Infrastructure investors should abandon absolute return benchmarks – Lessons from the Covid-19 lockdowns

This paper argues that there is no reason for investors in unlisted infrastructure to continue using absolute return or ‘cash +’ benchmarks. It calls for investors to abandon them and adopt market-relative benchmarks based on fair value and representative data.

This change from an absolute reference to a relative one would provide a better appreciation of the risks and performance of infrastructure investments and as such would allow taking more informed investment decisions.

We note that in a recent global survey, most of the industry supported this view. In practice however, many of them still use an absolute benchmark that fails to represent the risks of their infrastructure investments.

Research for Institutional Money Management

We conducted one of the largest survey ever made of infrastructure asset owners and managers in 2019 and found that most investors use absolute benchmarks or listed infrastructure indices to determine their investment strategy, monitor performance and manage risk.

The vast majority of respondents also acknowledge major issues with their infrastructure benchmarking practices: current benchmarks are not representative, do not measure risk, do not allow investor to target or define a strategy and do not offer much information about correlations with other asset classes.

Without adequate benchmarks, the development of a global infrastructure asset class, which is one of the objectives of the G20, is necessarily limited, if not compromised.

This situation will evolve and, in all likelihood, improve with the development of the asset class. One could make comparisons with the development and gradual improvements made in other alternative asset classes that began to attract institutional investors a couple of decades ago such as real estate or hedge funds.

Long-term investment in illiquid assets creates a demand for monitoring (as the alternative to trading in and out of the asset class) and as better databases and benchmark offerings are created, growing and successful alternative asset classes like infrastructure begin to the long road towards maturity, transparency and better benchmarks.

EDHEC Research Insights – Infra Special

The next generation of EDHECinfra indices is ready. They are computed quarterly, use meticulously curated private data for hundreds of companies in the 25 most active markets in the world, and cutting-edge fair value asset pricing methods. A key element in this project was the definition of the universe. Infrastructure may not be easily defined but infrastructure investment has to be.

When we started working on this topic at EDHEC we decided to focus more on what “infrastructure investment is like” i.e. what drives risk and less on what “infrastructure does” (move people or electricity from A to B, etc). This is because at the heart of any financial investment decision lies the trade- off between risk and future value.

Even in highly illiquid, opaque private markets, as we show in a series of new papers the systematic factors driving prices in unlisted infrastructure debt and equity, investors make choices that reflect perceived risks and price these risks accordingly.

EDHECinfra Research Insights – June 2019

In this issue, our researchers look at the results of the 2019 EDHECinfra/G20 survey of infrastructure investors to show that investors do not understand the risks they are taking when investing in infrastructure, and they put forward a methodology that can address some of the most difficult issues with regard to the fair valuation of highly illiquid assets such as infrastructure equity and debt instruments.

Using data from the EDHECinfra/LTIIA Research Chair, our authors show that systematic risk factors can largely explain the evolution of average prices for unlisted infrastructure asset, and they examine the drivers and evolution of credit spreads in private infrastructure debt.

Our researchers try to determine if better ESG does improve infrastructure returns, as the environmental, social and governance aspects of infrastructure investments have been an increasingly important set of considerations for investors, and finally they ask the question, is infrastructure always an active strategy?

2019 Global Infrastructure Investor Survey – Benchmarking

The 2019 EDHECinfra / Global Infrastructure Hub survey of infrastructure investors focused on the role of benchmarks and revealed a number of key findings about the benchmarking practices in the unlisted-infrastructure-investment space for asset allocation, performance monitoring and risk management.

Although it is often neglected, the choice of benchmark is a foundational element in the investment process. First, it is an essential source of both the risk and the returns of a portfolio. Second, portfolio out-performance and its measurement also depends on the choice of benchmark. The use of inadequate bench- marks can lead to an incorrect evaluation of the manager’s performance.

Finally, in the case highly illiquid asset classes like infrastructure, managers and investment teams are given the dual objective of delivering a portfolio in line with the investment strategy (building it deal by deal, sometimes over a decade), and to outperform the average implementation of this strategy (deliver alpha). Representative benchmarks are thus absolutely necessary to determine managers’ success with respect to these two goals.

In effect, without adequate benchmarks, the development of a global infrastructure asset class, which is one of the objectives of the G20, is necessarily limited, if not compromised.

The results of this survey highlight the need to use better-defined benchmarks that measure risk and can help investors make better informed asset-allocation, monitoring and risk-management decisions.

The Pricing of Private Infrastructure Debt – a dynamic approach

This paper examines the drivers and evolution of credit spreads in private infrastructure debt. We ask two main questions:

Which factors explain private infrastructure credit spreads (and discount rates) and how do they evolve over time?
Are infrastructure project finance spreads and infrastructure corporate spreads driven by common factors?

We show that common risk factors partly explain both infrastructure and corporate debt spreads. However, the pricing of these factors differs, sometimes considerably, between the two types of private debt instruments.

We also find that private infrastructure debt has been `fairly’ priced even after the 2008 credit crisis. That is because spread levels are well-explained by the evolution of systematic risk factor premia and, taking these into account, current spreads are only about 29bps above their pre-2008 level. In other words, taking into account the level of risk (factor loadings) in the investible universe and the price of risk (risk factor premia) over the past 20 years, we only find a small increase in the average level of credit spreads, whereas absolute spread levels are twice as high today as they were before 2008.

EDHEC Research Insights

In new research from the EDHEC Infrastructure Institute (EDHECinfra), supported by the Long-Term Infrastructure Investors’ Association (LTIIA) as part of the EDHEC/LTIIA research chair on Infrastructure Equity Benchmarking, we show that systematic risk factors can largely explain the evolution of average prices but also that valuations have shifted to a higher level.

We show that unlisted infrastructure equity prices do not exist in a vacuum but are driven by factors that can be found across asset classes.

Additional research from EDHECinfra, supported by Natixis as part of the EDHEC/Natixis research chair on Infrastructure Debt Benchmarking, examines the drivers and evolution of credit spreads in private infrastructure debt. We show that common risk factors partly explain both infrastructure and corporate debt spreads.

However, the pricing of these factors differs, sometimes considerably, between the two types of private debt instruments.

ESG Reporting and Financial Performance: the Case of Infrastructure

This paper represents the first attempt at studying the relationship between the Economic, Social and Governance (ESG) and the financial characteristics of infrastructure companies.

The relationship between the impact of certain companies’ activities on their social and natural environment on the one hand, and their ability to deliver a certain level of financial performance on the other, is now a central question in the debate around responsible investment, especially when investors represent large constituencies of pension plan members, whether they belong to collective or individual schemes.

Unfortunately, such claims about the links between impact and returns in infrastructure are hard to substantiate. They are not verifiable, let alone falsifiable, in the current state of available data, because data on the actual impact of individual infrastructure companies on their immediate or distant social and environmental milieu simply does not exist today.

In this paper, as a first attempt to address this topic, we investigate the role of ESG reporting in relation to the financial performance of infrastructure companies. Indeed, data on ESG reporting is available and there is ground in the academic literature for arguing that the tendency to report ESG practices and the quality of this reporting are related to actual sustainable outcomes.

This paper is made possible by cross-referencing two unique databases covering the behaviour of infrastructure firms: the ESG scores computed by GRESB Infrastructure since 2016, and the financial metrics corresponding to the EDHECinfra universe.

Which Factors Explain Unlisted Infrastructure Asset Prices?

This paper drawn from the EDHECinfra /LTIIA Research Chair shows that common risk factors found in numerous asset classes explain the evolution of unlisted infrastructure secondary market prices. It also shows that after a long period of prices increases, “peak infra” may already be behind us.
Private infrastructure is an illiquid market and assets do not trade often. As a result, observable transaction prices are limited and are not representative of the investible market.
The paper uses actual transaction prices and advanced statistical techniques to estimate unbiased factor effects and apply these to a much larger group of companies (the EDHECinfra universe) which is built to be representative of the investable market.
Six factors are found to explain the market prices of unlisted infrastructure investments over the past 15 years; size, leverage, profits, term spread, value and growth. To these usual suspects, one can add sector and geographic effects. The result is an unbiased view of the evolution of prices (price-to-sales and price-to-earnings ratios).

Unlisted Infrastructure Asset Pricing Methodology – A modern approach to measuring fair value in illiquid assets

EDHECinfra produces calculated indices (as opposed to contributed indices), the computation of which requires estimating the value of individual constituents: unlisted infrastructure equity or debt investments qualifying under the TICCS taxonomy.

This document describes the approach taken to estimate the value, performance, and risk of each individual index constituent.

This approach aims to follow a number of recognisable guidelines on “fair value” accounting as defined under IFRS 13 and ASC topic 820 (US GAAP).