When Infrastructure Goes Private

 | May 21, 2014 | 6:00 PM EDT  | Comments
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Opinions on how to invest in the infrastructure space have been all over the map in the past year. At this year's State of the Union Address, President Obama pushed an infrastructure program for the U.S. But when Russia annexed Crimea, the political viability of that opportunity become questionable.

The largest U.S. concentrated infrastructure companies have been clobbered. Year to date, Jacobs Engineering (JEC) is down 16%, Fluor Corp. (FLR) is down 8%, and Chicago Bridge & Iron (CBI) is down 6%. The only name in the group that is up is Granite Construction (GVA) -- adding 2.5% year to date but down 13% in the past six weeks.

In Europe, the overhanging fiscal problems, coupled with stagnating economies in the West, have made infrastructure opportunities there questionable as well. So the meme became that infrastructure opportunities are in the emerging markets and away from the developed markets.

The problem with that meme is that the two largest emerging markets, China and Brazil, have also suffered lackluster performance. EG Shares China Infrastructure (CHXX) and EG Shares Brazil Infrastructure (BRXX) are down 10% and 1% this year, respectively. The only large emerging market with a positive performance in the infrastructure space is India. The EG Shares India Infrastructure (INXX) is up a whopping 40% so far in 2014. This is almost exclusively driven by expectations of economic growth driven by the election of Narendra Modi as the new Prime Minister.

The big news in the infrastructure space, however, is not emerging vs. developed markets, it's private vs. public spending. The two best-performing infrastructure exchange-traded funds are the iShares Global Infrastructure (IGF) and the SPDR S&P Global Infrastructure (GII). IGF has year-to-date returns of 10% and the GII has an 11% return. In the past five years, IGF is up 50% and GII is up 30%.

The really interesting part of both, though, is in their investments. Their top 10 holdings are identical, in companies involved in the building, owning, maintaining and servicing toll roads and other private transportation, transmission and distribution facilities.

Their top six holdings, in order of the percentage they represent of their portfolio, are Transurban Group (TRAUF), Atlantia (ATASF), Enbridge (ENB), Abertis Infraestructuras (ABFOF), Groupe Eurotunnel (GET.PA) and National Grid (NGG). Of these, Transurban, Atlantia and Abertis are principally toll-road operators, Groupe Eurotunnel operates the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France, Enbridge operates energy pipelines for the distribution of oil and gas throughout North America, and National Grid transmits and distributes electrical power in the U.S., U.K. and Europe.

In the past five years, Transurban is up 120%, Atlantia up 60%, Enbridge up 186%, Abertis up 41%, Groupe Eurotunnel up 150% and National Grid has risen 60%.

As sovereign debt issues and fiscal constraints continue to mount in many of the world's developed and largest emerging market countries, the move by national, state and provincial governments to meet their needs through privatization is likely to accelerate.

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