Canadian Investment Review

Data is an asset class, says OPTrust CIO

Written by Yaelle Gang on Friday, February 8th, 2019 at 8:43 am

Data Management Technology and Big Data as Art © Kheng Ho Toh /123RF Stock PhotosIt’s been almost a year since the OPSEU Pension Trust co-launched an investment platform, EdgeCore Internet Real Estate, which builds, owns and operates North American data centres.

This was part of a partnership with Mount Elbert Capital Partners and GIC Private Ltd.

And the OPTrust is still excited about the opportunities offered by data centres. “I really strongly believe that data is an asset class,” says James Davis, chief investment officer of the pension fund. “If you think about what commodities are and how people have invested in commodities, they’re really old economy in many ways, in the sense that commodities were the raw material inputs into the industrial age, but in this new age of technology, knowledge and information, the raw input is really data.”

Since data is unique and growing in demand, data centres will be important infrastructure for storage, says Davis, noting speed matters and location is important for getting the data more quickly to users. A year into its investment, EdgeCore has land positions in Dallas, Texas; Northern Virginia; Phoenix, Ariz.; Reno, Nev.; and Silicon Valley, Calif.

“Reno is an interesting one,” says Simon Moody, director of private markets group at the OPTrust. “It’s not very close to any population centre, but it’s very cheap. So for certain internet uses you’re okay with latency if it’s cheap enough, and we think Reno has a really unique advantage that way: it’s very close to the west coast, but land is cheap and power is cheap.”

The OPTrust considers these investments exciting because of their development opportunity. “If you look across our portfolio, at this time when all assets seem really expensive, there are risk premia that you can get from development that you wouldn’t get if these assets were already constructed and in play,” says Davis.

Data centres also offer diversification and are a play on growth, he says. And, the investments are scalable, Moody adds.

But one risk in running a data centre is security, he says, noting there’s a lot of compliance work involved.

Another consideration is environmental risk and looking at where to construct the data centres and being mindful of where the power comes from, which is something tenants care about as well, says Moody. “They don’t want to have high cost of power and the risk of high cost of power in the future, so they’re looking for utilities that are ahead of the curve and bringing in renewables.”

Davis isn’t fixated on whether data centres are defined as infrastructure or real estate, although the OPTrust does classify these as infrastructure.

“I think it’s almost philosophical to start with,” he says. “If you think about data as a commodity and you think about how that commodity is actually utilized, it’s going to get utilized in a data centre. If you think about how, say, oil and gas is going to get utilized in the old economy, it goes through a pipeline and it ultimately reaches its consumer. So we think of the pipeline for oil and gas, or the transmission line for electricity, as infrastructure — why wouldn’t we think about all of the pipes and connectivity and storage of data in the same way?”

However, at the end of the day, Davis doesn’t really care how it’s defined. “What I care about is what are the risk factors that I’m being exposed to here and are they complementary to the portfolio? And in fact they are. And, it’s unfortunate for those investors who get so tied up in nomenclature that they can’t figure out if they want to invest in it because they don’t know if it’s a fit for their real estate portfolio or not.”

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