About this time last year, I unveiled my No. 1 pick for yield-focused investors to buy in 2019. I selected global infrastructure giant Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (NYSE:BIP) because it slumped in 2018 after the market sold off and its growth engine stalled out, which pushed its dividend yield up to an attractive 5.3% at the time.
I firmly believed that Brookfield would increase that high-yielding payout once again. I also thought that the company's value would bounce back because it had secured several needle-moving investment opportunities that would boost its cash flow. In my estimation, I saw the potential for it to generate a 25% total return.
Brookfield, however, has vastly exceeded my expectations, producing a 53% total return through mid-December, which significantly outpaced the red-hot S&P 500's nearly 29% total return during that timeframe. Here's what went right for the infrastructure company this year and whether it has enough fuel to continue generating high-octane returns in 2020.
What went right for Brookfield Infrastructure in 2019?
Brookfield Infrastructure entered 2019 in a state of transition. It sold a large electric transmission business in 2018, which acted as a headwind on its results. However, the deal also gave it the financial firepower to make deals. It had secured six transactions that it expected to close throughout 2019. As that happened, the company's growth rate started accelerating. It's on track to exit the year with an annualized earnings run rate 17% above where it was in the middle of 2018. That growth gave it the confidence to boost its distribution by another 7% earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Brookfield steadily added new fuel sources throughout the year by securing additional acquisition opportunities. The two biggest were the privatization of a large-scale North American short-haul rail operator and the acquisition of a portfolio of communications towers in India. These deals position the company to continue growing at an accelerated rate in 2020.
What's ahead in 2020?
In Brookfield's estimation, by the end of the first quarter, its annualized earnings run-rate will be 25% above its level in mid-2018. Driving that growth will be the expected close of those two marquee transactions as well as some other smaller ones it has under way.
Brookfield also expects to benefit from the continued organic expansion of its existing assets. The company's CEO noted on its third-quarter call that it "anticipate[s] our organic growth to be near the top end of our 6% to 9% long-term target range" in 2020. Add that to the boost from those acquisitions, and the company should generate double-digit earnings growth again next year. That should give it the fuel to increase its dividend, -- which now yields about 4% -- by another 5% to 9% in 2020.
Meanwhile, Brookfield has also been selling slower-growing mature assets to fund more deals. It sold $1.1 billion of assets in 2019 and is targeting to sell another $1 billion over the next year. Those sales will give it the financial flexibility to pounce on additional acquisition opportunities that would further accelerate its growth rate in 2020 and beyond.
Is Brookfield Infrastructure still worth buying?
After selling off at the end of last year, Brookfield Infrastructure entered 2019 trading at less than 10 times its expected cash flow in 2019, which was a dirt cheap level. However, with its unit price rising more than 45% this year, it's not quite as cheap, with it currently trading at about 13.5 times its anticipated cash flow run rate at the end of next year's first quarter. That's still a relatively attractive price for such a fast-growing company. Brookfield Infrastructure could therefore once again produce a mid-teens total return in 2020, given its 4% yield and the potential for it to organically grow its earnings by another 9% over the coming year.