Note: The first advisory council meeting of the new Global Infrastructure Facility is being held today at the World Bank Group headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Suddenly, it seems impossible to walk through London, Washington, New Delhi or Nairobi without bumping into a conference on institutional investors in infrastructure. The G20 has discovered the link along with their business counterparts at the B20. So too has the World Economic Forum, the OECD, the United Nations and the international financial institutions. Match the long-term liabilities of pensions and insurance plans with long-term assets, the mantra goes, and the infamous infrastructure gap will close. Win-win.
If only life were so easy.
We are reminded of the old expression, “If your grandmother had a beard, she’d be your grandfather.” In this case: If infrastructure were perceived by investors as a truly stable, risk-adjusted investment, it would already be able to attract the financing it needed. There would be no gap.
In truth, some institutional investors found their way into infrastructure assets as far back as the 1990s and have been cautiously growing their investments, attracted by the long-term demand, steady growth and regulated returns. A few of the Canadian pensions and Australian super-annuation funds invest 10 to 12 percent of their assets in infrastructure, while equity funds that focus on infrastructure and related businesses in emerging markets, such as IFC’s Asset Management Company, are growing on the tide of this burgeoning market.
To date, the pensions are mostly exposed in equity investments in the regulated utilities of Europe, North America and Australia, while the funds are focusing on higher-risk, higher-return investments around the edges of infrastructure — in gas platforms and mobile licenses, in telecom towers, in container terminal operators or in the occasional power plant.
The real test of patience and stability will come when debt and debt-like products from the broader range of institutional investors begin flowing into large-scale, basic service infrastructure — transport, power, water and sanitation and the backbone of telecom services. And since infrastructure is highly leveraged — typically 70 to 80 percent debt in the capital structure — the broader infrastructure financing gap will not be closed until this happens.
A few questions surround these ambitions:
- Why would a development institution care so much about "In3"?
- What are the hindrances to this happening?
- What are we doing about it?