Warning: 3 Zones Of Interest

Nobody likes to be admonished. So, it’s an interesting commercial call to deliberately call out one’s customers. Even more daring to use the Holocaust as your messaging context. There are no adequate words (almost literally in many scenes) for Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant but upsetting Oscar-winning film, The Zone of Interest. The luxury dream life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, his wife Hedwig and five children in a house right next door to the walls of the Nazi death camp is almost two films. One is seen, the other heard. The effect is extremely unsettling – you see nothing, but hear and know really evil events are happening.  However, director Glazer is using this notorious historical setting to deliver a present day admonishment. Like Hedwig Höss and her household, we hear things but choose not to ‘see’ bad things. However, you’ll be relieved to read I don’t plan a similar scolding…..but have some cautionary thoughts.

It has been an interesting week for the planet’s hottest investment topic, Artificial Intelligence or AI. For main street consumers we are on the cusp of not just hearing about AI, but actually ‘seeing’ it in action. First, Google showed off the latest use cases for its AI model, Gemini, in search, education, video, workflow etc. All hugely impressive, and the intention is for Gemini to be embedded in Android powered phones soon. Not to be outdone, reports are flying around that Apple will do something similar with its iPhone and OpenAI’s ChatGPT model. As the tech-heavy Nasdaq index hits all-time-highs, it’s clear AI is going to move rapidly from being a corporate cloud story (Nvidia, Microsoft etc) to being a main street consumer revolution on our phones. However, the cloud and the powering of AI models is still entirely relevant to this move. Arguably, AI infrastructure is today’s gold rush version of  ‘spades and shovels’ which, for investors, means data centres are critical to deploying AI. You’ve probably already heard that. But, do you ‘see’ the reality…?

My favourite trivia question of the week has been how many data centres will Microsoft open in 2024. Every answer I have received has been wrong, mainly in the low double digits. The reality, per a recent Financial Times article, is that Microsoft is opening a data centre “every three days”. Mind-blowing. These are $300-400 million facilities, not Starbucks cafes or KFC restaurants. And, that’s just one company. Here’s another – Echelon Data Centres. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting its owner, Niall Molloy, at the excellent Renatus Real Deal 2024 conference this week where Molloy was interviewed as winner of the “Deal of the Year” award. I was stunned to learn Echelon only started in the data centre construction business in 2017. Just 7 years later private equity giant, Starwood Capital,  has invested $850 million in Echelon and the business is currently valued at north of $2 billion. A super story of bold vision and world-class execution, but Molloy had a cautionary word about the pressures on global electricity grids as data centre campuses begin to match the power consumption of capital cities. The AI and data centre revolution is coinciding with an even bigger global shift – decarbonisation of our economies. The solution is more electricity power, and the challenge is the expansion of under-invested electricity grids. However, where there is risk there is opportunity.

Ireland has been mentioned as one of the most challenged national electricity grids and many readers will have ‘heard’ the negatives of data centre power consumption. However, all data centres now have to create/install their own power supply and most likely the source will be renewable energy. That means huge investment capital is required because it is no longer just a construction project, but also includes incremental builds of electricity generation and water supplies. Hence, we should ‘see’ this week’s reports of Intel’s plans to expand its Fab34 semiconductor chip factory in Leixlip as a ‘wow’ moment. The plans are not new but the financing is ground-breaking. Intel was originally looking to spend $2 billion. Now, the number is $11 billion and global private equity player, Apollo Global, is being tapped as the solo partner on the project. The entry of global private equity into AI infrastructure funding should signal opportunity and expert eyes ‘seeing’ a way forward despite grid challenges. So, my second cautionary word after ‘seeing’ a consumer AI shift is that there are risks but also huge opportunities away from the actual technology. In other words, investing in power, storage, construction, critical minerals/materials, water, skills training/resourcing and other professional support services could generate top class returns.

Clearly, private equity giants have spotted an investment opportunity. And, don’t forget Blackstone’s recent $1 billion purchase of a majority stake in Dublin-headquartered data centre engineering firm, Winthrop Technologies. Still, there’s one final cautionary tale; under-investment caused by political inertia or regulatory uncertainty. Exhibit A on political misrule is probably the UK. However, Brexit might be the go-to lament you ‘hear’ but the reality is a long-standing issue we wrote about in March:


The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates the under-investment in business at $500 billion less than what other comparable OECD countries have invested since 2005. Public sector investment (infrastructure) was a further $200 billon below the G7 average. All in, this chronic lack of investment places the UK 27th out of 30 OECD countries.


As regular readers will know, we have been quite positive about UK investment opportunities in recent months but this warmer view has been based on a contrarian prompt. Investors have been fleeing UK investments for years and Panmure Gordon published some startling figures in a research report from their Economics team this week. I would highlight three in particular:


  • UK public companies trade on a like-for-like basis (taking into account sector and growth characteristics) at a 17% valuation to comparable companies trading in the rest of the world (RoW).
  • The gap in valuation between the biggest UK companies (FTSE 100) who are globally engaged and the more domestically-focused smaller UK companies (FTSE 250) is at its widest in 20 years.
  • Funds focused on UK investing strategies have reported outflows for 82 of the last 97 months (Source: IA)


Please ‘see’ this as the damage inflicted by chronic under-investment for almost 20 years. So, given our planet faces an existential threat without decarbonisation, the critical need for investment in global electricity grids is not exclusively an AI or data centre issue. Data centres are just a ‘wall’ blocking the bigger picture view . Without joined-up policy thinking, we risk ‘hearing’ about data centres but missing a planetary extinction event moving into irreversible territory. Don’t zone out on this one.


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