Infrastructure Investing: What It Is and How to Break In

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Infrastructure Investing FundsIf there’s one long-running unfulfilled request on this site, it’s coverage of Project Finance.

I have gotten about 100+ requests to feature it, and I’ve even had numerous interviewees sign up and volunteer to speak about it… and then drop out at the last minute.

The bad news is that this is still not that elusive article on Project Finance.

But the good news is that this is very close, and it covers an area that is even more interesting in some ways: infrastructure investing.

If Project Finance is the “venture capital” of the toll road/bridge/airport world, infrastructure investing is the “private equity” of that same world.

And all you have to do to get in?

Land a bulge bracket offer in Australia, get forced out, wind up in Hong Kong without knowing the language, and improvise your way to success from there.

Here’s the full story:

Offer… Rescinded? How It All Began

Q: So let’s get started with your initial plan for getting into the industry, and how you ended up in an unexpected place.

A: Sure. My background wasn’t that unusual – I studied business/finance at a university in Australia and then applied to investment banking through the graduate recruiting process.

I had no idea what I wanted to do, but sitting in an office and wearing a suit seemed cool at the time (little did I know…), so I was set on IB from my 2nd year onward.

I applied for graduate positions in my last year, and the process itself was very similar to recruiting anywhere else: online assessments, phone interviews, and a few rounds of in-person interviews with questions and mini-case studies.

Q: Really? Not much was different even though you were recruiting in Australia?

A: Not really. The only quirk in the process: the “final round interview” consisted of a cocktail evening at an MD’s house, and they made you go up on stage and tell the bankers something about yourself.

That was probably the low-light of the recruiting process for me, and I can’t even remember what I said (or maybe I blocked it out?) – but it didn’t seem to matter much: I received a call the next day with an offer to start working at this bank.

Q: But the timing wasn’t the best.

A: Right, this was as we were heading into a recession and all banks in Australia were deferring or cutting graduate hires.

They asked if I was willing to move to Hong Kong because of “headcount issues” – they liked me, but could not support an additional hire in the Australian offices.

I said “no” at first because all my friends in family were in Australia and I really didn’t want to move all the way to Asia. Plus, I had heard that the hours were very long, even by IB standards, in HK.

Decisions, Decisions

Q: What made you change your mind and say “yes”?

A: Well, for one, the economy was terrible and there weren’t that many other options for new graduates. I had no real connection to Hong Kong and didn’t know the language(s), but I wasn’t about to lose a desirable offer just because I wanted to stay at home.

I got there and was placed into the Power & Utilities industry coverage team right away.

Since I didn’t know Mandarin, they had me work with companies across the entire Asia-Pacific region and I traveled to Southeast Asia (Thailand and Singapore) quite a lot in my first year there.

I wouldn’t say the hours were “worse,” necessarily; they were just as bad as NYC/London work hours. But the travel kept me sane and made it a bit more fun than the average IB analyst role, where you really are chained to your desk 95% of the time.

Q: I see… yeah, business travel tends to be fun at first and rapidly decline in “fun value” after a few months. So how long did you end up staying there?

A: Just over 2 years. I had done a ton of pitches and a few deals by then, and I was ready to move on.

IB in HK is increasingly driven by mainland China, so if you’re not a native Mandarin speaker or you don’t have relationships there it’s extremely tough to make yourself useful.

And as previous interviewees have pointed out, it’s not just the language: you can be from Taiwan or Hong Kong or Singapore and still not be “Chinese enough” to fit in with the mainland business culture.

Banks do cover Southeast Asia and other regions out of the Hong Kong office, but deals in those places fall apart very frequentlyat an even higher rate than normal deals fall apart.

So their preference is to focus more and more on deals and clients in China.

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. So then you started looking for buy-side roles right around this time?

A: Yeah, just past the 2-year mark. At first, I focused on traditional PE funds in HK but I realized that roles for non-Mandarin speakers were limited and that Southeast Asia coverage roles were not necessarily ideal.

So I started thinking about going back to Australia and branching out into areas beyond traditional PE – one field that interested me was infrastructure investing, because it is a huge, developed market there and much bigger than you’d expect based on the country’s population and economy.

I found a few firms on eFinancialCareers, applied, and got in touch with a headhunter who set me up with phone interviews and eventually in-person interviews there (which was very tricky to coordinate since I was still working full-time in Hong Kong at that point).

Infrastructure Investing 101

Q: OK, great, so before we move into the recruiting process, I wanted to step back and explain what “infrastructure investing” is.

We’ve gotten tons of questions on Infrastructure vs. Project Finance vs. Public Finance, and with this article and the previous public finance series we can address at least 2 of those…

A: Sure. Just like in traditional PE, you split your time between origination (finding new assets to invest in) and deal execution (doing the deals), as well as managing the existing portfolio. There’s also some fundraising work depending on the fund that you’re at.

The difference is that you’re investing in assets that provide essential utilities or services – toll roads, airports, power plants, telecom, or even “social infrastructure” like hospitals and schools.

Infrastructure does NOT include real estate assets that are strictly for people to live in or for businesses to operate from – the distinction is that there must be some kind of essential service offered by the asset.

Many of these assets are extremely stable and will be around for decades; some, like airports, have natural monopolies that make them incredibly valuable.

They’re also less sensitive to economic and business cycles, and, at least in Australia, most of the investors in this sector are pension funds with an extremely long-term outlook who may favor stability over higher potential returns.

Many of these assets are dependent on government regulation, or are even developed in partnership with the government.

In Australia, for example, lots of utilities and transmission/distribution networks are regulated by the government and they actually tell you what your “allowed rate of return” can be and then set the pricing and terms to enforce that.

Q: I’m getting visions of 1984.

Isn’t it risky to invest in a sector that’s subject to so much regulation?

A: Haha, yes, in a way it is because the government could always step in and change the rules to reduce your returns.

On the other hand, the government is also keen to attract investment into the sector so that sort of balances things out.

Also, these assets are very, very stable, almost to the point of being boring.

You see assumptions like revenue growing at 3% per year, forever, linked to GDP growth or inflation – it’s not like working with normal companies where growth rates and margins may fluctuate wildly from year to year.

Q: So what are your targeted returns? Lower than normal PE, I’m assuming?

A: Yes, we tend to target 10-15% IRRs here – and sometimes the holding period is 10 years or more. Partially, that’s because there’s less liquidity and the buyer pool isn’t as wide as it might be for normal companies.

But it’s also because many of the assets have long-term contracts with suppliers and we try to take advantage of those when we hold the asset – a power station, for example, might have a power purchase agreement with a retail company lasting 15 or more years.

So it’s in our interest to hold the asset for as long as possible during the terms of that agreement.

Q: I see. And why is the market so big in Australia? I would have thought that infrastructure would be more significant in emerging markets.

A: It’s mostly a result of pension funds here growing to massive sizes because everyone has to contribute 9-12% of their salary toward pensions – and they like to play it safe and invest in stable, predictable assets such as infrastructure. The same thing has happened in Canada.

Developed countries still have a need for infrastructure: just look at the US, where most infrastructure is crumbling and desperately needs to be replaced and upgraded.

In Australia, another factor is the mining boom and the additional energy and mining projects that are driving infrastructure investment here.

All these new mines need a way to transport commodities to market, and much of that transportation might count as “infrastructure.”

Q: I see… so it’s partially government-driven and partially market-driven.

Last question before we move on: what’s the difference between Infrastructure Investing, Public Finance, and Project Finance? They all deal with similar types of assets.

A: I’m not an expert on the other two, but here’s how I see it:

  • Project Finance: This is investing in the debt required to fund the construction of infrastructure assets, or required to acquire existing assets. PF firms spend a lot of time assessing the downside risk, how much money they can get back in the worst-case scenario, and so on.
  • Infrastructure Investing: This is investing in the equity of infrastructure assets – mostly acquiring existing ones, but sometimes also greenfield projects.
  • Public Finance: Less about building assets or buying assets, and more about the financing of these deals and how to get the funds to do everything – and you are raising those funds for governments rather than investment funds or normal companies.

Breaking Into Infrastructure Investing

Q: So let’s move back to your recruiting process at this firm – what was it like?

A: My fund has fewer than 20 “investment professionals,” so the process I went through was quite informal. I spoke with around half the office, and most of the questions focused on my deal experience, what I thought about the market, and how much I knew about infrastructure.

I had almost no time to prepare for any of this, but I went back through all my deals and reviewed every model there line-by-line (or at least, the closest I could come to that) and devoted most of my time to that.

They were interested in me because I had experience in the power/utilities sector, and increasingly infrastructure is expanding beyond toll roads/bridges/airports into power and energy-related assets.

As I said, the fund I’m at is relatively small so I didn’t have to complete traditional case studies or modeling tests – they mostly just asked about my experience.

Q: OK, so what specifically did they ask about the models you had built and the deals you worked on?

A: You could divide the questions like this:

  • Why? – What was the purpose of the model and how did it impact the deal? For example, did I figure out that the asking price for a power plant only made sense if energy prices were 50% higher than current levels?
  • What? – What did you build? For example, I might have explained that I built an operating model for a power generation company by separating it into its 3 main geographies, calculating revenue and expenses for an “average” power plant in each region, and then aggregating everything across all the regions.
  • How? – How did you make the assumptions? Here, I would explain what sources we consulted for energy price assumptions, expense/margin trends, and also the impact of different assumptions on the output.
  • What Next? – How did you personally contribute to this deal and what ended up happening? As a junior banker, of course, you’ll mostly be running the numbers and assisting with due diligence so most of your contributions will come in these areas. But you need to highlight discrepancies you found, numbers that seemed unreasonable, or potential problems that came up in due diligence. It’s OK if the deal fell apart, but you should probably try to frame it more as, “It’s ongoing – we’re still waiting for the buyer/seller to make a decision.”

Q: Great, I think that’s a good way to think about all your deals, even if you haven’t worked in power/utilities or infrastructure. So they liked you and gave you the offer right away?

A: Pretty much. I went through a few rounds of phone interviews, and then heard back a few days after this in-person firm visit.

They were flexible with start dates, so I had 2 months in between quitting my bank and starting at this new fund, which I used to relocate back home and travel a bit.

Q: And it sounds like, just as with traditional PE, they are really looking more for experienced candidates from IB and related fields as opposed to students straight out of undergrad. True?

A: At the junior level, every single person at my fund worked at a bank or at least in a “banking-type” role such as an analyst at a smaller corporate finance or advisory firm.

Industry experience can help a lot in infrastructure since it’s so specific. I haven’t seen anyone come here from a power or utilities company, but I’m sure it could happen.

I don’t think we’ve hired anyone from Big 4 accounting firms, but with the right skill set it might be possible. It just depends on your technical skills and how much sector exposure you’ve gotten.

For the more senior people, backgrounds are more varied. We’ve hired lawyers and other professionals who don’t necessarily have a finance background, but who do have extensive relationships and experience in infrastructure.

Q: Awesome! Thanks for your time. Now onto the job itself and the technical side…

A: Next time, next time.

Infrastructure Investing / Infrastructure Private Equity – Series:

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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51 Comments to “Infrastructure Investing: What It Is and How to Break In”

Comments

  1. Matt says

    Great insight, especially as I have an IBD Summer Analyst stint coming up within the Power & Utilities coverage team. Thanks for sharing!

    This site is a fantastic resource by the way, and helped me immensely with landing internship offers. I can’t recommend it enough to those looking to break in – cheers to Brian and the team.

  2. Frank says

    Modeling course in P&I sector on the agenda?

    What’s the hours and pay like in Infrastructure Investing?

    Thanks Brian!

    • says

      Modeling course – at some point, maybe, but not in the near future. Hours and pay – fairly similar to normal PE, though pay is at a bit of premium in Australia depending on the firm. These will both be covered more in Part 2.

    • Analyst in infra PE says

      I work at an infra-focused PE shop in Toronto (Canada). Basis is the same as in IB. Bonus tends to range from 30% to 60% to your basis salary. Depending on the firm, you might get some carry from the associate level

  3. Themb says

    Since I am most likely responsible for a fair share of the 100+ requests: Thank you very much for this.

    I am fairly surprised about hearing that the interviewee’s firm has seemingly not hired anyone with a Big 4 background, since KPMG, PwC and E&Y are among the global leaders in infrastructure and project finance advisory. And here in Europe I actually see quite a lot of former Big 4 infra advisors having joined infra funds. And in Australia, UK, Canada and the US these teams are generally quite large, so there is a lot of talent, probably even more so than at banks. One reason I could imagine is the simple fact, that bankers have more M&A experience, which might be of more use in the secondary market, though I think the skills are pretty transferable, especially on a junior level.

    On a side note, I would like to know whether the interviewee’s fund actually takes construction risk? Also, what is their attitude towards other risk (demand and regulation, in particular).

    And, does the fund exclusively invest in Australia or is it an international vehicle.

    Once again thanks for this piece, very much appreciated.

    • says

      You are probably right, it may just be a regional difference in Australia though I am not sure of that one. I think anyone who has worked in infrastructure at the Big 4 would have a good shot at it.

      They do not take construction risk in most cases and almost always acquire existing assets, with a few exceptions occasionally. There’s more of a discussion of that in Part 2, but they try to reduce risk by diversifying into different areas of the country and different asset types.

      They focus only on Australia for now.

    • says

      …and? I think previous articles have covered the odds. They never look good for the same reason college admission stats at the top places look impossible: lots of people who have zero chance of getting in apply anyway.

      • Themb says

        If blackouts would last 2% of the year, we would be out of energy for more than 7 day. I think 2% is not all that small.

  4. Rohan says

    Is the situation that bad is australia that he couldnt be employed there and had to be booted out to HK?

    • says

      “Right, this was as we were heading into a recession and all banks in Australia were deferring or cutting graduate hires.”

      “Heading into a recession” = took place several years before I spoke with the interviewee as opposed to the present day

  5. Cameron says

    Hi Brian,

    Great article, most appreciated. A couple of questions:

    1. Whilst the fund owns the assets who is responsible for maintenance, a 3rd party?
    2. What are the exit opps?
    3. Is there much dd beyond the usual in infra investing that might require a construction/engineering background?

    Apologies if any of this is covered in part 2, I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Cameron

    • says

      1. They would hire a 3rd party to do the maintenance, but the fund would still have to pay for it.

      2. Covered in the upcoming Part 2, but anything infra / power / utilities / energy-related could work.

      3. Potentially useful, but you don’t really use the technical knowledge much… more useful if you have a lot of contacts in those fields and can find out about new opportunities from them.

  6. Lisa says

    Great article ;)

    If you had the opportunity coming out of undergrad to work at either one of these funds or BB IBD, which would be better?

    • says

      Thanks! Depends on what you’re looking for, but most people would say a bulge bracket bank is better to start at. Maybe if you know want to stay in infra or power/utilities for the long-term, you could make an argument for an infra fund instead.

  7. Curious says

    Does anyone have a good answer to “How is it that Infra projects are giving IRRs of 12%, when bond yields are under 2%”?

    I doubt the duration, equity and liquidity risk premiums make up the excess return over the risk free rate.

    • Analyst in infra PE says

      If Governments were to make the investments themselves, they would have to consolidate the borrowed debt to their balance sheet. So by letting private sector players invest and get returns, they only consolidate the annual payments that they make to those investors (in the case of a social project like a hospital, they make monthly payments; in the case of power assets, they make payments through the power purchase agreements, etc).

    • Sean38 says

      IRRs in PPPs aren’t really driven by the State looking for off balance sheet financing. It will still have an impact when the ratings agencies assess a credit rating, whether it is on or off balance sheet, as revenue is still required to support payments to the SPV.

      Investments in PPPs are far from risk free. With construction, operating cost and abatement risks being some of the basic risks transferred, which the State pays for. PPPs are also highly leveraged, often in the neighbourhood of an 80:20 debt to equity ratio. Hence, equity is at significant risk if something goes wrong and can require an equity IRR in the 12% range. The project IRR will be below this and comparatively higher Australian bond yields also drive the higher rates in the local context. Once construction of the project is complete, the IRR will fall.

      • Themb says

        I’d say that for certain project with availability-based renumeration and a generally low risk profile (standard school or hospital DBFOM in a mature market), leverage of up to 95% is still feasible, even considering the current crisis.

  8. Analyst in infra PE says

    Hey Brian,

    Good to see that you are still very active. I think that you remember me, and I want to make a small contribution or addition to the article based on my experience in infra investing in Canada.

    1) Recruitment:
    Even in Canada, it works the same way the interviewee described. The level of “formality” of interviews will depend on the type of fund you are interviewing with and they tend to favour people with a previous experience in infrastructure (IB, PE, Big 4, etc).

    You can have case studies at some funds like Borealis or Capstone, and you won’t at other funds like Fengate Capital or Fiera Axium.

    2) Investments:
    Some funds will target assets that are already built and operational (which we call brownfield investments) and others will target assets that will need to be constructed (greenfield investments). Again, it depends on the funds and their mandates.

    3) Pay:
    What I saw here in Toronto (please keep in mind that some people might disagree with this based on their personal experience) is that basis salary at the analyst and associate levels tends to be similar to the one in IBD. Bonus tends to range from 30% to 60% of the basis with the possibility of getting some carry interest (it is more common at the VP level, but some firms offer carry interest at the associate level).

    4) Lifestyle:
    Obviously, the lifestyle is better than that in IBD. However, when a deal is near completion, you’ll be working as hard as in IBD.
    On average, I would say that you work between 10 to 14 hours a day with some spikes when a deal heats up.

    • says

      Thanks for adding all that – great additions. I’ll make a note of those points in Part 2.

      I think pay is higher in Australia for some reason, but the rest seems to match the interviewee’s experiences so far.

  9. Hi says

    Hi Brian,

    I’ve been signed up for the Premium BIWS courses, and was wondering do you have en estimated time for how long each course takes to fully grasp the materials?
    Fundamentals, etc.

    I’m trying to fit the courses into my summer internship, but I’m not sure how much time to devote to each course.

    Thanks!

    • Hi says

      Also, would there be more industry specific courses available? I’m thinking along the lines of industrials, healthcare, etc.

      • says

        Other industry-specific courses: probably not in the near future, but we will be adding a few bonus case studies in the areas you mentioned very soon.

    • says

      Thanks and welcome to the course. If you look in the FAQ, there are estimates for the time required for each course under “Financial Modeling Courses” question #2:

      Excel & Financial Modeling Fundamentals: 50-60 hours

      Advanced Modeling: 40-50 hours

      But that assumes that you are attempting to complete everything.

      What to focus on really depends on what you already know – if you know Excel well already, I would skip that or only focus on the more advanced parts in Module 5 (Formulas) and skip the last module on VBA, for example.

      You should also receive a quick start guide and course highlights document soon (or you may have already received these).

  10. Jaime says

    Great article!

    I am currently interning at the corporate strategy department of the investment division of a big Chinese state contractor. We only do greenfield, specially power, but I would like to use this internship to move into project finance at an IB or infrastructure investment. Do I have any chances or I should look fro other plans?
    Is it posible to contact the interviewee?

    • says

      Yes, I think it is possible to move in from that background but it would be more difficult to do that if you came back there full-time and then tried to make the transition. Firms outside China will still “discount” the experience to some extent. I can ask the interviewee, but he is quite busy so no guarantees on getting a response – this interview was conducted a few months ago.

      • Jaime says

        Thanks Brian, I would really appreciate it. Aside from Macquaire which other Banks are strong in this field? BBVA?

          • Themb says

            BBs have started to get into PF advisory (MS and GS advising universities on parking privatisations). In the UK they are also getting more and more involved, especially since alumnis have to the public sector in wake of the crisis.

            Major project lenders and advisors are also SocGen, BNP Paribas, RBS, HSBC and RBC.

            On the lending side, Japanese and German banks are always very active.

            If you are looking for advisory, Big $ (especially KPMG, PwC and E&Y) might be an option as well.

            The question if, whether you are interest in infrastructure M&A or project finance advisory. While the topics intersect more and more, there might still be a difference and sometimes might work exclusively on project finance advisory while others work exclusively on M&A deals.

  11. hunjsuk says

    Why does the Australian Investment Bank Macquaire dominate the Infrastructure Investing market? Is no one else as interested in Infrastructure Investing as much.

    • says

      I don’t know exactly, but I think they have a stronger track record in the area which attracts more deals and clients in the first place. Also, they were one of the first banks to market there, which is a big advantage.

  12. Jody says

    Good Post.

    Comments on your definition about Project Finance vs. Infrastructure Investing vs. Public Finace.

    Project Finance: This is not equivalent to Venture Capital, it is far from it. In Project Finance, banks provide senior debt to infrastructure Projects. Since they are providing senior debt, they are very conservative in the Projects that they lend to, as they are receiving low margins on their loans. More often then not they do take construction risk, but the construction aspect is highly structured to ensure that the Project completes and if it doesn’t complete that the lenders get paid out.

    Infrastructure Investing: In the broadest sense is investing any form of capital into Infrastructure assets i.e. different forms of debt or equity, hence Project Finance could be classified into infrastructure investing. In a more narrow sense if you want to define Infrastructure Investing by Pension funds, you can assume they they are investing in brownfield projects, in developed markets, and are taking equity stakes.

  13. says

    Great post!
    With >7 yrs Civil Engineering experience in large infra projects, I was wondering if I have a shot at Infrastructure PE firms without any finance experience? Do such firms take the time to train/mentor someone without much finance background? I am going to a top MBA program this fall and would love to explore this area. OR would PF at a bank be a better bet?

  14. Ananda says

    Do you have a list of all the major global infrastructure funds? I have been trying to find something like this online with major players in Europe, NA, SA and Asia but haven’t been able to find anything. This sector interests me so it’d be great to get some info.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      We don’t have a list for that. Have you checked out programs like CapitalIQ or Bloomberg? They may have a list that is relevant.

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