A worthy alternative to bonds for income seekers: private debt



Special to The Globe and Mail

This RRSP season, as you cast about for bond alternatives to plump up the fixed income side of your portfolio, consider a private debt offering from an alternative investment manager.

Now, “alt” investing might evoke images of risky algorithms dreamed up by quantitative analysts, or vulture funds picking over the bones of distressed companies. Ideally, though, debt strategies are designed to offset the ups and downs of the stock market while offering stable yields that are higher than those available on most bonds.

Here are a few favoured by Craig Machel, a portfolio manager at Richardson GMP in Toronto who specializes in alternative investments.

Until recently, alt investments were the preserve of “accredited” investors – individuals with high income and a high net worth. Changes have made alt investments available to investors of lesser means whose investment adviser is also a portfolio manager.

Bridge financing

David Sharpe, chief executive officer of Bridging Finance Inc. of Toronto, clearly loves the role his firm plays providing short-term financing to small and mid-sized borrowers who may not meet bank lending requirements.

Mr. Sharpe, a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation near Deseronto, Ont., says his firm has become the “go to” group for bridge financing to First Nations, a burgeoning market for infrastructure and economic development.

“We’re one of the first calls in Canada for this type of thing,” Mr. Sharpe said in an interview. “It’s an important and growing part of our business.”

A lawyer by training, Mr. Sharpe also teaches a course in First Nations negotiations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “Consultations with First Nations about economic development is gigantic in this country,” he says. “We want to be on the leading edge of that.”

Among Mr. Sharpe’s proudest achievements was providing interim financing for a new commercial centre – a supermarket, drugstore and retail space – for the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, creating 50 jobs in the process. Already, the supermarket is netting $1-million a year, he says, and community members no longer have to drive 20 minutes to buy a loaf of bread.

The project had been years in the making, says D.J. Joseph, Elsipogtog nation administrator. “We were coming down to the wire when the idea was brought to us that we could secure the financing through a bridge financing company,” Mr. Joseph said in an interview. “Bridging Finance was the one that secured the capital dollars to get things going. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

With deal flow robust, Mr. Sharpe is “looking forward to consistent growth in 2017” despite uncertainty over the recent U.S. election. “The economy is alive and well in this country.”

The Sprott Bridging Income Fund LP is diversified by sector and geography, he notes, “and we’re getting deals in interesting places,” from Nunavut to Newfoundland. Among the projects financed were the purchase of two fishing vessels for an Inuit organization called the Baffin Fisheries Coalition and a tomato processing and canning plant in Leamington, Ont.

Mr. Sharpe is chair of the board of governors of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina and a board member of the economic development corporation for Eabametoong (Fort Hope) First Nation near Thunder Bay, Ont. He runs the fund with his wife, Natasha Sharpe, who is chief investment officer. She has PhDs in epidemiology and community health. Both have MBAs.

All of the Bridging Finance loans are performing, Mr. Sharpe says, which means no one is behind on their payments. “Private debt is very hard work,” he adds. “You have to roll up your sleeves, do your due diligence and monitor your investments.”

The Bridging Finance fund is marketed and distributed by Sprott Asset Management of Toronto. Bridging Finance acts as subadviser. The Sprott Bridging Income Fund LP (Class F) returned a net 8.07 per cent to investors in 2016, Mr. Sharpe says. The fund has returned a compounded 8.95 per cent a year since inception in November of 2013.

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