- Despite challenging economic and market conditions, there are compelling opportunities in the global listed infrastructure space in different countries.
- Strong demand for listed infrastructure has been coming from “dry powder” sitting unused in unlisted funds.
- Decarbonization, reshoring and 5G evolution trends should support global listed infrastructure assets going forward.
- Regulated utilities can provide a hedge during periods of high inflation and can also benefit as inflation declines.
Challenging global economic and market conditions
The global markets have been going through a challenging period, with many countries implementing aggressive interest-rate increases. In the United States the US federal funds rate has risen to the highest level in the last 40 years. Additionally, US equity market performance has seen very limited breadth; year-to-date, artificial intelligence (AI) stocks have dominated gains in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.1 Inflation has also remained stickier than expected.
In our view, high interest rates will translate to slower economic growth around the world, albeit in an unsynchronized manner. China is trying to stimulate its economy but continues to experience weak growth. The European Union is very bifurcated, with nations in the south faring better than those in the north that have led the region in the past. The United Kingdom and Australia are similar in that they are feeling the effects of higher interest rates. Lastly, although the US currently appears solid, cracks are starting to appear in terms of growth.
Listed vs. unlisted global infrastructure valuations
Listed infrastructure assets are traded on public markets and more liquid than unlisted infrastructure assets, which are privately held. There has been a big disconnect between the valuations of listed and unlisted infrastructure, with listed trading at a big discount versus unlisted. As of December 31, 2022, the gap—as measured by the Global Listed Infrastructure Organisation (GLIO) Index vs. the Wilde/Preqin Infrastructure Index—has been the largest seen since the global financial crisis.2 Since then, according to Preqin, there has been US$300 billion of dry powder (capital committed but yet to be drawn) sitting in unlisted funds looking for a home. This capital has already been coming to the market to acquire assets, and we think it will continue to do so.
Over the last year or two, unlisted investors have been narrowing their focus to core infrastructure assets, such as regulated utilities (roads, rail, airports, etc.). Thus, we still see strong demand from unlisted that proves the valuation point for the listed space. At the same time, listed companies can sell assets in whole or in part to finance their growth going forward, rather than having to go to equity or debt markets.
Decarbonization, reshoring and 5G evolution trends
Our strategy only invests in listed infrastructure. The two areas we concentrate on are regulated and contract utilities (such as water, electricity, gas and renewables) and user-pays assets (such as railways, roads, airports, communications and ports). Regulated and contract utilities have low sensitivity to gross domestic product (GDP) changes, are defensive and less volatile than user-pays assets, and can provide high levels of income. User-pays assets have more of a link to GDP and provide lower income than regulated and contract utilities.
Utilities has been one of the worst-performing sectors so far this year, especially in the United States.3 This is mostly due to rising real yields. Also, as mentioned earlier, AI-linked companies have driven most of the S&P 500’s performance. On a fundamental basis, we believe utility companies are generally solid and continue to hit their cash flow earnings and dividend targets. It’s also worth remembering that these are regulated assets with regulated returns.
Among major tailwinds for listed infrastructure is the move toward net zero. Decarbonization continues to gain momentum globally. In our analysis, to get anywhere near net zero by 2030, power spending needs to increase from about US$0.8 trillion to US$2.5 trillion per annum. Specifically, spending on wind and solar needs to increase 5.5x by 2030 in order to be on track for a net-zero outcome by 2050. Similarly, to reach net zero by 2050, by 2030 60% of all cars sold annually will need to be electric—for 2023 we are at 18%, according to the International Energy Agency.
Reshoring has been another major theme and has gathered momentum post-COVID as supply chains have begun to shorten and become more domestic. In the United States, since the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) started incentivizing local manufacturing, 83 new clean energy manufacturing facilities or expansions have been announced, adding 184 gigawatts of new capacity.4 This not only benefits utilities but also electric vehicle transport infrastructure needing electricity sourced from renewable energy.
Many governments around the world have launched manufacturing incentives tied to clean energy, including the European Union’s Green Deal Industrial Plan and the United Kingdom’s “Powering Up Britain.” Canada has also announced a similar plan.
Thus, despite the drop in share prices, we believe utilities remain attractive due to these incentives as well as continued solid fundamentals.
Attractive opportunities in the United Kingdom and other countries
UK utilities sold off last year due to major sewage leaks, but have re-rated toward the end of 2022 and into this year. In our analysis, UK water companies offer what we consider attractive valuations and provide good opportunities for future returns. Additionally, while there has been a lot of noise in the sector, future capital spending needs have not changed. In our view, substantial private investment—not just public funding—is needed to rectify UK water systems.
We have found opportunities in other countries as well, such as in Japan, where rail companies are benefiting from a delayed COVID-19 recovery. In Europe and in the United States, utilities are performing well following restructuring efforts. Brazil has some of the best regulations in the world and its energy and toll road companies look attractive to us. And in China, we believe gas companies will pick up with the conversion to gas from coal.
Stable dividends and inflation hedge
Most listed infrastructure companies can pass inflation directly or indirectly through to the ultimate consumer. This doesn’t necessarily mean their dividend payouts will follow inflation as it goes up and down because they keep a constant dividend policy. In times of higher inflation, they’ll retain some of that cash, and in times of lower inflation, they’ll pay some of that out. Companies globally with the best dividend coverage are generally the most solid. These companies have also been able to compensate for rising inflation, which we believe has peaked, and will likely moderate going forward. Lower inflation will also benefit regulated utilities since they will feel less pressure to increase their prices.
Given the current backdrop, we favor being defensively positioned in utilities with what we consider compelling valuations and that are less sensitive to GDP. Additionally, in our analysis, there are long-term drivers—such as decarbonization, reshoring and 5G growth—that should provide attractive opportunities in the listed infrastructure space.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal. Equity securities are subject to price fluctuation and possible loss of principal. Fixed income securities involve interest rate, credit, inflation and reinvestment risks, and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls.
International investments are subject to special risks, including currency fluctuations and social, economic and political uncertainties, which could increase volatility. These risks are magnified in emerging markets. The government’s participation in the economy is still high and, therefore, investments in China will be subject to larger regulatory risk levels compared to many other countries.
Companies in the infrastructure industry may be subject to a variety of factors, including high interest costs, high degrees of leverage, effects of economic slowdowns, increased competition, and impact resulting from government and regulatory policies and practices.
Securities issued by utility companies have been historically sensitive to interest rate changes. When interest rates fall, utility securities prices, and thus a utilities fund’s share price, tend to rise; when interest rates rise, their prices generally fall.
Liquidity risk exists when securities or other investments become more difficult to sell, or are unable to be sold, at the price at which they have been valued.
Franklin Templeton and our Specialist Investment Managers have certain environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) goals or capabilities; however, not all strategies are managed to “ESG” oriented objectives.
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1. Source: ClearBridge Investments, FactSet, as of August 31, 2023. Apple, Nvidia, Microsoft, Amazon.com, Meta Platforms, Tesla and Alphabet, widely seen as beneficiaries of AI, accounted for ~70% of the S&P 500 Index’s return year to date. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot directly invest in them. They do not include fees, expenses or sales charges. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. See www.franklintempletondatasources.com for additional data provider information.
2. Sources: GLIO and Wilde/Preqin, as of December 31, 2022. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot directly invest in them. They do not include fees, expenses or sales charges. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. See www.franklintempletondatasources.com for additional data provider information. The GLIO Index is a free-float weighted index that tracks the performance of the leading and most liquid infrastructure companies worldwide. The Wilde/Preqin Infrastructure Index is a proxy for unlisted infrastructure funds. Note that data may be subject to inaccuracies as some information is based on self reporting.
3. Source: ClearBridge Investments, FactSet. as of August 31, 2023. The utilities sector is the worst-performing sector in the S&P 500 Index. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot directly invest in them. They do not include fees, expenses or sales charges. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. See www.franklintempletondatasources.com for additional data provider information.
4. Source: American Clean Power, “Clean Energy Investing In America,” July 31, 2023.
5. Sources: Cisco VNI, 2006-2017; Forbes: 2017-2022. Figures provided by Ericsson Mobility Report June 2022, Altman Solon Research & Analysis, CTIA, BAML Wireless Matrix.