Take any commodity and it can be replaced with something cheaper or greener with a bit of imagination, investment and technical savvy. Plastic pipes are replacing expensive copper ones; wave, wind and sun provide energy in place of coal-fired power stations; corn-based ethanol and fuel cells instead of petrol. Costs may not be immediately comparable, but the invisible hand of the market should address any imbalance in time. Yet arguably the world’s most vital commodity we all take for granted every single day… water.
Water is different since there is no replacement regardless of price yet bizarrely it remains one of the cheapest, in relative terms. Around the world the price of water is usually lower than the cost of providing it.
We are familiar with the investment implications of the imbalance between supply and demand of commodities but the investment case for water-related businesses is even more compelling. On the demand side, population growth is a major problem. It took 10,000 years for the world’s population to grow to one billion, 150 years to double to two billion and in the past 60 years it has risen to three-times that. The global population could be eight billion by 2050.
That increase would be bad enough, but each of us is also using a great deal more water. In America the population has grown roughly 50% in 30 years but its water use has tripled. Other problems include the uneven distribution of water around the world. China, for example, accounts for a fifth of the world’s population but it has just 7% of its renewable water supplies, according to US-based investment manager Summit. Only 10 countries account for 60% of the world’s fresh water.
Lack of investment in water supply networks is also a huge problem, in both the developed and developing world. About a fifth of the world’s population does not have adequate supplies of drinking water, many more do not even have basic sanitation. Summit believes infrastructure needs in the US alone could cost up to $1,000 billion over the next 20 years.
Put together constrained supply and booming demand and you have the basis for the world’s most compelling long-term investment themes, yet amazingly, it remains a distinctly under-appreciated. Summit’s analysis of the industry and share prices returns shows US water stocks delivered a total return, including re-invested dividends, of over 380% in the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, roughly three-times that of the Dow Jones index. The UK’s own water sector also performed strongly over the same period (although a 2002 UK stock market reshuffle makes direct comparisons difficult). More recently water industry share prices have collapsed in line with the vast majority of UK share prices in spite of their long-term earnings visibility and reliable dividends.
But rather than cherishing this most valuable commodity it is, according to Summit, being allowed to dribble through our fingers at a worrying rate thanks to surface pollution and using ground water supplies faster than they can replenish themselves. Summit reckons overall water levels in China are falling by roughly three metres a year. Basic supply and demand economics have had far reaching effects on most commodities over the past few years, and while there may never be a direct market for water trading, the water industry could easily turn into among the best long-term investment themes yet.