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An Income-Generating Asset Class Underrepresented in the ETF World

This ETF holds the infrastructure firms that create the backbone of society--toll roads, ports, railroads, water and sewer systems, and power generation.

Robert Goldsborough, 06/14/2013

In an environment where interest rates are near zero and investors are hunting for yield, one income-generating asset class that has been gaining attention from U.S. investors involves infrastructure. Broadly, infrastructure firms are the private companies that construct and manage infrastructure assets, such as toll roads, ports, railroads, water and wastewater systems, and power generation and distribution plants.

For investors seeking a broad, diversified, and inexpensive way to invest in infrastructure firms, we recommend iShares S&P Global Infrastructure Index IGF. This exchange-traded fund holds 75 global companies in the infrastructure industry, cutting a broad swath across the industrials, utilities, and energy sectors, although Morningstar categorizes this ETF as being in the industrials space. Indeed, over the years, academics and investors alike have debated whether infrastructure truly is a distinct asset class. Many have come down on the side that the best way to characterize the industry, asset-class-wise, is that infrastructure should be defined narrowly as consisting solely of unique infrastructure assets, which are assets not already considered part of other established asset classes, such as commercial real estate. This ETF is filled with firms whose assets are not necessarily included in other asset classes.

Given that much of this ETF's portfolio is devoted to stable, yield-producing sectors such as utilities and master limited partnerships, IGF not surprisingly pays a healthy dividend of nearly 4%. We consider IGF's dividend to be sustainable, as it grew even during the financial crisis. In addition, we expect dividend payouts to be stable as the companies held in this ETF are not especially highly leveraged and thus don't face substantial balance-sheet risk. What's more, this fund's cyclicality is not high, in part because of its exposure to utility companies. The fund's five-year volatility of return of 20.1% makes it slightly less volatile than the S&P 500 Index.

This ETF is suitable as a specialty satellite holding for investors seeking access to a basket of infrastructure firms that trade both here and overseas.

Fundamental View
No one would dispute that there's always demand for improvements to the world's infrastructure. Spending on global infrastructure depends on two things: local economic growth and government spending. Both dynamics can be at risk based on certain macroeconomic trends. Local economic growth, especially in emerging-markets countries, can drive infrastructure investments. In developed-markets nations, by contrast, local growth by definition is slower, but regular infrastructure upgrades often are necessary and desired. However, many developed-markets countries' increasingly growing government debt loads will necessarily constrain governments from pushing forward with some of the infrastructure programs that they may want. That may mean lower infrastructure spending from governments in the future. At the same time, a battery of private operators of infrastructure assets has arisen to fill the void, and governments have been increasingly open to the notion of privatizing assets.

Industrial firms, largely those operating in the transportation infrastructure world, make up the biggest slice of this ETF, soaking up close to 41% of assets. Examples of transportation infrastructure firms are toll-road developer and operator Transurban Group TCL, which is IGF's single largest holding, Atlantia SPA ATL, Abertis, Groupe Eurotunnel GET, and Japan Airport Terminal.

Electric utilities make up another 21% of the assets in this ETF. Some large electric utilities held in this ETF include Duke Energy DUK, National Grid NGG, and Southern Company SO.

Several other large industries represented in this ETF are oil and gas companies, which make up about 21% of this fund's assets. These include natural gas pipeline operators such as Enbridge ENB, TransCanada TRP, and Kinder Morgan KMI. Finally, diversified utilities, such as GDF Suez, Exelon EXC, and Entergy ETR, make up the remaining 17% of IGF's assets.

Robert Goldsborough is an ETF Analyst at Morningstar.

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