Manhattan, New York in the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Mustafa Abdel-Wadood earlier pled not guilty at a hearing in Manhattan federal court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This month Mustafa Abdel-Wadood, the managing partner of giant Middle East fund Abraaj, pled guilty to racketeering in a New York court, following the May annual meeting in Washington of the 15-year old Emerging Market Private Equity Association (EMPEA), where hundreds of delegates gathered to celebrate last year’s record $90 billion fundraising dominated by China.

A main theme then was the launch by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation private sector arm of formal impact investing principles to define social, alongside commercial, returns. Dozens of global institutional investors signed up, and new Bank President David Malpass hailed the breakthrough in a keynote speech. To address Abraaj’s collapse and liquidation, an EMPEA working group issued general governance and integrity guidelines, as the industry reconsiders players’ penchants for confidentiality and index avoidance.

At its peak, Abraaj claimed $15 billion in assets as the EMPA’s single biggest fund. Now, US and UK investors are pursuing fraud allegations against the founder, Pakistani national Arif Naqvi, who was close to the development lending elite and attracted the Gates Foundation as a partner. The fund was an aggressive deal maker in more exotic frontier markets, with an early push into Sub-Sahara Africa, and reported a long streak of double-digit returns.

Its fall from grace preceded another spectacular one when the head of TPG’s multi-billion dollar “sustainability” vehicle around UN Development Goals was implicated in a US college bribery scandal. Internal personal and cultural missteps will always pose risks, but developing world private capital lacks indices and rankings widely available to public equity. EMPEA members were involved in the original launch of the emerging stock markets database through the World Bank decades ago, and realize that comparable yardsticks and information disclosure for the asset class may be overdue.

From a geographic standpoint, the Middle East as Abraaj’s home base was already under fire, with a survey of hundreds of investors placing it at the bottom of regional preference. It ranked next to Russia, which recently jailed a well-known international private equity executive. Isolation may continue even as Gulf markets increasingly enter the mainstream MSCI stock and EMBI sovereign bond indices, given the tradition of secretive family and royal connections where relationships drive allocation.

Before the meltdown, Abraaj had announced a privatization deal with former Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif that never closed, as he was implicated in the Panama papers and tried and convicted for corruption. State enterprise selloff is a linchpin of the latest $6 billion International Monetary Fund program under current Prime Minister Imran Khan, and bidding procedures and stake transfer will presumably be more open.

Africa was also hurt to the extent the regions are combined in a strategy, following previous Sub-Saharan optimism when commitments spiked from big global houses like KKR and Carlyle. At the EMPEA event, the latter’s chief executive, David Rubenstein, was upbeat on developing economies’ futures, absent bullishness on Africa given the firm’s mixed track record there. He also stressed business ethics in a possible indirect swipe at Abraaj, as industry leaders hesitate to offend Gulf wealth sources’ deep cash pool. Amid Africa’s re-rating on stagnating incomes and growing debt with the eclipsed “rising” narrative, specialists now argue that Abraaj’s splashy headline acquisitions backfired, and overstated earnings and management value. For future funds they recommend extension of the typical 10-year life, to allow more stock market development time so that companies have a way out.

Recasting of public-private equity links also applies more broadly to accountability and measurement, in line with investor desire to avoid another Abraaj within evolving hybrid cross-asset strategies. JP Morgan has already combined external corporate and sovereign gauges to integrate debt coverage, as fund manager “total return” mandates increasingly comprise stock-bond mixes and off-index bets.

Creating a private equity benchmark, initially through a sampling of top global emerging market players, could offer another building block for next generation allocation. The funds themselves can open to standard emerging market portfolio flow tracking from sources like EPFR and the International Institute for Finance, and could take steps to open their books and practices beyond sophisticated institutional investors though compilation of a  free database on the EMPEA website. Regional bodies like the Asia Venture Capital Association can promote these changes, to solidify a top geographic ranking and banish Abraaj’s vestiges for longer-term confidence.

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