With countries all over the world determined to recover from the pandemic, infrastructure looks likely to be a prominent investment theme over the next few years. We look at some of the biggest areas of infrastructure investing and assess the positives and negatives for investors.
The building of bridges, railways, and motorways are all examples of high-profile infrastructure developments, while schools, prisons, and hospitals are all just as essential to a functioning society, and the demand for infrastructure spending may well increase as a result of Coronavirus. Governments in developed markets, including the UK and the US, have promised to “build back better”, and see infrastructure projects as a way to create more jobs and boost long-term economic growth. As a result of this, we can expect more announcements of projects that move away from ‘traditional’ concepts of infrastructure, and towards next-generation projects, such as smart motorways and intercity transit, 5G base stations and renewable energy installations, and electric vehicle charging points.
It’s no surprise then, that there has been growing interest from investors who see infrastructure as an excellent long-term investment opportunity. But there are other benefits too. Just like property, infrastructure is a tangible asset to hold, which makes it altogether easier to understand, and therefore easier to invest in.
It is also worth noting that the infrastructure sector has also proven to be a reliable source of investment returns. Again, the tangible nature of infrastructure means it can provide investors with a predictable and regular stream of cashflows over several years – often linked to inflation. And, because infrastructure projects are backed by government public sector spending, the project risk is usually shared.
Investments that offer a reliable repeatable cashflow are very appealing, but many investors are only starting to recognise the role that infrastructure investments could play as part of a diversified mix of portfolio investments.
Within the investment universe, infrastructure is considered as part of the ‘alternatives’ sector, sitting alongside property investment, renewable energy, bonds, debt, and specialist finance, as well as the less accessible but well-established areas of private equity and hedge funds. All of these are considered ‘alternative’, as they are expected to produce returns with very little in common with the returns available from equity investments. Because of this, a ‘diversified’ portfolio is likely to feature an allocation towards alternatives that aim to achieve returns in periods when equity markets perform less strongly.
Alternatives have surged in popularity as more investors (of all shapes and sizes) have grown frustrated with the old-fashioned ‘balanced’ model of investing, where the belief is that holding both higher return/higher-risk equities and lower return/lower-risk investments in bonds effectively gives investors lower volatility and smoother returns throughout the investment journey – regardless of any stock market ups and downs.
The biggest problem with that approach is that with government bond yields stuck at historic lows, bonds are offering little or no return for investors, and are therefore not really justifying their place within portfolios. So, at a time when we are all questioning the old ways of doing things, it might be time to rethink those traditional labels of ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternatives’. Infrastructure could then be viewed as overtaking bonds as an asset class capable of providing useful portfolio diversification – with little correlation to riskier equities, but capable of providing inflation-linked returns and a steady stream of positive income.
So, if you are considering investing in infrastructure, are there any specific areas worth focusing on? You might want to start with infrastructure investments that focus on renewable energy. Back in 2015, 193 countries signed up to the United Nations General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If governments across the globe are serious about achieving some or all of these goals, they will need to implement infrastructure spending covering areas such as solar and wind projects designed to help accelerate the transition towards a low-carbon future.
Another fast-growing area involves digital infrastructure. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that people have become increasingly dependent on digital access. Working remotely, shopping through e-commerce, and spending more of our leisure time at home (and in front of our computer or TV screens) has accelerated the global demand for fibre-optic networks, telecommunication towers, and data centres.
You may think that internet activity – whether that means using emails or streaming films on Netflix – is these days mostly carried out ‘in the cloud’. But data centres are the buildings used to house computer systems, servers, and storage. These data centres and exchanges rely on a largely unseen network that requires millions of miles of fibreoptic cable, cellular base stations, towers, and countless signal transmitters. Demand for data centres and associated components has increased dramatically over the last 12 months, and this demand only looks like increasing in the future.
As an asset class, infrastructure used to be the preserve of big money institutional investors. But today there is a range of different investment vehicles that offer infrastructure exposure to individual UK investors, either in the form of open-ended funds or investment trusts. Investment trusts tend to own the physical assets (such as wind turbines, data centres, or toll roads), whereas open-ended funds invest in the equities of the companies that operate in these sectors. These include the major engineering and construction firms that are contracted to plan and deliver on large infrastructure projects, as well as companies that supply the tools and equipment.
As a result, we expect the number of funds – focusing on all different aspects of infrastructure – to increase from here. But as with any type of investment, it is important to understand the structure of the investment (particularly whether it is an investment trust or an open-ended investment), where it expects returns to come from, and to determine whether the risk is appropriate for the available reward. We would also argue that now infrastructure investing is becoming more fashionable, it is even more important to choose those investments managed by companies with a good track record, who manage risks appropriately, and who do not promise returns that are too good to be true.
The coronavirus pandemic may well present an opportunity to “build back better”, and to replace old ways of living with new ones. As a result, infrastructure looks like becoming an important investment trend for years to come, and we expect it to play an increasingly prominent role within investment portfolios.
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This content is for information purposes only. It does not constitute investment advice or financial advice.