Several pre-pandemic years ago, my family and I enjoyed a long vacation in England, touring the usual castles, cathedrals, and museums. At some point in the trip, my kids noticed that many of the buildings we toured and historical objects we saw were in some way tied to, owned by, or were on loan from, the royal family. Whether it was Windsor Castle, the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, or the Bentley limousines garaged at Buckingham Palace, much of what you see as a tourist in England is recorded on Her Majesty’s balance sheet.
I took the opportunity to point out to my kids that a reliable way to accumulate wealth was to invest in assets you would never want to sell, and then don’t sell them. The best assets tend to remain the best, and the avoidance of transaction costs removes a drag on returns that everyone – in my experience – underestimates.
The increased prominence of “permanent” capital providers in the RIA space takes me back to the multi-generational buy-and-hold strategy of the royals, not just because of the avoidance of transaction costs but also because of the premium entry prices being paid. In 1852, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria paid £32,000 for a vacation home now known as Balmoral Castle. What was that price relative to market? I don’t know, but 170 years later, it doesn’t matter.
GPs at private equity conferences once liked to boast about their success in booking “gains on purchase” – a clever way of saying they could buy at a discount to market. No one talks that way in the RIA community these days. If anything, I’m struck by how sponsor-backed acquirers are willing to state, publicly, their willingness to outbid each other. I won’t call anyone out with specific examples, but they aren’t hard to find.
RIAs are probably the best coupon available in a low-to-no yield environment.
It’s as if a land-grab is underway, with competing interests looking to consolidate as much market share in the investment management community as they can, as fast as possible. The trouble is that RIAs are a sort of land that is actually still being manufactured. Despite the rampant consolidation in the space, the number of RIAs is steadily on the increase. Nevertheless, there is legitimate cause for enthusiasm.
As we’ve written many times in this blog, investing in the RIA space represents a singular opportunity. RIAs are probably the best coupon available in a low-to-no yield environment. They are a growth and income play like none other. They are practically the apotheosis of diversification in a way that Harry Markowitz could have only dreamed of when he started publishing his research nearly 60 years ago.
Unfortunately, many reasonable ambitions, stretched far enough, eventually become wellsprings of regret.
Returns and valuations are inversely related, after all. An unfettered willingness to pay more is just a race to the bottom on ROI. Financial engineering doesn’t repeal the laws of financial gravity. Taking more and greater risks leads to a greater variability of outcomes. Paying more compresses returns. To my way of thinking, this isn’t prudent – but I’m not paid to manage capital.
Professional investors must work in the market they have, not the market they want. It’s all well and good to talk about “patient” capital, but LPs aren’t going to pay 200 basis points for someone to hold their cash, regardless of how advisable that might be. Given that mandate, the question of whether to make investments at these levels pivots to how best to do it. What opportunities are available in the present – and potentially lingering – environment of high entrance multiples?
Financial engineering doesn’t repeal the laws of financial gravity.
I’ll posit that the rise of “permanent capital” providers is both in response to and appropriate for current market conditions in the RIA space. This is in sharp contrast to the prevailing “fund” behavior in the private equity community, in which LPs commit capital for a specified length of time – ten years or so – and fund managers have to make investment decisions with an expectation of being in and out of an investment in less time than that – say five to seven – to generate the kind of ROI it takes to raise the next fund.
Anyone who’s spent a few moments (or a career) with DCF models knows that there are a limited number of levers to pull to rationalize a high entry price with a five-year holding period. You can assume supernormal growth (unlikely in a mature space like investment management), high exit pricing (multiple arbitrage – aka the greater fool theory), squeezing margins (underinvestment), or low discount rates (race to the bottom on ROI).
The other possible lever is, of course, leverage. Debt can enhance equity returns so long as it doesn’t wipe them out entirely. Unfortunately, it’s only in hindsight that we know what leverage ratio is (or was) optimal.
Making a permanent capital investment doesn’t eliminate the depressive effects of current valuations on returns, but it mitigates them. Without the pressure to generate an exit within the foreseeable future, RIA investors can focus on the opportunities for sustainable and growing distributions. The longer distributions persist and the more they grow, the less of an impact the entry price has on total return.
Further, without the financial friction of trading out of an investment in a few years and the costs and risks of reinvestment, the opportunity for superior returns – especially relative to those available at similar risk elsewhere in the current market – is greater.
The question of how long “permanent capital” lasts is a good one. The investors backing many of these enterprises tend to be insurance companies with very long time horizons. The thousand-year outlook of William the Conqueror probably isn’t relevant to investing in RIAs, but the mindset of an indefinitely lengthy holding period leads permanent capital sponsors to different decision making, which may prove useful in times like this. It’s hard to think long term when the M&A headlines keep coming, but the business cycle has a lot of staying power. In this market, investors need staying power as well.