The attractions of infrastructure investment for charities

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Gemma Woodward, Quiltor Cheviot

By Quilter Cheviot’s Gemma Woodward, Executive Director, Charities

In our role as investment managers for charities we have been faced with one particular challenge over the last few years – how to generate a sustainable and growing income for charities from their investments?

The development of liquid and easily accessible infrastructure funds over the last decade has enabled new investors to participate in this asset class. The first infrastructure investment company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2006. Given the illiquid nature of infrastructure, the permanent capital structure of investment trusts is suited to this type of investment, with supply and demand dictating whether the vehicle trades at a discount or a premium to its net asset value.

The attraction of infrastructure funds  (be they for the building of hospitals, courts or related to renewable energy projects) is that they offer a level of income which is at a significant premium to that of the gross redemption yield of a UK ten year government bond; yet the projects have government backing and usually inflation-linked returns. Therefore from an income perspective this provides both certainty and sustainability, with growth prospects.

This certainty and sustainability of the income stream is of paramount importance; many charities commit to providing funding for projects over a fixed time frame and in many cases meet this funding from their investment income. If the investment income is insufficient then there is a funding gap which ultimately affects the charity’s ability to deliver its objects. Obviously if the charity is able to expend capital, it may then drawdown funds from its portfolio, or it may be able to fund from other sources. However in some cases, if the charity is a permanent endowment it is limited to spending only its income.

For charities, there is a further attraction to investing in infrastructure – it has many positive social attributes. In many cases, charities will avoid investing in certain sectors or activities as they are not in keeping with the charity’s objectives or will create reputational risk issues.

As we have seen in the past, a charity investing in an area which is deemed inappropriate is manna for parts of the media. Charities have been at the vanguard of ethical investing and certainly much of the focus has been on exclusionary policies, however for many charities the focus has widened from excluding investments on ethical grounds, to also seeking investments which have a positive impact on society. Obviously this does not always make a perfect match: for example a faith-based charity may not wish to invest in GP surgeries which provide abortifacients to patients, despite the other positive attributes of such an investment. It is unlikely that positive factors will ever be so significant that they will mitigate negative issues as the latter are integral to a charity’s ethos, and this, of course, needs to be taken into account when selecting any investment, not just infrastructure funds.

For us, as investors, there is an inherent pleasure in including investments which not only deliver the investment requirements set by charities, but which also provide other tangible benefits – it is a ‘feel-good’ story which goes beyond rhetoric and delivers societal impact.

Obviously this is one factor which has to be assessed alongside others. For example, the income is attractive in this time of low interest rates and bond yields, however one must always be mindful that the income in some instances is a very significant proportion of the total return, and as for many charities preserving the real value of the capital of the portfolio is equally an important consideration, this must be taken into account. Likewise consideration must be given to the overall investment case for the specific infrastructure fund. Sometimes the case for taking ESG (environmental, social and governance) or responsible investment factors into account seems to lose the wider investment context; as an example I was at a presentation recently where the focus was on how an index had been divided into the top 50% ESG performers and the bottom 50%. The performance of these two groups was then plotted and the top 50% ESG cohort had out-performed the other. However the performance differential was not significant and more than one cynic in the audience noted that it did not make a powerful case for including ESG factors in your investment decision making.

The point being, of course, that we never judge an investment on one criterion, there are always multiple factors in assessing its efficacy. However, for us, infrastructure with its income generating qualities and its positive societal impact, meets the requirements of many of our charity clients.

Gemma Woodward is responsible for managing charity portfolios as well as developing Quilter Cheviot’s company-wide approach to responsible investment and the faith based investment offering.  She has over twenty years investment management experience and has spent the majority of that time focused on the charity sector and specifically clients with complex ethical and socially responsible investment requirements.

Investors should remember that the value of investments, and the income from them, can go down as well as up and that past performance is no guarantee of future returns. You may not recover what you invest.