Why crumbling infrastructure means opportunities for investors

Portfolio manager believes world is approaching critical tipping point and markets are evolving to support this trend

Why crumbling infrastructure means opportunities for investors

The world is rapidly approaching a critical infrastructure tipping point, according to a portfolio manager.

Steve Bonnyman is also the co-head of the North American Research at AGF Investments Inc. and said that for decades the need for infrastructure spending has been met with sub-standard investment that has barely begun to address the perceived need.

He highlighted President Donald Trump’s response to the Great Recession, when he promised a trillion dollar project, sparking market enthusiasm in the wake of his 2016 election. The reality, Bonnyman said, is that this has so far resulted in nothing concrete.

He explained we are hurtling towards an infrastructure D-Day. “Aging infrastructure is increasingly failing, and new technologies, such as 5G wireless networks and renewable energy, require a next generation of infrastructural support for their deployment. The need for repair, replacement and innovation in infrastructure seems bound to become only more pressing.”

He added that the demand for extensive infrastructure development across most of the economies of the world remains undisputed. A 2016 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimated that US$3.3 trillion needs to be invested globally every year to 2030, just to support current economic growth rates.

Bonnyman also warned that evidence of crumbling infrastructure is mounting. He cited examples ranging from the deadly to the inconvenient: potable water issues in Walkerton, Ontario (biological contamination in 2000) and in Flint, Michigan (lead contamination); bridge collapses in Italy, India and the United States in more recent years; power outages in California in 2019; and, closer to home, the estimated 600,000 and 250,000 potholes in Edmonton and Toronto patched in 2018.

Bonnyman said: “’Fixing’ such problems requires investment, of course, but the primary challenges remain. Not only does infrastructure generally require lots of upfront capital combined with long permitting and construction timelines, projects typically offer long payback periods, and therefore have historically been the domain of government investment.

“Meanwhile, public capital markets – a potential source of financing – have been enamoured with ‘capital-light’ businesses, owing to their lower capital requirements and hence higher near-term return on invested capital. And it has helped that governments have been reluctant to give up their control of ‘public works’ even though their revenues are being consumed by more visible, near-term demands like health care, leaving little for long-term, expensive projects.”

Populism, however, might well have an upside at least for infrastructure investment. He added: “A rising tide of public unrest could be the catalyst for governments to relinquish domination of infrastructure projects and establish the regulatory, subsidy, and return-on-investment characteristics to stimulate private capital to fill the gap.

“Infrastructure investment by the private sector is a fairly new industry, being roughly 20-plus years old, and it has long been considered the domain of large private specialty funds. In fact, capital market investors have also had the opportunity to participate, by investing in stocks of ‘through the chain’ (for example, power producers, electrical equipment manufacturers, toll roads and airports) or ‘bottom of chain’ (aggregates, steel, cement, engineering and construction, etc.) companies.

“More recently, market evolution has allowed the private investor to participate more directly in infrastructure investment. We see several driving economic forces that could support this trend and create new opportunities.”

Bonnyman picked out a number of investment opportunities for WP, including:


“Time is becoming a competitive element in e-commerce, as purchasers expect to order anything, anytime and anywhere and have it delivered tomorrow. This model increases the focus on supply chain logistics and infrastructure support. Transportation comprises roughly 50% of supply chain costs for e-commerce, and failing infrastructure presents a key bottleneck to timely delivery.”

Energy Transition

“With its focus on the use of fossil fuels in transportation and by utilities, energy transition has been the lightning rod of the climate change debate. The two issues are inexorably linked, as the commonly proposed replacement for carbon-based fuel for transportation – electrification – will create an increased load on the electrical grid. Meanwhile, integrating wind and solar power into the existing system will require huge investment in power infrastructure.”


“According to the United Nations, the gap between demand for water and available water worldwide will approach 40%. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that 30% of global water abstraction is lost every year through infrastructure leakage. New water technologies (purification, desalination) and maintenance/replacement of existing pipes and processing facilities are poised to become a critical need.”

Bonnyman added: “Within the public markets, there is already a broad base of global opportunities to invest in the infrastructure chain, from stable, high-cash-flow regulated utilities to public airports, shipping ports and communication towers, as well as the core builders of infrastructure such as engineering and construction firms, cement companies and aggregate producers.”