When one thinks of infrastructure and the economy, the Depression-era WPA comes to mind-the romantic notion of Franklin Roosevelt deploying millions of workers into the field to build bridges, dams and highways, and remake America in a new idiom.
Though people still hesitate to use the word "depression" in regard to the current economic crisis in 2009, the link between crumbling infrastructure and economic recovery has not been lost on politicians such as President Barack Obama. So the different economic stimulus packages swimming through Congress now include large earmarks for interior projects such as highways, environmental restoration, clean water and renewable energy. The Obama plan hopes to create three to four million jobs by the end of 2010.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009, floated into the House of Representatives legislative stream on January 15, is an aggressive $825 billion package that includes $550 billion in directed spending, $90 billion of which is for the country's infrastructure.
To some, such as Aaron Visse, portfolio manager at the Kensington Global Infrastructure fund (KGIAX) in Orinda, Calif., this could give a big boost to companies building roads, developing wind energy, retrofitting houses or cleaning up wastewater.
"Those numbers are still a bit squishy at this point," said Visse of the House bill. "I think they are likely to get larger, and the actual package that might end up getting passed could be north of a trillion dollars."
Visse says that the directed spending part of the plan could mean a lot of infrastructure opportunities, including eye-popping numbers for investment in energy generation, transmission and distribution and for renewable energy.
Infrastructure often suffers from a public-private funding gap-private industry often has to step up to pay for what the government can't or won't provide-especially as Social Security and other entitlements take precedence, says Visse. However, since the credit crisis began, the shoe is now on the other foot: Many private industry companies are suffering from their inability to borrow, and that has brought projects to a standstill.
Visse is currently investing in such companies that are set to take advantage not only of work in the U.S., but in the entire coming global infrastructure build. His holdings include companies such as Fluor Corp. (which has a large civil engineering practice), Siemens AG (Europe's largest engineering company, which he believes will be a big player in the build-out of China's energy grid) and FPL Group (a.k.a. Florida Power & Light Co., a huge wind energy player that could benefit from the renewable energy thrust in Obama's plan).
Says Visse, "I think that the key thing for investors is to understand that the public spending side will benefit certain infrastructure companies, but most of these companies also have large exposure to private industry, and that is clearly being impacted by the current economics that we're all facing. So the government spending isn't a panacea for a company that derives most of their revenues from non-governmental spending. That's why it really pays to understand the companies and understand the current economic situation."
Kensington's fund has about $120 million in assets and was launched on June 29, 2007.