Emerging Markets & Infrastructure: Natural Investment Partners

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Emerging markets (EMs) and infrastructure are natural, complimentary investment partners. Rapidly growing EM economies need infrastructure investment to both facilitate and sustain growth. These assets then perform at their best in expanding economies, where robust domestic demand growth drives patronage growth. In addition, infrastructure offers natural protection to some of the key EM risks including the critical one of inflation.

Sarah Shaw

Given these factors, investors seeking EM equity exposure should consider infrastructure as a portfolio allocation option.

EM economic growth: leading to change in the world economic order

EM economies are expected to grow rapidly over the next 30 years, altering current world economic order. For example, PwC expects the ‘Emerging 7’ (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey) to grow significantly and displace some of the G7’s current share of world GDP (including Germany and Japan).

There are several compelling forces driving this change, but we focus on two critical ones – the emerging middle class; and government policy initiatives such as China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.

The emerging middle class

A recurring theme has been, and remains, the importance of the emerging middle class. For example, the Brookings Institute believes the global middle class will grow by 160mn people/year for the next five years, with 88% of that growth in Asia. In contrast, the middle class in the US, Eurozone and Japan is only expected to grow at 0.5% pa. The consequences of this are significant.

  • Middle class & income growth: essential services are indeed essential

China and India have almost tripled their share of the global economy over the past few decades, with growth expected to continue. As personal incomes rise the expected standard of living also rises, triggering a demand for new and improved infrastructure such as the supply of essential utilities – clean drinking water, waste water services and power.

 Middle class & overseas and domestic travel: to grow strongly, airports and ports needed

Studies show that as disposable income grows, so too does the amount of travel undertaken by residents, both domestically and overseas. China is a perfect example, with less than 10% of Chinese nationals currently holding a passport (compared with approximately 36% of Americans) – yet airports such as Sydney, Auckland and Paris are recording record passenger numbers, driven by Chinese travellers. This phenomenon is not isolated to China – the trend is expected to continue and be exhibited more broadly across EMs (Mexico is another great example, with domestic air travel growing at double digits). New improved airports/ports/rail will be demanded by these newly affluent travellers.

  • Middle class & increased motor vehicle penetration: improved road infrastructure demanded

There is a natural correlation between growth in GDP/capita and vehicle ownership. China, India and Indonesia (~40% of global population) all currently have low levels of vehicle ownership. However, this will grow as each nation’s GDP/capita climbs. As a result, demand for new cars can be expected to be strong, as will demand for new and improved road infrastructure.

To put this in perspective, China’s MV penetration is about 10% – yet annual motor vehicle sales in China have outpaced the US since 2009. An infrastructure investor doesn’t mind what car someone is driving, as long as they are driving it on their road!

The new ‘Silk Road’ will transform Asia and propel its growth and infrastructure development

The new Silk Road in Asia, or more formally the Belt and Road Initiative (the ‘BRI’), is a major Chinese foreign and economic policy initiative emphasising five key areas of international co-operation. However, it is the huge investment in infrastructure needed to facilitate the BRI’s trade objectives that has received the most attention. China has signed-up ~65 countries to the initiative, looking to spend ~US$600-800 billion over the next five years.


EM economies and infrastructure investment: Natural partners


The expected rapid growth in EM economies over the next 30 years will alter consumption patterns in these countries, which will in turn drive new infrastructure investment. This investment then further reinforces that growth and change in consumption.

But the complimentary nature of EM economic growth and infrastructure investment goes further. It offers investors access to the domestic demand story while mitigating some key EM risks, thus presenting a very attractive way to gain EM exposure.

Risk is not confined to EMs. However, there are certain key risks in EM that are mitigated by infrastructure investment, namely:


A core concern for EMs over the medium-term is domestic growth-driven inflationary spikes. The infrastructure asset class provides investors access to the upside of this strong GDP growth while explicitly hedging against inflationary pressure, mitigating one of the key EM investment risks.

Beware the benchmarks


When looking for EM exposure, an investor needs to make sure they are actually getting EM exposure. Investors seeking access to the EM domestic growth story should be wary of some of the constituents of the MSCI EM index, which, while being listed in an EM country, have underlying drivers of earnings not correlated to EM growth but rather global demand (e.g. Samsung, Teva Pharmaceuticals). By contrast, EM infrastructure is directly correlated to in-country domestic demand.

Supportive local governments

EM governments and policy makers recognise the need for improved infrastructure to enable their economies to evolve. As they cannot facilitate all the investment needed, they are supportive of private investment in infrastructure assets to provide the essential services needed to facilitate economic growth, and deliver improved living standards. While EM governments continue to need private sector capital, investors should have confidence that acceptable investment returns will be supported.

Distinct sub-sectors

Infrastructure offers two macro diverse sub-sectors, which means an infrastructure portfolio can be positioned for all points of a macro cycle. Utilities meet basic needs, and are largely immune to macro cycles – making them an attractive defensive, resilient asset class in depressed markets. By contrast User Pay assets (toll roads, airports, port and rail) are positively correlated to macro growth and represent a very attractive investment proposition in buoyant macro environments. Active management of these two infrastructure sub-sectors aims to smooth the volatility of EM investment, again comparing favourably to the MSCI EM which favours the cyclicals.

As shown in the chart below, history supports the view that infrastructure is an attractive way to gain exposure to EMs, offering investors better returns at lower volatility than broader EM equities.

EM Annualised Returns: 31 December 2003 to 31 January 2018

Source – Bloomberg


EMs are expected to grow rapidly over the next 30 years, attracting a huge infrastructure investment. This is a good thing as EM and infrastructure are very natural, complimentary investment partners. They reinforce each other in a positive manner, while infrastructure investment can offer natural protection against some of the key EM risks.


* Sarah Shaw is global portfolio manager and chief investment officer at 4D Infrastructure


ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN SUPERFUNDS MAGAZINE: https://www.superannuation.asn.au/resources/superfunds-magazine/issues/2018/july/natural-partners