‘No reason’ for infra investors to use absolute benchmarks, EDHECinfra says

Infra investors cannot escape the fact that asset prices are formed in a market, where systematic risk exists, a reality that covid-19 has underscored further, the research institute says in a recent study.

In a new position paper entitled Infrastructure investors should abandon absolute return benchmarks, EDHECinfra argues there is no reason for investors in unlisted infrastructure to continue using absolute return or ‘cash plus’ benchmarks. It calls for investors to abandon them and adopt market-relative benchmarks based on fair value and representative data.

Below Frédéric Blanc-Brude, director at EDHECinfra and Noël Amenc, professor of finance at EDHEC Business School, detail the findings of the report.

This change from an absolute reference to a relative one would provide a better appreciation of the risks and performance of infrastructure investments and as such would allow taking more informed investment decisions.

We note that in a recent global survey conducted on behalf of the Global Infrastructure Hub for the G20, most of the industry supported this view. In practice however, many investors still use an absolute benchmark that fails to represent the risks of their infrastructure investments.

From the viewpoint of the state of the art in financial research, there is no reason to use absolute return benchmarks: backed by empirical evidence, we argue that infrastructure investments are not market-neutral and that investors in infrastructure cannot escape the fact that the prices they pay for assets are formed in a market, where systematic risk exists. In effect, it is for this very reason that we can speak of an infrastructure asset class. However unlisted and illiquid, infrastructure asset prices and returns, just like other listed or unlisted assets, are first made of beta.

“With absolute return benchmarks, all investors will underperform in 2020, which is just as uninformative as the pre-covid-19 situation, when all infrastructure investors beat their absolute return benchmark every year.”

In some cases, unlisted infrastructure investments can also deliver alpha.

To demonstrate the added value for investors and managers alike to switch to benchmark-relative infrastructure investing, we build peer-group portfolios of large asset owners and large asset managers and compare their performance to that of the broader market.

We show that investors can use market benchmarks to understand their performance during the covid-19 lockdown episode meaningfully, but also to measure outperformance over the long run. With absolute return benchmarks, all investors will underperform in 2020, which is just as uninformative as the pre-covid-19 situation, when all infrastructure investors beat their absolute return benchmark every year.

We find that the two main peer groups of infrastructure investors have actually been able to deliver alpha and as such have significantly outperformed the unlisted infrastructure equity market as a whole.

This alpha, however, only exists relative to a market beta. It is illusory to pretend it can exist by itself. And the only way to measure it is to use a market benchmark.

In practice, absolute return benchmarks have dominated unlisted infrastructure investment so far because there was little alternative. In spite of their understanding of the usefulness of using a relative benchmark, many investors in unlisted infrastructure have continued to use absolute benchmarks because they considered that available relative benchmark solutions were not adequate.

Indeed, we also show that benchmarks created using appraisals or listed proxies proved to be so unrepresentative, biased and generally inadequate that investors were left with the option of using absolute return benchmarks as the lesser evil.

However, recent progress has changed this situation and a modern approach to benchmarking unlisted infrastructure portfolios is now possible. More representative data and mark-to-market asset pricing are possible and have been developed in recent years.

The covid-19 crisis has drawn attention to the risks to which particular types of infrastructure, like motorways or airports, are exposed. This has led to a stronger demand from investors and regulators to measure the impact of the crisis on the profitability of infrastructure and to better understand the impact of the crisis on different types of infrastructure assets or managers.

Naturally, absolute benchmarks cannot answer such questions since they are indifferent to market events, or the risks to which each segment of the class is expected to be exposed. It is in this context that the use of a fair, representative, market-relative benchmark for the unlisted infrastructure asset class becomes even more important.

Our results highlight the range of risk-profiles and drivers available to investors in the unlisted infrastructure space as shown in the following table:

They also show that the impact of the covid-19 lockdowns have been very different in different segments of the sector. Returns have been impacted negatively by much lower cashflows in the transport sector, but also by interest rate movements in all sectors and by a varying uptick in the risk premia of each asset depending on their sector and individual characteristics. We detail all these effects in the paper.

We also show that equipped with proper benchmarks, investors can tell their unlisted infrastructure market beta from their portfolio alpha. Using data for the actual investments of two key peer groups (large asset managers and large asset owners) we find substantial market outperformance especially for large asset managers, as shown in the table below, as well as different impact of the covid-19 lockdowns for each peer group.

The realisation among investors that infrastructure assets represent significant risk exposures and that these should be understood and managed will determine the coming of age of the infrastructure asset class.

For asset owners, a better understanding of the risks related to infrastructure assets:

  • requires documenting the risk exposures created by their infrastructure investments;
  • requires benchmarking performance relative to the market index or customised benchmark that best represents these risks and creates better aligned incentives in terms of fees; and,
  • allows for a better integration of infrastructure assets in the total portfolio, including for asset-liability management purpose.

For asset managers, showing which systematic sources of risks (and returns) their investment strategy embodies can:

  • explain what part of their performance is driven by risk factors within or beyond their control;
  • demonstrate their ability to deliver access to a well-defined infrastructure portfolio in terms of risks and rewards; and,
  • help demonstrate their ability to outperform the benchmark that best represents their strategy.

What can infrastructure investors do this year with benchmarks, absolute returns benchmarks defined as the risk-free or inflation rate plus a spread or 400 or 500 basis points? Is everyone who invested in transport and probably any merchant asset going to underperform? Or is it not more relevant to ask how they are doing relative to the market given the investment choices they have made?

With such bad benchmarks, it is not possible to tell who made the right choices and who did not. Most investors understand and agree that absolute return benchmarks are ill-suited to investing in unlisted infrastructure but until recently they were probably the lesser evil given the lack of representativity of appraisal-based indices.

Our recommendations to investors in infrastructure (asset owners and asset managers) are:

  • Define your infrastructure universe clearly: investors can use TICCS® to determine the boundaries of what they call infrastructure and categorise their investments objectively;
  • On that basis, pick one of the several hundred mark-to-market indices that EDHECinfra computed each quarter as your benchmark;
  • Use this data to understand the sources of risk and returns in your infrastructure portfolio, its contribution to your total portfolio and how it can be improved.

With proper benchmarks numerous applications are possible that will bring unlisted infrastructure forward as a fully-fledged asset class. Courageous and insightful investors will opt for transparency and relevance by letting go of absolute benchmarks that are now outdated.

Frédéric Blanc-Brude is director at EDHECinfra; Noël Amenc is professor of finance at EDHEC Business School.