke encircling his head: "some days youse da dog and odders youse da hydrant."  Today was shaping up to be a hydrant day, for sure . . .

Anyhow, back to traffic.  There was this great retrospective by physicist Freeman Dyson a while back in Tech Review.  In it, he talks a bit about the things he learned from his old friend, RJ Smeed.  Among many other contributions, Smeed had postulated that deaths on the roads had little to do with speed limits, car safety features, quality of the roads, etc.  Instead, motorway mortality was a function of psychology.  Dyson said it best:

"The number of deaths is determined mainly by psychological factors that
are independent of material circumstances. People will drive recklessly
until the number of deaths reaches the maximum they can tolerate. When
the number exceeds that limit, they drive more carefully. Smeed's Law
merely defines the number of deaths that we find psychologically

And it seems to me that we're running a great test case of Smeed's Law: cell phones in cars.  Now, the nervous Nellies would tell us that gabbing while driving distracts people to a dangerous degree; I've now lived in three states where one can't use a handheld phone (and I've been a good boy … most of the time … or at least occasionally).  And indeed, while the number of cell subscriptions has exploded to over 250 million from a base of about zero 15 years ago, the total number of police-reported accidents has fluctuated in a pretty tight band during that time.  The average number of accidents over those 15 years has been about 6.3 million, with a high of about 6.8 million in 1996 and a low of 5.8 million in 2008; the standard deviation is about 4.15% around the mean.  I'd bet dollars to donuts that if you overlaid miles driven on the data, the rate of accidents per mile would be darn near constant.  [Now, I'll be the first to admit that texting/emailing is a whole different story . . . anyone with a Blackberry behind the wheel is a menace to souls and property!]

And that's what makes Smeed an unwitting market philosopher.  Markets are all about calibration of risk, and his insight was that as people feel safer, they get more reckless.  Comfort breeds complacency.  You can fiddle with speed limits, pave roads, install air bags, ticket people for manner of infractions, but folks just end up stretching their envelopes of comfort until they undo the putative progress; they calibrate to the risk.  And the same is true for the markets: just think about the banks that kept stretching (in every way) and the hedge funds that kept getting pushed to add risk because their volatility was too low.  Maybe now that memories of a crack-up are fresh in people's minds, they'll be a little more cautious, but that caution will be thrown to the wind as soon as we all get comfortable again. 

Inevitably, we'll have some regulations and rules thrown at the markets.  But what real effect will that have?  Remember when the "circuit breakers" were established after Black Monday?  Traders joked that trading curbs would give people a couple of hours to write out their trade tickets while the markets were "cooling off."  But no matter the safeguards we put in place, regardless of who we call systemically important, it's darn-near impossible to save us from our reckless selves. 

But maybe it's New Hampshire that has it right: it's the only state in the Union that doesn't have a universal seat belt law.  For those of you who've never seen it, New Hampshire's roadside seat belt signs say: "BUCKLE UP UNDER 18 / COMMON SENSE FOR ALL."  Does it surprise anyone that the Live Free or Die state is number 49 in the among the 50 states in traffic fatalities?  Maybe we all could use a little more common sense and a little less regulation, on the road and in the markets?   

Let's all be careful out there.


A Hundred Days, A Hundred Months

Sometimes, I envy public market investors; occasionally I think, "wouldn't it be nifty to actually see your investment theses play out in less time than a presidential term or two?"  But then I remind myself how cool it is to watch portfolio companies flourish and strive and struggle and dream.  It's like watching your nieces and nephews – the ones you see only about once a quarter – grow and mature.  And all that waiting and watching pays off.  Doesn't it?

I've been asking that question a lot lately.  After all, on Day One of LP School we're taught that there is compensation for patience. Illiquidity is one of the key risk premia we collect (right?).  At Old Ivy, we always said, “fifteen percent compounded forever is a lot of money . . .”

But I worry that some in the PE world seek illiquidity solely for illiquidity's sake.  Or even more cynically, I occasionally fear that there are some who hide investments gone sideways behind a veil of prudent patience.  So, let me ask heretically: what if all of the talk of long term horizon is misguided?  What if the compensation for holding an investment to the out-years is inadequate relative to the risk?

Let me double-click on that for a moment: nowadays most buyout shops tout their Hundred Day Plans.  Think: Metrics!  Dashboards!  Flash reports!  SWAT teams!  (Or are those SWOT teams?)  Some firms have upped the ante and talk about working to kick off The Plan even before they close on deals (how proactive!).  And all of this stuff is music to LPs's ears, giving the impression of catalytic ownership.  Now we know why we're paying these guys the big bucks: it's because they do . . . stuff (and they do it fast!).  And, sure enough, skilled owners can help businesses achieve real value inflection points.  Some even have grand plans for strategic repositioning that will take many years and a half dozen or more add-ons to come to fruition.

But here’s a question: how long should one hold a company to capture value?  Come in, rock your 100-day plan, catalyze a bunch of change, stabilize the company, get eight quarters of growth under your belt, and hope for a good exit market in years three or four.  Easy.  (Of course, easy can be very, very hard.)   

But think about it another way: if there’s a value creation curve for the typical company, I’d imagine it’s very steep in the early years, with a flattening in the out-years.  There might be an inflection point or two beyond the initial surge, but the rate of change almost certainly slows as time passes.  Meanwhile, business is moving ever quicker – just talk to a biz dev team using The Cloud to fast-cycle product testing and launch, or a manufacturing group using lean production – and execution challenges are unending.  One could even posit that owning companies in the out-years is more risky than anyone expected; there might even be a case to be made that risk-adjusted returns go down in the out-years.  Maybe that’s why so many LPs grouse that their portfolios are full of over-ripe companies.

Perhaps there’s a way to think rigorously about which of the ripe fruits to harvest and which need some more vine time: I know of at least one group that methodically re-underwrites its portfolio every six months and asks, "what is the distribution of the prospective returns for each of our portfolio companies?"  Implicit in the exercise is a belief that at any moment, you’re either a buyer or a seller.  Those companies that exceed a certain hurdle rate stay; those that don’t go out for sale.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that folks should sell prematurely or sub-optimize exits.  Instead, I’m talking about a meticulous re-underwriting process that asks hard questions about prospective return, risk, uncertainty, and liquidity horizon.  Of course, GPs are generally incentivized to let their winners run, even as rate of return slouches (as long as the multiple contribution is positive).  LPs, on the other hand, want their money back yesterday.  These divergent views express the tension inherent in unknowables: what does the future hold?  What are the opportunity costs?  For the GPs?  For the LPs?  Is it worse to sell too early – or run the risk of holding on too long?

And whenever I ponder these kinds of questions, my mind wanders back to one of my mentors, a dyspeptic Frenchman who seemed to be forever enshrouded in fogs of Gauloises and cynicism.  Once, after he’d helped me finish a thorny financial model, I asked him what he thought.  “Bof,” he replied with a shrug, “after year three, life is all terminal value anyhow.  The important thing is to make sure you get those three years right and the terminal value will take care of itself.  The first steps are often more important than the last.”

[Originally posted as the 5/27 guest column on PEHub.com]