For the past fifteen years, infrastructure investment has been the preserve of large sophisticated investors but is now rapidly becoming more mainstream and asset owners of all sizes are considering investing in infrastructure equity or debt.
Originally confined to private equity or debt strategies, the label “infrastructure” can now be found on numerous financial products.
In this short note, we argue that not all products labelled “infrastructure” are adding value to the portfolio of an institutional investor.
The investment beliefs associated with infrastructure are rooted in a strong economic narrative, as well as recent public policy developments.
But this intuitive story is being used to sell different things. In particular, the fast growing “listed infrastructure” sector is shown by peer-reviewed academic research to offer zero additional value to an institutional portfolio.
We call this #fake_infra.
The Appeal of Infrastructure Investment
The value proposition of infrastructure investment is always framed in the same terms:
- Infrastructure delivers essential services to the economy on a quasi-monopolistic basis, implying stable demand and a low-price elasticity of demand. This potential pricing power is often associated with inflation hedging characteristics;
Also as a result of its pricing power, infrastructure is also expected to exhibit “attractive” risk-adjusted returns (i.e. a risk-free monopoly rent);
- Low business risk is expected to generate stable cash flows and by extension low return volatility and limited draw-down and value-at-risk;
- Likewise, low correlation with the business cycle suggests the potential to improve portfolio diversification.
The infrastructure sector outlook is also expected to be bright, in a context where most major OECD economies have adopted national infrastructure plans designed to revamp ageing public infrastructure and kick-start the economy.
- This investment narrative springs from a series of intuitions about what infrastructure businesses are like or for, but until recently, empirical evidence confirming this view was not forthcoming.
Since 2017, the investment characteristics of private infrastructure debt and equity have now been documented by EDHECinfra , but several years before the first private infrastructure market benchmarks could be released, a strand of financial products emerged and has been growing rapidly ever since in the public equity space and known as “listed infrastructure.”
The growth of #fake_infra
In a 1977 Fortune column, Warren Buffet famously imagines the ideal long-term asset: “an inflation-linked bond with rising coupons”. His point being of course that there is no such thing.
Still, “Listed infrastructure” is often presented as if it was that very silver bullet i.e. an investment that can do everything an investor might want from delivering a high Sharpe ratio to hedging inflation, diversifying portfolio risk and protecting against market downturns, all the while being liquid, transparent and with a documented track record.
It’s a great story. And listed infrastructure products have mushroomed on the back of the new-found interest of medium to small-sized investors for infrastructure investment.
In 2006, there were 9 listed infrastructure mutual funds or no listed infrastructure ETFs. Ten years later, there are now 66 listed infrastructure mutual funds and 32 ETFs tracking listed infrastructure indices. In 2017, 17 index providers publish more than 25 listed infrastructure indices.
Combining all listed products referring to listed infrastructure, mutual funds and exchange traded funds, we tallied more than USD50bn of assets under management allocated to these strategies at the end of 2016.
The listed infrastructure sector is becoming more well-known, with its own Morningstar category and industrial lobby group (the Global Listed Infrastructure Organisation).
But listed fake infrastructure is #fake_infra.
What EDHEC Research shows
In a recent research paper (“Searching for a listed infrastructure asset class”) published in a peer-reviewed academic finance journal in April 2017, we show that :
- 21 different indices of listed infrastructure stocks have equivalent or higher risk than the market index, with which they are all highly correlated;
- Adding any of these 21 proxies to an investor’s asset mix has no discernible effect on their mean-variance efficient frontier in global and U.S. equity markets over the past 15 years;
- Listed infrastructure is fully spanned by existing asset classes or risk factors i.e. it is 100% replicable using assets that investors already have.
Arguing that listed infrastructure somehow transforms the infrastructure investment narrative identified above into a well-identified class of public stocks that expands the investment universe thus fails to pass 189 tests of statistical significance.
A second EDHEC paper, decomposes the returns of listed infrastructure indices into the standard factor tilts known as the Fama-French factors.
- It shows that the returns of global and regional listed infrastructure indices are fully explained by a traditional Fama-French multi-factor model, confirming that they are replicable using non-infrastructure stocks;
- The paper’s results leave no room for an extra listed infrastructure effect or alpha: the regression intercept is always zero
Two very different approaches (mean-variance spanning, multi-factor modelling) concur to conclude that there is no such thing as a listed infrastructure asset class.
Table 1: The arguments and the evidence on listed infrastructure
- Proposition made about listed infrastructure
- “Equity-like returns”
- Not necessarily
- Blanc-Brude et. al. (2017) find price and total returns either in line, below or above the market. Bianchi et. al. (2017) find listed infrastructure returns typically below global benchmarks.
- “Reduced volatility”
- Not verified
- Blanc-Brude et. al. (2017) and Bianchi et. al. (2017) find annualised return standard deviations mostly on par or higher than the market index.
- “Portfolio diversification”
- Not verified
- Blanc-Brude et. al. (2017) show that listed infrastructure is highly correlated with the market index.
- “Downside protection”
- Not verified
- Blanc-Brude et. al. (2017) find equivalent or higher maximum draw-down and value-at-risk in listed infrastructure indices when compared to the reference market index.
- “Predicable cash-flows”
- Not necessarily
- Blanc-Brude et. al. (2016) show that the cash flows of private infrastructure firms are less volatile than in rest of the economy. But dividend payouts are more volatile. Blanc-Brude (2013) shows that dividend payouts in listed infrastructure firms are more volatile than the market average
- “Predictable returns often linked to inflation”
- Not verified
- Rodel and Rothballer (2012) show that listed infrastructure does not offer better inflation hedging properties than the stock market in general.
- “Future infrastructure investment demand is huge, meaning lots of new opportunities.”
- Not necessarily
- The infrastructure investment gap is an old story. But one may ask what the ‘decades of capital expenditure neglect’ that tend to characterise the infrastructure sector in various countries suggest in terms of the sector’s outlook. And if this trend is likely to be reversed or not.
A Fallacy of Composition
The data thus disagrees strongly with the argument put forward by listed infrastructure managers.
This deserves further examination. Table 1 summarises the arguments typically advanced in the commercial brochures of dozens of listed infrastructure fund managers that we have reviewed (see list below).
Most of the arguments made in favour of listed infrastructure appear to be a fallacy of one type or another.
The fallacy arises thus: an argument is made about what infrastructure businesses are like (e.g. `Infrastructure firms are monopolies’) without necessarily fully qualifying this point (`In fact, when infrastructure firms are a monopoly, the tariffs they can charge are regulated.’), next an investment characteristic which is relevant from a portfolio stand point is inferred from the first point (`Monopoly rents create attractive risk/return profiles’).
In aggregate, this is a fallacy of composition i.e. inferring something about the whole which is only true about some of its parts. Private infrastructure investments may well have some of the characteristics implied by the infrastructure investment narrative, but that does not necessarily mean that collections of stocks that share an SIC code with these firms also do.
What #fake_infra really is
Beyond the often fallacious arguments extrapolated from the economics of private infrastructure firms, listed infrastructure products should be understood from a portfolio management perspective.
The arguments put forward in listed infrastructure products often combine the promise of alpha with that of accessing new betas.
Listed infrastructure funds are essentially active equity funds. The only difference with other active equity products is their focus on certain industrial sectors. One might say that they promise sector-specific alpha.
Of course, decades of academic research have shown that alpha is mostly an optical illusion: it is mostly betas in disguise that could be bought more cheaply than through active managers.
So listed infrastructure managers are just repackaging a product from the 1980s for the 2017 crowd. Active management increasingly lacks credibility, but a secular theme like infrastructure is more in tune with the spirit of the time.
Listed infrastructure ETFs, on the contrary, are a 21st century product: if the “listed infrastructure asset class” can improve portfolios diversification, lower portfolio volatility and has liability-hedging properties, could tracking an index of infrastructure stocks deliver new “betas”?
There are two major flaws in this argument:
First, the listed infrastructure indices (list in appendix) currently being tracked by ETFs are often built to include active views or using ad hoc weighing schemes (especially weight caps to avoid over-concentration in a few very large utilities). Hence, it is not necessarily clear what systematic risk exposures are being tracked through these indices.
Moreover, selecting stocks by industry would not deliver pure betas. We know from a solid body of academic knowledge that passive investing should be designed by focusing on well-defined, persistent remunerated risk factors.
It is not the case with listed infrastructure: systematic risk exposures are only implied from the investment narrative but never explicitly identified. Accessing risk factors through industrial sector filters is the wrong way to go about it.
The second flaw is of course that these listed infrastructure indices do not have any asset class or unique factor characteristics for an institutional investor, as we know from the peer-reviewed research described above.
This is why listed infrastructure is #fake_infra.
- Bianchi, R. and T. Whittaker (2017). Is listed infrastructure an asset class? an asset pricing approach. EDHEC Business School Working Paper.
- Blanc-Brude, F. (2013). Towards ef cient benchmarks for infrastructure equity investments. EDHEC-Risk Institute Publications, 88.
- Blanc-Brude, F., M. Hasan, Q. Wang, and T. Whittaker (2016, March). Revenue and dividend payout in privately held infrastructure investments. EDHEC Infrastructure Institute Publications March.
- Blanc-Brude, F., T. Whittaker, and S. Wilde (2017). Searching for a listed infrastructure asset class: Mean-variance spanning tests of 22 listed infrastructure proxies. Financial Markets and Portfolio Management
- Rödel, M. and C. Rothballer (2012). Infrastructure as Hedge against In ation—Factor Fantasy? The Journal of Alternative Investments 15(1), 110–123.
1. list of infrastructure indices reviewed: Alerian Energy Infrastructure Index, Alerian Energy Infrastructure Index, Solactive Global Infrastructure Low Earnings Volatility Index, Dow Jones Brookfield Global Infrastructure North American Listed Index, IndXX India Infrastructure Index, Solactive Municipal Infrastructure Revenue Bond Index, S&P Global Infrastructure Index, Alerian MLP Index, Alerian MLP Natural Gas Index, NASDAQ OMX Clean Edge Smart Grid Infrastructure Index, STOXX Global Broad Infrastructure Index, Solactive MLP & Energy Infrastructure Index, Solactive MLP Infrastructure Index,
Indxx U.S. Infrastructure Development Index, S&P High Income Infrastructure Index, RARE Global Infrastructure Index, S-Network Emerging Infrastructure Builders Index, Dow Jones Brookfield Global Infrastructure Composite Index, Morningstar Global Multi-Asset Infrastructure Index, Summit Zacks Global Water Index, Tortoise North American Pipeline Index, Solactive High Income Infrastructure MLP Index, MSCI EM Infrastructure index, Dow Jones Brookfield Global Infrastructure Composite Index Total Return Index, S&P/UBS Global Infrastructure and Utility Index, FTSE Global Core Infrastructure 50/50 Total Return Index, UBS Global Infrastructure & Utilities 50/50 Index, FTSE Global Core Infrastructure 50-50 Net Return Index, DJ Brookfield Glb Infrastructure North American Total Return Index, NIFTY Infra Index, MSCI World Core Infras Net Dividends Index
2. List of listed infrastructure products reviewed: Aberdeen Global Emerging Markets Infrastructure Equity Fund, Alerian Energy Infrastructure ETF, Alerian MLP ETF, Alpha Infrastructure Fund, Alpine Global Infrastructure Fund, AMP Capital Funds – Global Listed Infrastructure Fund, Amundi Funds – Equity India Infrastructure, Amundi global infrastructure UCITS ETF, BlackRock Global Listed Infrastructure Fund, BMO Global Infrastructure Index ETF, Brookfield GI Listed Infra UCITS Fund, Brookfield Global Listed Infrastructure Income Fund, Brookfield Global Listed Infrastructure Income Fund, Brookfield Global Listed Infrastructure Long/Short UCITS Fund, Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund, Cathay Global Infrastructure Fund TWD, CBRE Clarion Funds SICAV – Global Listed Infrastructure Fund, CBRE Clarion Global Infrastructure Value Fund, CF Canlife Global Infrastructure Fund, CF Macquarie Global Infrastructure Securities, CFS Global Listed Infrastructure Securities, Cohen & Steers Global Infrastructure Fund, Colonial First State Wholesale Global Listed Infrastructure Securities, Columbia Global Infrastructure Fund, Columbia India Infrastructure ETF, CS Infrastructure equity Fund, Desjardins Global Infrastructure Fund, Deutsche Invest I Global Infrastructure Fund, Deutsche MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund, Deutsche X-trackers Municipal Infrastructure Revenue Bond ETF, Deutsche X-trackers S&P Hedged Global Infrastructure ETF, DoubleLine Infrastructure Income Fund, Dreyfus Global Infrastructure Fund, Dynamic Global Infrastructure Fund, Edmond de Rotschild Fund-Infrasphere, ETRACS 1XMonthly Short Alerian MLP Infrastructure TR ETN, ETRACS 2xMonthly Leveraged Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index ETN, ETRACS Alerian MLP Index ETN, ETRACS Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index ETN, ETRACS Alerian Natural Gas MLP ETN, Fidante Whitehelm Capital Listed Core Infrastructure Fund, First State Global Listed Infrastructure, First Trust Nasdaq Clean Edge Smart GRID Infrastructure Index Fund, First Trust North American Energy Infrastructure Fund, FlexShares STOXX Global Broad Infrastructure Index Fund, Franklin Global Listed Infrastructure Fund, Frontier MFG Core Infrastructure Fund, Global X MLP & Energy Infrastructure ETF, Global X MLP ETF, Global X U.S. Infrastructure Development ETF, Goldman Sachs Global Infrastructure Fund, Guggenheim S&P High Income Infrastructure ETF, ICICI Prudential Infrastructure Fund Growth, IDFC Infrastructure Growth Fund, IKC Global Infrastructure, InfraCap MLP ETF, Invesco Asia Infrastructure Fund, Invesco Global Infrastructure Fund, Invesco India Infrastructure-Growth Fund, Investor Nowych Technologii, Investors Global Infrastructure Class Series A, iShares Emerging Markets Infrastructure ETF, iShares Global Infrastructure ETF, J.P. Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN, Kotak India Equity Fund, Lazard Global Listed Infrastructure, Legg Mason Global Infrastructure ETF, Legg Mason IF RARE Global Infrastructure Income Fund, Legg Mason Martin Currie Wholesale Real Income, Legg Mason RARE Emerging Markets Infrastructure Fund, Legg Mason RARE Infrastructure Value Fund, Macquarie Fund Solutions – Macquarie Global Listed Infrastructure Fund, Magellan Infrastructure Fund, Magellan Wholesale Plus Infrastructure, Manulife Global Infrastructure Fund, Maple-Brown Abbott Global Infrastructure Fund Institutional, Maple-Brown Abbott Global Listed Infras, Meeder Infrastructure Fund, MFG Infrastructure Fund, Morgan Stanley Global Infrastructure Fund, Nuveen Global Infrastructure, OpenWorld plc – Russell Investments Global Listed Infrastructure, Oppenheimer Macquarie Global Infrastructure Fund, Partners Group Listed – Listed Infrastructure, Powershares Emerging Markets Infrastructure Portfolio, ProShares DJ Brookfield Global Infrastructure ETF, Prudential Financial Global Infrastructure Fund, Raiffeisen Infrastruktur Aktien, RARE Infrastructure Value-Unhedged, Reaves utilities and Energy Infra Fund Inst, Renaissance Global Infrastructure Curr Neut CI A, Renaissance Global Infrastructure Fund, Sentry Global Infrastructure Series X, SPDR S&P Global Infrastructure ETF, SPDR® Morningstar Multi-Asset Global Infrastructure UCITS ETF, Sprott Global Infrastructure, Summit Water Infrastructure Multifactor ETF, Sun Life Sentry Infrastructure Series A, SWC EF Global Infrastructure, Tata Infrastructure Fund-Growth, Tortoise North American Pipeline Fund, United Asia Pacific Infrastructure Fund, VanEck Vectors High Income Infrastructure MLP ETF, Ve-RI Listed Infrastructure, Virtus Duff & Phelps Global Infrastructure Fund, Wellington Enduring Assets Fund