What Private Equity Has In Common with Renaissance Charlatans

No man need despair of gaining converts to the most extravagant hypothesis who has art enough to represent it in favorable colors.
-David Hume

Sometimes the private equity industry reminds me of travelling charlatans in late Renaissance Europe. I recently reread Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, and realized that Law 32 “ Play on People’s Fantasies” must be the guide some people use to draft fund pitchbooks.

( I refer to“Private Equity” or “PE” , but the same general logic applies to the entire alternative investments industry.  This includes venture capital, some hedge funds, non-traded REITs, etc. )

PE funds have long term lock ups. The lack of mark to market smooths out volatility. It looks nice on a statement to see something holding steady as markets tank.  There can be good reasons for long lockups. Many investments genuinely take a long term to workout.  Most short term price fluctuation in the public markets is noise that some find hard to ignore. Warren Buffett once remarked that he bought stocks with the idea that public markets could close for a decade, and it wouldn’t bother him. But often unscrupulous fund managers use questionable marketing techniques and exploit the ability to keep money locked up for a long time.

Marco Bragadino, Private Equity Fund Manager

Often allocators or wealthy individuals will seek out private equity and other alternative investments because of frustration with public markets.  Maybe the mark to market volatility has been painful. Perhaps the index funds squeezed all the alpha out of the markets.  Maybe they feel that better connected people have access to investments. If only they also had access they too could grow their wealth for multiple generations.  Plus they might have something to brag about at cocktail parties or in the nursing home.

Similarly, Marco Bragadino, or Il Bragadino was a famous Charlatan who first targeted Venice in the late 1500s, a time that the city was gripped with the feeling that its best days were behind it. The opening of the “New World” transferred power to the Atlantic Side of Europe. Venice struggled to keep up with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Worse yet, The Turks were making incursions into Venice’s mediterranean possessions.

Now noble families went broke in Venice, and banks began to fold. A kind of gloom and depression settled over the citizens. They had known a glittering past — had either lived through it or heard stories about it from their elders. The closeness of the glory years was humiliating. The Venetians half believed that the goddess Fortune was only playing a joke onthem, and that the old days would soon return. For the time being, though, what could they do?

Exclusivity

Many alternative asset managers claim to have proprietary models, and tend to give of an air of exclusivity. Madoff, who managed a fraudulent hedge fund, was an extreme example of this. If only investors have the right “access”, they too can get exposure to that magic investment.  This is right out of Il Bragadino’s playbook:

In 1589 rumors began to swirl around Venice of the arrival not far away of a mysterious man called “II Bragadino,” a master of alchemy, a man who had won incredible wealth through his ability, it was said, to multiply gold through the use of a secret substance. The rumor spread quickly because a few years earlier, a Venetian nobleman passing through Poland had heard a learned man prophesy that Venice would recover her past glory and power if she could find a man who understood the alchemic art of manufacturing gold. And so, as word reached Venice of the gold this Bragadino possessed — he clinked gold coins continuously in his hands, and golden objects filled his palace — some began to dream: Through him, their city would prosper again.

Modern asset managers are known for having well scripted due diligence meetings that leave investors with a feeling of awe and urgency. Il Bragadino did this too:

Members of Venice’s most important noble families accordingly went together to Brescia, where Bragadino lived. They toured his palace and watched in awe as he demonstrated his gold-making abilities, taking a pinch of seemingly worthless minerals and transforming it into several ounces of gold dust. The Venetian senate prepared to debate the idea of extending an official invitation to Bragadino to stay in Venice at the city’s expense, when word suddenly reached them that they were competing with the Duke of Mantua for his services. They heard of a magnificent party in Bragadino’ s palace for the duke, featuring garments with golden buttons, gold watches, gold plates, and on and on. Worried they might lose Bragadino to Mantua, the senate voted almost unanimously to invite him to Venice, promising him the mountain of money he would need to continue living in his luxurious style — but only if he came right away.

But look at that Sharpe Ratio!

Some private equity fund managers will claim a superb track record without ever having an exit. Sometimes legacy funds will be valued higher, but fail to provide any cash flow. Sometimes those legacy funds work out, but sometimes are actually complete disasters and the manager is delaying the inevitable reckoning.

Again, this is something they could have learned from Il Bragadino:

Bragadino had only scorn for the doubters, but he responded to them. He had, he said, already deposited in the city’s mint the mysterious substance with which he multiplied gold. He could use this substance up all at once, and produce double the gold, but the more slowly the process took place, the more it would yield. If left alone for seven years, sealed in a cas-
ket, the substance would multiply the gold in the mint thirty times over. Most of the senators agreed to wait to reap the gold mine Bragadino promised. Others, however, were angry: seven more years of this man living royally at the public trough! And many of the common citizens of Venice echoed these sentiments. Finally the alchemist’s enemies demanded he produce a proof of his skills: a substantial amount of gold, and soon.

Sometimes mark to market is indeed mark to fantasy.

Finding new suckers

When an asset manager fails to deliver with one target fundraising channel, they look to others. There is nothing wrong with expanding and diversifying a business. But I get suspicious when a fund manager suddenly shifts their whole targeted capital base. Especially when they shift from institutional to retail. Like certain modern fund managers, Il Bragadino focused on finding new clients when became increasingly suspicious of his unfulfilled promises.

Lofty, apparently devoted to his art, Bragadino responded that Venice, in its impatience, had betrayed him, and would therefore lose his services. He left town, going first to nearby Padua, then, in 1590, to Munich, at the invitation of the Duke of Bavaria, who, like the entire city of Venice, had known great wealth but had fallen into bankruptcy through his own profligacy, and hoped to regain his fortune through the famous alchemist’s services. And so Bragadino resumed the comfortable arrangement he had known in Venice, and the same pattern repeated itself.

Believe in the smart people

Yet  fund managers, even bad ones, often get incredibly rich in spite of not adding much value to their investors. Their talent is in exploiting human psychology, not investing. It all links back to their ability to exploit people’s need to believe:

His obvious wealth confirmed his reputation as an alchemist, so that patrons like the Duke of Mantua gave him money, which allowed him to live in wealth, which reinforced his reputation as an alchemist, and so on. Only once this reputation was established, and dukes and senators were fighting over him, did he resort to the trifling necessity of a demonstration. By then, however, people were easy to deceive: They wanted to believe. The Venetian senators who watched him multiply gold wanted to believe so badly that they failed to notice the glass pipe up his sleeve, from which he slipped gold dust into his pinches of minerals. Brilliant and capricious, he was the alchemist of their fantasies — and once he had created an aura like this, no one noticed his simple deceptions.

Psychology of Avoiding Charlatans

There is a paradox here. In most cases, it is better to make investments with the intention of making money over decades, not quarters. Yet that is not a reason to not monitor progress. There are many great alternative asset managers who deliver massive value to their clients over decades.  I know from experience that they are usually straight shooters.

Charlatans exploit default tendencies in human psychology.  Therefore we must guard against this. Building wealth requires discipline. There is no magic investment that will solve everything. People don’t want to hear that, and the Bragadinos of the world prey on this by giving easy answers. Its critical to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The market doesn’t owe anyone a good return. We must monitor our own psychology as much as the activity of our fund managers.

Constant vigilance is needed to avoid getting tricked by the Bragadinos of the investment world.

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