There’s no shortage of global challenges for investors currently, especially for those concerned with private equity (PE). PE and risk managers with their fingers on the pulse are turning to often overlooked opportunities in emerging markets. As Martin Soderberg discusses, while there are arguably higher levels of risk associated with such investments, the key is being able to identify good companies – and some of these may be found in bad economies.

While the current state of global markets and the enduring pandemic are anything but favourable for fundraising, some estimates indicate that up to $2.5 trillion in unutilised capital was sitting in PE houses globally earlier this year, simply waiting for the tide to turn. The McKinsey Private Markets Review 2020 reveals that $1.47 trillion of investor capital was deployed through the PE asset class globally in 2019. This represents impressive growth of private market assets under management by 10% for the year, on the back of total growth of 170% for the past decade. While, as any risk or asset manager will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results, the existing levels of available capital (if prudently allocated) have the potential to extend this decade of growth through the COVID-19 storm.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already announced that it expects global growth to contract by 3% for 2020, representing a revised downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020. The IMF concluded that a revision of such magnitude over such a short period is an indication that the world is in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression and in a far worse position than during the Global Financial Crisis of 2009. While some would argue that investment in any country is potentially unstable in the current recession – evidenced by prices in investor safe havens such as gold skyrocketing to all-time highs, almost testing the $2,000 level this week – stability exists within key sectors such as healthcare and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs). This was exemplified late last year through Nigerian edtech learning platform uLesson’s closing of a $3.1 million seed-level round led by TLcom Capital, to address infrastructure and learning gaps in Africa’s education sector.

Population growth and urbanisation typically drive consumption in these and other sectors. Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced growing numbers of first-time migrants into cities and leading economic nodes, with pre-COVID estimates that 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will be living in cities by 2030. In addition, burgeoning middle classes and the younger populations of developing nations is resulting in increasing levels of disposable income. At a media briefing in June, however, the IMF projected that Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy will contract 3.2% in 2020 – double the contraction forecast earlier in April. FMCGs will have taken a knock across all markets and varying recovery periods, which also ought to be borne in mind. So PE firms need to revise their approaches to investor engagement, strategy and transparency to convince, secure and guide investor capital into emerging markets presently.

Finding the right quality asset

There is of course a definite need for macro analysis of the country your investment or acquisition target is stationed in. Along with the six different forces macro environments typically consist of – namely Demographic, Economic, Political, Ecological, Socio-Cultural, and Technological – under the current coronavirus circumstances additional consideration by investors and risk managers also needs to be given to the COVID-19 policies and responses being implemented by the countries these companies operate within, as well as the fiscal measures being implemented. Although these are particularly complicated and extraordinary variables to attempt to measure, their impact on GDP contraction as well as debt-to-GDP ratios within the countries concerned can potentially be forecast in the short- to medium term.

With this in mind, it’s worth identifying scalable entities with realistic potential for regional expansion where instilling a balanced measure of operational and strategic influence is possible at management and board levels. A recent example is PE firm Mediterrania Capital Partners, which focuses on growth investments in SMEs and mid-cap companies in North and sub-Saharan Africa, acquiring a stake in Akdital Holding, which operates five clinics in Morocco.

It’s important that liquidity management takes precedence over solvency, which often serves as an indication of top line growth. At the same time, one must also take into account worst-case scenarios within the markets one is investing in and plan accordingly for crisis scenarios, such as debt, liquidity options and operational costs that can be scaled back.

In addition, micro and macro risk management should be thorough, particularly in light of escalating trade wars between developed nations and instances of seemingly nationalistic legislation being passed that may be unfavourable to specific emerging markets and spur further GDP contraction. Furthermore, evaluation of local political risk and the potential for obstruction or intrusion at investment and operational levels should be borne in mind.

The lockdown conditions associated with COVID-19 have also significantly impacted logistics planning and provision, across borders to neighbouring states as well as overseas. Furthermore, we’re in a period of increased currency volatility which has a knock-on effect on export and import potential. However, such limitations create broader opportunities for PE firms to generate further value by concentrating greater focus on ESG in the markets in which they already operate. Such focus is typically undervalued, yet has the potential to generate greater revenue while ultimately attracting further investment – providing firms are willing to transparently evidence tangible progress..

PE and foreign direct investment scepticism

When entering and engaging with companies that have scalable investment potential in emerging markets, one should expect varying degrees of caution by companies in emerging markets, which is sometimes misinterpreted as protectionism. Historical injustices in many Sub-Saharan nations have understandably dented local confidence in foreign direct investment. Furthermore, companies will be wary of recurring instances where opportunistic investments by PE entities rendered relatively worthwhile returns for investors but created debt rather than any genuine value for the company concerned.

Therefore transparency and the ability to wear your PE credentials on your sleeve is paramount, such as evidence of accelerated revenue growth, increased capital expenditures and expanded profit margins in the financial reporting of your existing portfolio. If your portfolio is little more than smoke and mirrors designed to conceal debt as well, slowing revenue growth or capital expenditure as a percentage of sales declined and little evidence of revamped strategies and additional management perspective, then you’re setting yourself up to fail.

There will be continuing debate for some time to come as to whether reluctance to invest in emerging markets will be a PE stumbling block, given the hunt for yield. Thoroughly investigated company investment opportunities have to be afforded genuine investment value in terms of expansion and enrichment, not only for yields to materialise but also for the yields to be worthy of the investment itself. While now is the time for PE firms to begin putting in the groundwork, as much as an additional year, by conservative estimates, may need to be factored in before capital can realistically be deployed. But for those who carefully identify unwavering trends in emerging markets over the next six to 12 months and articulate genuine opportunities to investors, there is scope for the PE asset class to exhibit substantial growth over the course of the coming decade, while capitalising on the “good” companies blooming in “bad” economies.