* Total of 35 deals in Q3, down from 43 in Q2
* Biggest was $7.3 bln acquisition of Port of Melbourne
* Property and infrastructure account for third of total
By Claire Milhench
LONDON, Oct 3 (Reuters) - An Australian port and a stake in the Empire State Building’s operator were among assets acquired by sovereign investors such as wealth funds and state pension funds in the third quarter of 2016, with deals totalling $21.2 billion.
The combined value of deals was up 38 percent from the previous quarter, helped by a handful of jumbo-sized transactions in the infrastructure, energy and real estate segments, although the number of direct investments fell to 35 from 43 in the second quarter, according to data from Thomson Reuters.
Although some oil-backed sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) have been hit by a plunge in oil prices since June 2014, prompting withdrawals from cash-strapped governments to cover funding gaps, others, especially Asian SWFs, remain well-funded.
The single biggest deal in the third quarter was the $7.3 billion acquisition of Australia’s busiest port, Melbourne, by a consortium that included China Investment Corp, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), a Canadian pension fund, and Future Fund, an Australian SWF.
The $814 billion China Investment Corp was particularly active in the third quarter, participating in 11 deals, including the three biggest.
While the fund posted its first loss on overseas investments in four years last year, its total assets still climbed 9 percent in 2015, it said in July, and it has been ramping up its investments in real estate and infrastructure against a backdrop of low returns from publicly listed stocks and bonds.
“SWFs have a preference for well-established, existing infrastructure projects, which have long-term visibility of cashflows and operations, and provide stability of earnings,” said Nikhil Salvi, a manager at Aranca, a research and analytics firm.
Infrastructure plays are in such high demand that some SWFs have struggled to meet target allocations, with 62 percent falling short of their ideal weight in this segment, a study by asset manager Invesco found earlier this year.
As a result, even infrastructure assets in emerging markets facing big structural and economic problems are in demand.
A consortium including China’s CIC Capital Corp and Singapore’s GIC Private Ltd paid $5.2 billion for a 90 percent stake in Brazil’s gas pipeline Nova Transportadora do Sul (NTS) in the second largest deal of the third quarter.
NTS provides Brazil’s most populous and industrialised states - Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro - with natural gas from Bolivia and Brazil’s offshore fields.
Salvi said such emerging market infrastructure transactions might represent better value than similar deals in developed markets, where demand has driven up prices.
“If all the homework has been done properly, it should turn out to be an attractive investment,” he said.
Real estate also remained popular, with a $2 billion deal for French residential property manager Foncia Groupe which included CIC Capital again, and Canadian pension fund CDPQ.
Another high-profile property deal was Qatar Investment Authority’s acquisition of a stake in the Empire State Realty Trust for $622 million.
The trust owns and operates New York’s Empire State building, suggesting some Middle Eastern SWFs have not yet lost their appetite for so-called “trophy assets”.
Norway’s $888 billion SWF also bought stakes worth $453 million in two office properties in San Francisco as it continued to build out its real estate portfolio to reach its target allocation of up to 5 percent.
Norway’s government withdrew 24 billion crowns ($3 bln) from the fund in the second quarter.
Salvi suggested that rather than reining in overseas acquisitions, pressure might be growing on oil funds to deliver better returns through their investments.
“The situation back home in terms of falling oil prices may increase the need to diversify income sources,” he said. ($1 = 7.9913 Norwegian crowns) (Reporting by Claire Milhench; Editing by Susan Fenton)