AIMCo chief keen on North America investments, but says processes too slow

CALGARY – The CEO of Alberta Investment Management Corp. said he’d be keen to invest more money closer to home if the political decision-making process in North America were not so sluggish.

“The decision process in almost any region of Canada or the U.S. is very slow and much less has been invested than should be,” Leo de Bever told reporters on Thursday.

“We seem to take an enormous amount of time to arrive at any decision and I think it’s socially corrosive.”

AIMCo — which manages $70 billion on behalf of 26 pension, endowment and government funds Alberta — takes a global view, having made big investments in places such as Australia and South America.

De Bever said he sees potential opportunities in Spain, whose ailing economy is beginning to show signs of improvement. The re-regulation of banks means many small- to mid-sized companies are still strapped for capital.

“I’m a bit frustrated that there hasn’t been more opportunity in North America for us to put money to work,” de Bever said.

And that includes Alberta.

“Here you have Fort McMurray as sort of a dynamo of the province and you can’t get roads and bridges built because of inertia in the system.”

In the wake of devastating flooding in much of southern Alberta this spring, there are also a lot of potential “big-ticket” infrastructure items that could be “interesting” for a company like AIMCo.

“But first you have a commission to figure out what happened and then eventually it’s going to come up with the conclusion.”

Premier Alison Redford announced in Calgary on Thursday that reviews are set to begin on a diversion channel around High River, Alta., and on a dry dam upstream of Calgary to help mitigate the impacts of future flooding.

Meanwhile, de Bever said AIMCo is also interested in investing in technology firms working on ways to reduce the amount of energy required to squeeze bitumen out of the oilsands.

He sees a US$70 per barrel global oil price as a possibility, which means higher-cost oilsands firms are going to have to adopt new technologies to thrive.

AIMCo has $600 million earmarked toward late-stage venture capital opportunities, a small portion of which is currently geared toward the oilsands.

“I’d like to find a way to help out there and put myself in a better position to catch the really promising stuff that needs the big money.”

De Bever also said that AIMCo looked at participating in a bid for fallen smartphone titan Blackberry Ltd. (TSX:BB), but no proposal came forward that made much sense.

“This was the most bizarre environment. I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” he said. “You had sort of six or seven entities coming in, darting in and out with various kinds of propositions.”

“There was never a unified business plan to say ‘OK this is what we need to do.’ What they ended up doing was raising $1 billion, but what are they going to do with it? I haven’t seen anything that basically says ‘OK — this is step two, three and four.”

De Bever then reached into his suit jacket pocket and pulled out a Blackberry and an iPhone — the former for work, the latter for personal use.

“I’m still rooting for a solution that allows that (Blackberry) technology to re-emerge. But this is sort of indicative of what’s happening, right?” he said, gesturing to the devices.

“This is such a rapidly advancing technology it is very, very difficult to stay ahead of the game.”