Emerging Markets Infrastructure Project Investment: Issues and Opportunities

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Global investment in real estate and infrastructure projects are on the rise. Preqin’s 2018 Infrastructure Fund Manager Outlook notes that institutional investors have heavily invested in the infrastructure asset class for solid diversification and stable returns. Indeed, the report ascertains aggregate asset under management (AUM) quadrupled from US$99bn to US$418bn over the past decade. The industry is expected to increase exponentially over the next decade. Globally, North America and Europe present the most viable of real estate and infrastructure opportunities. However, a bundle of emerging markets economies follow a close third. Global emerging markets infrastructure investments are currently fueled by Asia Pacific’s growth as opposed to other developing regions. Total deal value for the Asia Pacific amounted to roughly US$50bn over the past five years, with more dry powder allocated to projects within Asia.

Feasible emerging market infrastructure projects usually have a Public Private Partnership (PPP) structure, especially for risk mitigation. As we had examined in US Infrastructure: A Case for Public Private Partnerships, PPPs are beneficial as the private entity internalizes life-cycle costs during the majority building phase of new projects, while the project is listed as public investments on the government balance sheet. Purely public sector projects tend to be inefficient, and have full political risk, while purely private projects may have higher returns, but would not have the accountability of check and balance which sovereign involvement brings. Even so, there are many challenges which investors, financiers, and infrastructure fund managers must take into consideration primarily for emerging markets.

Challenges Faced:

The Macquarie Group is one of the global leaders in asset management with US$356bn AUM, and is considered to be the top global infrastructure finance advisor as at 2017. The Group has dispensed significant pain points and mitigating factors with regards to project investment in emerging markets. Most issues stem from long standing bureaucracy, lack of transparency, corruption, geopolitical and cross border risks. Highlights are follows:

Bid and Post-Bid Processes:

In short, red tape from every conceivable side of the project is challenging at best. Emerging markets tend to have delays in bid preparation, unclear bid guidelines, erratic time to submit request for proposals, and restrictive bid processes which place heavy tariffs on the build-operators of the project. In addition, project ‘hand-holding’ requires higher cost of bid bonds and of additional advisors, planners, quantity surveyors and numerous government officers. In addition, deciding on the best commercial funding structure for the PPP would most likely not be as clear or timely as with developed country projects. For instance, financing default from the private side of the PPP may lead to immediate freezing of project assets, as opposed to debt coverage negotiation.

Terms of Concession Agreements:

Land Acquisition is one of the most troublesome components of the project process in emerging markets. The land surveying, land release, ground approvals and resource rights processes, especially in real estate type transactions, take an inordinate amount of time. The best PPP investment projects that may circumvent this onerous component would be public works and transport type projects, where the government already has clear ownership of the sites in question, with full government use of site resources. Also, there is a huge communication gap in terms of the types of environmental and regulatory requirements needed for all emerging markets projects. As the Macquarie Group states, most delays in their infrastructure portfolio stems from having to backtrack and fulfill regulations that were not mentioned from pre-bid inception onwards.

FOREX Challenges:

Forex issues come in second only to land acquisition challenges in emerging market PPP project fulfillment. This is by no means theoretical as I am currently battling this challenge. In many parts of LATAM & the Caribbean multi-million infrastructure developments are offered a mere US$200.00 a day by Central Banks due to paucity in supply and treasury mismanagement. From an investment perspective, Forex volatility for projects denominated in local currencies may create lower yields due to cross border risks, and hedging for many emerging markets currencies is not available.

Macroeconomic Inefficiencies:

In addition to the Macquarie Group’s points supported above, project developers and financiers know that labor supply, labor quality, labor laws, as well as tariffs on materials, material supplies and weather factors are extremely dictating of successful project fulfillment. Most emerging markets may seem to have a dearth of labor supply. However, educated construction labor may be hard to find, and to keep. Many viable emerging market infrastructure projects that have been fully funded have stalled indefinitely due to a lack of both construction and management labor. Unfortunately with PPPs government policy would require local labor to be sourced, creating a chicken and egg situation.

Solutions Presented:

Emerging market project development, financing and investment fit in with high risk, high reward appetite. Yet as we mentioned before prudent infrastructure investments give solid returns and add practical diversification to portfolios. Therefore emerging markets project financing and investments are not to be avoided, but to be mitigated. Successful project investment takes a great deal of sovereign and macroeconomic research, whether per project or via an infrastructure fund. The Macquarie Group pinpoints several requirements needed for investor comfort when it comes to infrastructure investing, and especially for emerging market conditions.

  1. Stable Political Environment:

    Note that a stable political environment will not mitigate red tape. However, mitigated political risk allows PPP projects to be safeguarded against event risks such as coups, and freezing of foreign investments.

  2. Stable Economy with Growth Potential:

    Overall a stable economy with high credit rating gives comfort of low default risk. However, it is necessary to delve further into macroeconomic variables such as labor and capital intensive predilections. Does the country have stringent union interests? Does the country’s labor have the educative capacity to cost effectively get PPP projects done? Are there punitive tariffs on capital intensive projects? It is necessary to ensure the emerging market country accounted for PPP infrastructure projects in its annual budget, broken down by sectors such as transport, seaports, utilities etc.

  3. Open and Transparent and PPP Bid Process:

    Is the country’s public procurement and bid processes in line with international standards and policy frameworks? What is the track record of successful PPP projects in terms of pre-bid to completion timeline? It is necessary to be in close contact with the country’s department of public works, transport and infrastructure to get a detailed log of such a track record before investing in any project, or in any fund.

  4. Stable Financial Market:

    This one is tricky for actual returns, especially as most emerging market projects are structured in local currencies. If investing in an infrastructure fund, the risk is mitigated. If there is direct investment in the PPP project, the risk is heightened, no matter how stable the financial market is. And don’t be fooled by oil-based emerging market countries. One would believe that such countries would have strong cross border Forex capabilities. However, if the projects are non-energy infrastructure, FX paucity and volatility can still be an issue. It’s necessary to examine the country’s central bank and its monetary policy beforehand.

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