Why infra debt is on the rise

Once considered a niche by investors, infrastructure debt has become an important part of LP allocations, both in the infra and private debt space.

In June 2020, Infrastructure Investor tentatively touted the prospects for infrastructure debt during a pandemic and in a post-pandemic world. We noted that its progress during those early months of covid-19 was “going reasonably well”, though we warned that future large-scale lockdowns could derail it.

Yet even with those lockdowns having happened, infra debt remains on track. BlackRock Real Assets’ $1.67 billion close of its Global Infrastructure Debt Fund – its maiden junior debt vehicle – was one of the biggest testaments to this. This 2019-vintage vehicle had raised about $250 million before the onset of the pandemic, halfway to its $500 million target. The fact it had raised more than three times that target at its final close in June, following a series of lockdowns, is no coincidence – even if Jeetu Balchandani, BlackRock’s global head of infrastructure debt, was “very surprised” at the size the fund closed on.

Comfort zone

“The low interest rate environment has driven a lot of investors to consider higher-yielding products, but at the same time staying safer than the lowest part of the equity capital structure,” says Balchandani. “They’re stepping down from investment grade but staying in fixed-income and an asset class that has demonstrated lower probability of default and a higher recovery.”

Proportion of LPs that prefer to access private debt markets via infrastructure, according to Natixis Investment Management’s 2021 Global Survey of Institutional Investors

Could it be, as Anish Butani, senior director of private markets at investment consultancy bfinance put it to us earlier this year, that high-yielding infrastructure debt is “the new core infrastructure equity”? There is indeed an element of that in the growth of high-yielding strategies, but infrastructure debt more generally is providing investors with a comfort zone in an age of unpredictability.

In bfinance’s Q1 report, infrastructure was a beacon of stability, comprising 35 percent of new manager searches for investors in the 12 months up to 31 March, the same figure as the previous 12 months. Private debt, though, comprised 31 percent of searches up to 31 March, having been at 11 percent in the previous year.

The increased appetite for private debt was also reflected in the 2021 Natixis Investment Managers Global Survey of Institutional Investors, published in June. The 500 investors surveyed were asked how they prefer to access the private debt market, with 45 percent opting for direct lending. After that, 40 percent chose infrastructure, ahead of strategies such as co-investment, distressed debt and mezzanine financing.

Infrastructure debt is not just a growing part of the infrastructure investment market, then. Thanks to its traditional lower default and higher recovery characteristics – combined with the environment in which it is operating – it is also becoming a key plank in the private debt space. In that sense, it is making good on the promise we highlighted this time last year.