Call for ‘wholesale’ fund to boost potential $60bn social investment

November 14, 2020

Australia is ready for a more sophisticated market in impact investing according to Michael Traill, who has spent almost two decades encouraging Australians to invest for profit — and good.

As the chair of the federal government’s task force on social impact investing — investment measured by both financial returns and success in a social objective — Traill argues the nation needs to scale up for a potential $60bn market by setting up a “wholesaler” to bring deals to potential investors.

The task force has just presented its final report to the government and while its recommendations are still under wraps, Traill tells The Deal the group has identified the need to develop the “architecture” of the market to offer more products to investors such as superannuation funds, foundations, philanthropists and those prepared to accept a “below conventional risk return”.

“I think there is an appetite for larger scale impact investing,” he says. “There’s been an evolution and a set of developments over the last decade that would suggest that this market is ready for that but it would need some encouragement and stimulation for that to happen.” Till now most investments of this sort in Australia are about $50,000 to $10m but Traill sees potential for a spread of investments with up to $50m at the top end.

He says some industry superannuation funds, such as HESTA, have been proactive, showing financial returns consistent with the “sole purpose test” which directs funds to invest only for the retirement benefit of members.

The task force, set up in the 2019 federal budget to investigate the role the commonwealth should play in developing investment to “provide solutions to address entrenched disadvantage and some of society’s most intractable social problems” released an interim report last December. It identified three existing segments — social impact bonds which provide start-up funds for potential future return; the approximately 20,000 social enterprises of small to medium size with less than $10m turnover; and large scale enterprises of which only about six have an annual turnover of more than $50m. The interim report flagged the need for an early stage foundation; a body to promote more “outcome-based” funding opportunities; and a wholesale fund similar to Big Society Capital in Britain. The latter, it said, was “critical” for growing the sector.

Big Society Capital, was set up in 2012 as a £400m ($727m) fund to support and co-invest with fund managers to invest in social enterprises. It has since signed £540m of investment and attracted more than £1.2bn of coinvestments.

In an interview with The Deal, Traill emphasises that if the market is to scale up, Australia will need impact investment “wholesalers” to operate as intermediaries in the same way as fund managers operate in investment generally. Such a body would also attract people who could “talk a tripartite language” of business, social performance and community, and government. “A lot of the impacting investing space — think social housing, think aged care, early learning, NDIS — has an element of understanding of government policy funding and engagement,” Traill says.

“It becomes a virtuous circle. If you can set up funds that have $40m to $50m in them rather than $5m to $10m, by definition it is easier to hire (top talent).”

The task force found that high net worth funders, foundations and super funds which are already investing in social projects are often hungry for more products. They were saying “we would like to do more, we’ve been quite happy with the financial returns, the visibility of social impact, but we’d like to actually do three to five times the amount of what we are doing”.

“The question is then, how you develop more products?” Traill says. “We think that the answer is to set up the kind of partnerships that support the sustained development of intermediaries ethical fund managers who can originate these opportunities and transactions.” But he says the fragmented market will need support across all three segments from the earliest stage seed funding to mid-sized social enterprises to larger scale projects. This is needed in order to build skills for the bigger projects.

Traill left investment bank Macquarie 20 years ago to become founding chief executive of Social Ventures Australia. Back then the focus was on “venture philanthropy” and the use of performance metrics to bring venture capital disciplines to philanthropy without demanding a return on investment. “What has happened over the 20 years since is a much more sophisticated understanding that there will be opportunities to mobilise even bigger chunks of capital where you can combine reasonable financial returns and social purpose,” says Traill.

At present impact investing totals about $1bn in Australia but Traill suggests it could grow to 2 per cent of the overall local investment market of about $3 trillion. “I don’t think that’s a naive or aspirational target... 2 per cent is still mobilising massive pools of money. It could be a $60bn market. But to get to that point you would want it to be recognised as a mainstream asset class in the same way as private equity or infrastructure or direct property.”

Traill says super funds are interested in investments of $20m to $50m and above. That means they need projects of between $50m to $100m and above. “That is actually a big chunk of the market when you think about aged care, you think about TAFE and further education, early learning childcare, social and affordable housing,” he says. “The NDIS housing (for example) has been effective in encouraging funding into that market. These are clearly multibillion-dollar chunks of the economy.

“Wind the clock forward five or 10 years and I think there will be a very broad church of impact investors. The super funds have to provide reasonable long-dated financial returns and I think there is a transaction opportunity there that will appeal to them. “I think that will be a big market and then you’ll have a spectrum of impact investment that draws on the original pool of foundations, philanthropists and investors who want to generate a return but may be prepared to accept a ‘below conventional risk return’. And that’s already happening.”

The British system was boosted by using “unclaimed monies” and Sir Ronald Cohen, the force behind its establishment, has suggested Australia make similar use of so-called passive funds. But Traill says there are legislative and technical problems in “liberating” these funds in Australia, and the task force has not recommended that idea. Nor is it pushing legislative change to help Australia scale up the sector.

“We think it is much more about government encouragement and enabling,” says Traill. He says the final report addresses two other issues that have held back development of the sector — the need for capacity building for early stage social entrepreneurs who need resources; and “a very specific gap which we came to know as the valley of debt funding”. This refers to the problems faced by a social enterprise which is up and running but is too small to access the next tranche of capital — often between $25,000 to $150,000 — to allow it to grow to the next level.

Full article via The Australian

HELEN TRINCA, THE DEAL EDITOR AND ASSOCIATE EDITOR Helen Trinca is a highly experienced reporter, commentator and editor with a special interest in workplace and broad cultural issues.

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