To hear debt-weary politicians in the U.S. and Europe tell it, the budget ax is being sharpened, and dramatic cuts in public spending are on the way -- all of which could be bad news for companies involved in projects to build or operate roads, ports and bridges, among other things.
But analysts say that's not quite the case. Indeed, dig deeper into the global to-do list and it looks like, rather than using an ax, political leaders will need to keep reaching for picks and shovels. Just to keep pace with the world's growing population, governments and the private sector will have to spend at least $53 trillion on transportation, telecom, energy and other infrastructure projects by 2030, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a policy forum whose members include 34 nations. That means spending about what Germany generates in economic activity every year for 18 years, on everything from power grids in Latin America and China to natural gas pipelines in the U.S. For the companies involved in these projects, that spells long-term opportunity, says Michael Avery, who has devoted about a quarter of the $25 billion Ivy Asset Strategy fund he comanages to infrastructure-related stocks. Avery is hardly alone. The number of funds specializing in infrastructure-related plays has doubled since 2008, to 35 -- with investors pouring about $700 million into the group over the past year.
The following companies are poised to benefit from infrastructure projects around the globe, experts say.
The Canadian firm operates gas and oil pipelines in the U.S. and Canada, and should benefit from both oil discoveries in North Dakota and the natural gas boom nationwide, says Gary Anderson, comanager of the Scout International fund. Enbridge has also boosted its dividend for 15 consecutive years.
Hutchison Whampoa (HUWHY)
The Hong Kong conglomerate operates ports in 26 countries, including deep-sea, coastal and river ports in China and stands to benefit as China's western provinces develop. The shares are cheap as well, trading at two-thirds the value of its assets, says Michael Avery, comanager of the Ivy Asset Strategy fund.
Brazilian utility Companhia Energ tica de Minas Gerais, or Cemig, trades at eight times earnings about half what comparable but slower-growing U.S.-based utilities trade
at, says Forward Global Infrastructure fund manager Aaron Visse. Plus, Brazil's government has promised an upgrade of its power grid.
Executives of the Swiss company, whose power businesses benefit from both urbanization and the shift to more energy efficiency, told analysts they want ABB's profits to grow at twice the rate of global economic growth through 2015. That said, ABB's business is strongly affected by the ups and downs of the global economy, analysts say.
Abertis Infraestructuras (ABE.MC)
The Spanish firm manages toll roads, airports and telecom systems in 15 countries. Executives told analysts last fall they expected the company's profitability to improve in all of its businesses despite the economic downturn. In the interim, it has generated relatively steady cash, and it paid a special 13 percent dividend in 2011. Investors can get the stock, which trades on the Madrid exchange, through many brokers.
While the forecasts for infrastructure spending are not exactly new, the bridge and grid builders have recently become far more attractive investments, thanks to a couple of catalysts: privatization and price. Analysts say many European infrastructure stocks are trading at 15 to 25 percent below year-ago levels because some investors worry about their business prospects amid the latest financial crisis. But investor interest could spike over the next decade, as Europe sells state-owned assets -- a move that often follows sovereign-debt crises, says Bulent Gultekin, an associate finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who has advised governments on such sales. While the pace of privatization may take a while and be subject to changing political winds, cash-strapped governments faced with the options of increasing taxes, slashing spending or selling public assets may opt to do more of the latter, Gultekin says.
Indeed, Greece is expected to sell stakes in some utilities, ports and rails by 2015, and Spain has talked about selling some of its stakes in airports in Barcelona and Madrid. Over the next 12 to 18 months, Europe could privatize 10 billion euro ($13.3 billion) worth of assets, and potentially five times that over the next four years, says Andrew Maple-Brown, comanager of the $21 million Delaware Macquarie Global Infrastructure fund.
To be sure, these stocks could be volatile if Europe's financial troubles curtail projects or China's slowdown is worse than expected. But fund managers say many of the firms, especially those that operate projects, like Spain's Abertis Infraestructuras, are well-diversified and generate a growing share of their business from emerging markets that aren't facing the same fiscal pressures. Says Joshua Duitz, who runs the Alpine Global Infrastructure fund, "These are the stocks I want to own in general -- but especially through an economic crisis."