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MUFG Sees Strong Rebound in North American Project Finance Led by Renewables, with Swelling Infrastructure Funds
August 27, 2020
Bullish factors include energy and environmental policy, low interest rates, and substantial fundraising for acquisition and development of infrastructure assets
Project finance in the United States has staged a vigorous recovery— aided by the ability of banks to provide liquidity, low funding costs, and a more liquid bond market—since the initial dampening effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Project Finance team at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG).
The team delivered its remarks at a virtual MUFG media roundtable last week to discuss the current state of project finance with reporters and editors. The roundtable featured Erik Codrington, Head of Project Finance in the Americas; Nanda Kamat, Head of Americas Infrastructure; Alex Wernberg, Head of U.S. Power; and Ralph Scholtz, Head of Project Finance in Latin America.
Key drivers for project finance
Mr. Codrington cited four main factors that have largely remained intact since before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and that are driving heightened project-finance activity in specific areas:
1. Energy and environmental policy: Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, policies "are driving a continued large build-out of renewables, especially in the U.S. and Canada, as renewables take market share away from coal and nuclear power generation," Mr. Codrington said.
2. Natural-gas expansion: Referring to liquefied natural gas (LNG), Mr. Codrington said that "we're at the tail end of capital investment for a substantial expansion of the U.S. LNG, midstream and petrochemical sectors, which has largely been driven by record natural-gas production." (LNG is the product of natural gas that has been super-cooled into a liquid state for shipment to consumers overseas.)
3. Low interest rates: According to Mr. Codrington, project finance is benefiting from record-low, long-term funding rates for asset-based financing, which are spawning substantial refinancing and hedging opportunities. "A depressed level of economic activity and accommodative monetary policy are driving rates even lower than they were prior to the current crisis," he added.
4. Growth of infrastructure funds: "Another bullish factor has been the…high level of fundraising and activity among infrastructure funds, which are continuing to acquire and develop assets across all the sectors that we cover," Mr. Codrington said. He attributes this growth to the "ongoing scramble" among investors worldwide for attractively yielding assets to support the retirement of "baby-boomers"—the demographic cohort of adults born over the two decades following World War II.
Renewables lead the way
Mr. Wernberg pointed to renewables as one of the most active sub-sectors in new energy project development in the United States—particularly in the realms of battery storage, offshore wind and community solar—with California and Hawaii "at the forefront of the renewable push." He said that if the Democratic party wins the U.S. presidential elections in 2020, we could see a "Green New Deal"—a package of U.S. legislation that aims to address climate change and economic inequality—that would accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
"You can see some of the tensions with the rolling blackouts in California because of the demand on the grid and reliance on renewables. This shows the need and the drive for the next phase of the expansion into battery storage," he said. "We've been talking about batteries for a long time. This year we're starting to see the transactions come in."
In discussing the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. energy industry, Mr. Wernberg noted that energy projects take years to develop, and since these projects have a typical useful life of 25–40 years, they tend to be shaped by broad macro factors such as environmental policy, fiscal policy (i.e., taxation and government expenditures) and regulation rather than by episodic events such as pandemics. Yet the low interest rates induced by the current economic environment have created "more incentive to finance," he said. "You have politicians talking about environmental concerns and the need for new jobs to stimulate the economy, and it's fueling more energy investment…So the busy situation we had before [the pandemic's outbreak] is getting busier."
Mr. Wernberg described an acceleration in deal flow before the COVID-19 pandemic that has resumed and increased, with transactions growing larger in size from several hundred million dollars—the typical cost of a renewable energy project—to billion-dollar transactions.
Infrastructure trends in a post-pandemic world
Ms. Kamat singled out a host of salient themes in infrastructure investment and finance:
1. Expansion into communications and services: "The first quarter of this year saw record-breaking levels of capital-raising by infrastructure funds—and we see a lot of money chasing deals," she said, adding that many infrastructure funds are venturing beyond "traditional infrastructure" and into communications and services.
In the "traditional" category, Ms. Kamat includes transportation, water and social infrastructure, which encompasses facilities that provide social services such as healthcare and education, as well as public facilities (e.g., community housing) and transportation (e.g., airports, roads and railways). Communications and services comprise telecommunications infrastructure—such as broadband, data centers and cell towers—and related service providers.
"COVID-19 is proving…the thesis that communications infrastructure is essential," Ms. Kamat said while noting the surge in broadband usage since the pandemic broke out. She sees the telecommunications space accounting for a significant share of deal activity this year—including mergers and acquisitions—and believes this trend will continue.
2. The effects of declining transportation volume: As Ms. Kamat pointed out, transportation assets such as toll roads, airports and ports are volume-dependent—and although all usage has declined since the coronavirus outbreak, toll roads have gained much of it back with the help of commercial traffic. Aside from supply chains that rely on the continuing transportation of goods, "people still need their…packages and groceries delivered," she said, adding that ports have suffered from lower trade volumes—but that their historical resilience to economic downturns bodes well for the asset class.
Ms. Kamat noted that declining passenger traffic at airports may help speed up existing projects that are already undergoing construction or renovations. All the same, COVID-19 is dissuading public authorities from undertaking new construction projects given the lower expected income resulting from fewer passengers. "Transportation authorities that are dependent on user fees or tax revenues are delaying new projects because of concerns over the budget to pay for them," she said.
3. More public-private partnerships (P3s) based on availability payments: Despite the negative impact of COVID-19 on public authorities' budgets—and consequently on the project pipeline—Ms. Kamat believes that the number of P3s will increase going forward as state and local governments try to figure out the best way to finance and deliver infrastructure in a budget-constrained environment. For example, "in the communications infrastructure space, we're seeing more discussions around P3s to do broadband," she said.
Ms. Kamat explained that P3s do not necessarily need to take the form of so-called "revenue risk" deals, which secure the project's revenues as the funding source (such as the toll revenues of a highway) that permits long-term financing at the outset of a project. Rather, she notes the possibilities offered by "availability payment" concessions, by which the funding source is the government's commitment of annual payments to the finance provider over the life of the long-term agreement, subject to the project continuing to meet various performance requirements (i.e., to be available for use and remain in good shape).
do a lot of deals that have availability payments from public offtakers" when "it doesn't make sense to structure them on a revenue basis for a private investor," she said. Rural-broadband development is one example of the type of project that creates a crucial public utility—yet would not be economical for investors and finance providers, because revenues from broadband usage in sparsely populated rural areas would be insufficient to justify the capital expenditures on the infrastructure, according to Ms. Kamat. "COVID-19 has created the need to expand broadband access across the country. We're seeing…states looking into building broadband network in rural areas," she said, adding that in such cases, availability payments would be more suitable. "P3s will increase moving forward, but the nature of them may change, and we may see fewer revenue-risk deals in the short term."
A challenged Latin America
Mr. Scholtz said that the adverse public-health and economic consequences of COVID-19 in Latin America are being felt especially now. He noted the decline in sovereign credit spreads, which had spiked in April, and added that financing activity is highly dependent on sovereign spreads within each country.
Project-finance activity at large has "slowed down quite a bit in the second quarter and now we're seeing a reactivation of projects," according to Mr. Scholtz. Yet he said that the "due diligence on projects has to be adjusted to take into consideration the COVID-19 impact [which is] triggering delays in construction" and equipment delivery.
He believes the financial markets in Latin America are recovering and should catalyze new project development that would tap the bond and bank markets for financing. "The economic contraction [has been] severe in the region, but…countries that started off in a position of strength—Chile comes to mind—are seeing a lot of activity in the power sector," he said. "Other countries such as Peru, Colombia and Mexico continue to be investment grade, but the impact on each economy varies."
Mr. Scholtz added that so-called "greenfield projects" in Latin America—projects that entail the development of new facilities—tend to be in the power sector, and that lower interest rates are presenting significant refinancing opportunities for existing projects.
MUFG is one of the world's largest financial institutions by assets, with approximately $3.2 trillion.
About MUFG's Project Finance team in the Americas
The Project Finance team provides secured, non-recourse debt financing solutions for the construction and long-term ownership and acquisition of power, energy and infrastructure assets in North and South America. The team also serves as a financial advisor to sponsors seeking to develop or acquire these types of assets.
The team's primary areas of focus for financing include the bank-loan, bond, Term Loan B and derivatives markets. MUFG commands substantial market share in project finance and has won numerous awards for specific transactions as well as for deal volume, topping league tables consistently over the past decade.
About MUFG Americas
The U.S. operations of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc. (MUFG), one of the world's leading financial groups, has total assets of $393.3 billion at March 31, 2020. As part of that total, MUFG Americas Holdings Corporation (MUAH), a financial holding company, bank holding company and intermediate holding company, has total assets of $165.7 billion at March 31, 2020. MUAH's main subsidiaries are MUFG Union Bank, N.A. and MUFG Securities Americas Inc. MUFG Union Bank, N.A. provides a wide range of financial services to consumers, small businesses, middle-market companies, and major corporations. As of March 31, 2020, MUFG Union Bank, N.A. operated 348 branches, consisting primarily of retail banking branches in the West Coast states, along with commercial branches in Texas, Illinois, New York and Georgia. MUFG Securities Americas Inc. is a registered securities broker-dealer which engages in capital markets origination transactions, domestic and foreign debt and equities securities transactions, private placements, collateralized financings, and securities borrowing and lending transactions. MUAH is owned by MUFG Bank, Ltd. and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc. MUFG Bank, Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc., has offices in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Canada.
Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc. (MUFG) is one of the world's leading financial groups. Headquartered in Tokyo and with more than 360 years of history, MUFG has a global network with over 2,700 locations in more than 50 countries. The Group has over 180,000 employees and offers services including commercial banking, trust banking, securities, credit cards, consumer finance, asset management, and leasing. The Group aims to "be the world's most trusted financial group" through close collaboration among our operating companies and flexibly respond to all of the financial needs of our customers, serving society, and fostering shared and sustainable growth for a better world. MUFG's shares trade on the Tokyo, Nagoya, and New York stock exchanges. For more information, visit https://www.mufg.jp/english.
1 As of June 30, 2020, and according to the USD/JPY exchange rate at that date of 1 USD= ¥107.7 trillion (JPY)
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