5 min read 4 Oct 21
Listed infrastructure is a sector enjoying considerable interest within investment circles at present. IFA Magazine’s Sue Whitbread talked to Alex Araujo, fund manager of the M&G Global Listed Infrastructure strategy about the themes which are underpinning it and why he believes that ESG principles and processes are inextricably linked to future success
AA: At the moment we are seeing the convergence of a number of themes. Coming out of a global pandemic and the economic consequences of such means that we have this quite unusual co-ordinated global set of efforts to revitalise economies. Whether that’s North America, Europe or Asia, much of it is centered on fiscal stimulus and much of that stimulus is built around infrastructure.
The impetus is also for a green recovery, a sustainable recovery. This is a planetary and societal requirement and renewable energy and cleaner forms of energy generation and sustainability are at the centre of it all.
As we all know, digital infrastructure assets, which are an important part of our unlisted infrastructure strategy here at M&G, are an important driving theme as so many of us continue to work remotely and entertain ourselves remotely. If anything, we've all learnt over the past year and a half or so how dependent we are on digital infrastructure to support our work and personal lives. In our view, all of that converges quite conveniently for a strategy such as ours, with so many different sets of exposures which can capitalise on these important themes.
AA: This might surprise you as it's not in the most obvious places. Pure renewable type businesses have been a go-to investment strategy for many investors, particularly ESG-minded investors. What that has done is driven valuations up quite considerably. It has also started to increase volatility in those kinds of cases.
Where we see some bigger opportunities are in transition-oriented businesses. Examples here could be in electricity generating companies that are transitioning their own energy mix from more carbon intensive sources to renewables. I would argue they're actually contributing in a much different, perhaps even more supportive way in that they're affecting both sides of the balance sheet, deploying renewables, but decommissioning less carbon intensive energy sources.
At the same time, these are complicated stories. Very often it requires engagement with management teams, with boards on how that transition is going to be accomplished. We have to put pressure on and sometimes we have to financially support these initiatives. For that reason and for that added complication, the valuations tend to be more attractive. Therefore, what we accomplish in these investments is, of course, doing significant good for the environment when it all plays out the way we'd like it to, while at the same time capitalising on the valuation rerating, that is typically accompanying these kinds of stories.
I’d also throw one more element into the mix, and that is transition fuels. We hear a lot about hydrogen as an ultimate fuel source. However, there are transition fuels such as natural gas which are very important that can take an intermediate step in displacing coal-fired power and coal-fired heat in certain countries where renewables and cleaner forms of electricity generation aren't yet available. That's another very interesting opportunity. Again, not obvious, and therefore with some very interesting valuations attached to it.
AA: There are probably three specific areas I’d highlight here.
Firstly, is our focus on growth, but more specifically on dividend growth that we seek to extract from the businesses that we're invested in. The Global Listed Infrastructure strategy has an objective to grow the income to our unitholders every year in base currency terms, which for most of our audience would be sterling. This is achieved by way of growing dividends of course, and you can only grow your dividends as a business if you've got the kinds of assets and growth opportunities that can drive higher and higher cash flows. It’s very simple.
Rather than being more of a defensive-type of strategy, which is the traditional approach in the infrastructure world, we're focused on the long term, consistent, reliable growth and cash flows and therefore dividends from the businesses that we invest in.
Secondly, a difference is on the scope and the breadth of what we actually invest in. I think historically most infrastructure investors would be focused on ‘core’ or ‘traditional’ economic infrastructure. We do that too of course. That's the bulk of our exposure in the form of utility businesses, transportation infrastructure, energy infrastructure type holdings. But we extend the opportunity set for our investors to include social infrastructure, which of course has been incredibly important in the past year and a half. As examples here, think of hospital infrastructure, for example within primary care or hospital-type facility provision, educational infrastructure, civic infrastructure and so on. These are all involved in social infrastructure, which is a very defensive element of the strategy.
Thirdly, we add on what we call evolving infrastructure. This is the physical infrastructure required for the increasingly digital world that we live in. I alluded to it earlier, but this is where we get into mobile phone towers, data centres, fibre optic networks etc. These are the kinds of digital infrastructure assets that we can't do without if we want our internet, our zoom calls and so on.
Bringing these three elements together also gives us some diversification within the sector because not all of these sectors and areas move in the same way at the same time. They have different market environments and we've benefited from that.
The final point I'll make here is on ESG integration. This is where we examine and scrutinise the sustainability of the underlying assets and the business’ management teams that are managing them to ensure that those cash flow streams which we seek to grow over time are actually going to appear. This is particularly so over the long term, because we are long term investors with a very long term investment horizon.
AA: For our strategy, it's the nature of what we're actually investing in, the nature of the asset class. We are investing in fixed, immovable, real assets at the core of the businesses that we hold in the portfolio. They typically have impact and they also are exposed to potential impact; think of climate-change related events such as flooding, storms, forest fires etc. These things pose a risk to those assets. Those assets could also become stranded for one reason or another, depending upon what they're used for. So our ESG approach is one of examining the sustainability of the assets and, of course, the businesses, because that's the governance element, the societal impact of those assets and any exposures that they may be at risk of. That is the proprietary approach we take. There are obviously financial implications of these kinds of risks. Our objectives are to protect our investors and protecting their capital. That's how our ESG approach is structured for the strategy.
AA: It's a complicated question because I'd have to say when, how and in what form. Very often, inflation fears can manifest themselves in listed infrastructure types of businesses from a sentiment point of view. It’s the historical linkage between inflation risk and interest sensitive businesses, because these are all dividend paying companies that we hold within the portfolio. This tends to give us some wonderful opportunities because our ultimate protection and hedge against inflation in this portfolio is exactly what I discussed earlier, is that focus on growth. In my opinion growth is your best hedge against inflation risk. So, if we think about the kinds of businesses we invest in and where they get the growth, you can very quickly conclude that having inflation accompanying growth, even if that means the higher interest rates that go along with it, can certainly benefit these businesses. Let’s consider a toll road infrastructure business, for example. What does that toll road need? What it wants is growth, it wants recovery, passenger traffic, cargo traffic etc. Inflation allows the business to increase its tolls.
And so you get this effect where the economic sensitivity, the growth, the inflation, even the higher interest rates can positively impact these businesses. I'd say about two thirds of our portfolio itself has some form of inflation linkage in terms of protection. Sometimes it’s explicitly contractual, like you tend to find in social infrastructure or less direct in certain economic infrastructure businesses. It can even be in commodity price linkages where you have infrastructure that is serving commodity producing types of businesses.
These offer protections within the strategy. We have an objective to grow our dividends, expecting them to grow at a rate in excess of the G7 inflation rate, and this is how we seek to protect our investors from the eroding returns that inflation can sometimes bring.
The views expressed in this document should not be taken as a recommendation, advice or forecast.
The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.