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Infrastructure in good graces of managers again

Increase in demand, renewed focus by president responsible for push

Infrastructure is once again a popular business for U.S. private equity and real estate managers.

There is a long list of specialized infrastructure money managers and others that have been managing infrastructure assets for years. There now seems to be a second wave of interest.

Some U.S. firms are launching infrastructure businesses for the first time, while others are starting over with new approaches or greatly expanding existing businesses. Driving the move is a combination of factors including investor demand and a focus on private investment in infrastructure by President Donald Trump.

Even if the administration's proposals never turn into a detailed infrastructure plan complete with federal funding, Mr. Trump's attention has renewed conversations at the state and local levels of government that are tasked with maintaining and building the bulk of U.S. infrastructure, industry insiders say.

Among the recent manager moves:

In June, Hamilton Lane Inc. announced a deal to buy Portland, Ore., real asset consulting and money manager Real Asset Portfolio Management LLC. RAPM, which has $3.8 billion in assets under management and advisement, invests across real asset sectors, including infrastructure;

  • Centricus, the investment platform of long-term investors including sovereign wealth funds, acquired a 30% stake in Global Investment Holdings Group, an infrastructure investment company;
  • In May, The Blackstone Group LP received a $20 billion commitment from Saudi Arabia to set up a $40 billion infrastructure business. Blackstone's former infrastructure investment business spun off in 2011 and is now Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners; and
  • Last summer, The Carlyle Group rebooted its infrastructure business, hiring Pete Taylor, managing director and new co-head of its infrastructure business.

‘Second wave’

"The U.S. is on the verge of its second wave" of infrastructure investment, Mr. Taylor said in an interview. "Infrastructure was on the agenda and generally enjoys bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats. The trigger for the wave is the new president and a direction toward a decentralized approach with a supportive federal government."

Rather than rely on the federal government to provide most of the funding, local government officials are exploring ways to tap into private capital to maintain and build infrastructure projects.

"(Money management) firms' evolving infrastructure platforms are being driven by investor demand globally. In a low interest rate, low growth environment … the second wave in the U.S. is elevating the conversation," Mr. Taylor said.

Indeed, infrastructure was the alternative investment asset class most favored by limited partners for increased investment, according to Coller Capital's latest Global Private Equity Barometer, a biannual investor survey by the London-based manager of alternative investments on the secondary markets. Some 46% of survey respondents plan to increase their infrastructure allocations over the next 12 months. Some 37% planned to increase allocations to real estate.

Carlyle executives began reassessing the firm's infrastructure investment strategy in 2015.

As part of its infrastructure reboot last summer, the firm expanded its investment focus to a global business that included energy infrastructure investments from a North American-focused business that did not invest in energy, Mr. Taylor said.

"Carlyle's old strategy, a 2005-2006 vintage, was predominantly U.S.-based and did not invest in energy," Mr. Taylor said. "And at the time the U.S. market didn't evolve into a traditional infrastructure market."

Blackstone Group executives have made no secret of their desire to restart their infrastructure investment business, pushed along by investor interest.

"I think we have an awful lot of interest from our (limited partners)," said Hamilton "Tony" E. James, president and chief operating officer of New York-based Blackstone during the $368 billion firm's first-quarter earnings media call. "In fact, we're getting a lot of reverse inquiries from LPs, urging us to get into the business."

In the April 20 investor call, Mr. James said Blackstone was in the process of "laying the groundwork for that (infrastructure investment), talking to some anchor investors, and putting together our team."

Blackstone executives point to Trump administration initiatives supporting infrastructure investment by the private sector.

Mr. James also said during the media call that Mr. Trump's infrastructure policies would be good for Blackstone.

"There's a lot of very productive work being done in the infrastructure area, in terms of how to de-bottleneck the system, which now has great difficulty building things," said Stephen A. Schwarzman, Blackstone chairman, CEO and co-founder, during the earnings call. "It's hard to believe that both Germany and Canada can permit projects within a two-year window, and our average is somewhere around 10 years, sometimes longer."

At Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based Hamilton Lane, the acquisition of Real Asset Portfolio Management will help it expand its real assets capabilities including infrastructure, adding nine investment professionals to Hamilton Lane's six-member team. Among real assets, Hamilton Lane has invested mostly in real estate and natural resources, investing 8% in each over its history, according to Hamilton Lane's June 12 earnings call presentation. Infrastructure is part of the "other" category that also included special situations and growth equity, amounting to a total of 10% of investments.

The firm was founded in 1991 and has collected a total $49 billion in discretionary commitments since 2000.

Hamilton Lane had $42 billion in assets under management and $300 billion of assets under advisement as of March 31. The firm does not break out assets under management of real assets, said Kate McGann, spokeswoman.

Real estate and other alternative investment firms are beefing up their infrastructure capabilities because they see investment opportunity, said Jahn Brodwin, a senior managing director in the real estate solutions practice at New York-based FTI Consulting Inc.

"Everyone is listening to the current president," Mr. Brodwin said.

While there is a great deal of uncertainty around whether Mr. Trump's policy statements will become reality, there is "a general consensus" that the administration is pro-privatizations, he said.

Crystal ball is hazy

However, alternative investment managers have pursued investment themes that failed to materialize in the past, he said.

In 2009 and 2010, for example, a meaningful amount of money was raised by real estate managers to invest in real estate debt.

"Four or five years later, they had to give back the money because there was nothing to buy," Mr. Brodwin said. "Will this (infrastructure) materialize? I don't know."

Even so, expanding into infrastructure is "a very natural step" for real estate managers, he said. And now is a good time for managers to expand beyond real estate and private equity, he said.

"Prices are high. It's difficult for private equity shops to make much money," Mr. Brodwin said. "It's difficult for them to be able to hit the hurdle they are used to hitting to make money."

Infrastructure "is a new opportunity to make money" when other assets such as core real estate are so highly priced, he said.