Is Trump’s US Infrastructure Vision For Real?

IImage by Henry TeitelbaumBy Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3-Planet.com

Right up to election day, President-elect Donald Trump was frustratingly short on the details of his post-election plans. In hindsight, it seems that lack of specificity didn’t hurt his chances, and may have even helped his campaign.

Now that he’s elected, Trump’s public remarks point to the possibility that he really is committed to investing in rebuilding America’s infrastructure. If confirmed, such a program would go a long way towards redeeming an otherwise deeply misguided political agenda.

As of this writing, it’s too early to expect a detailed plan from the new administration, particularly one that is led by such an easily distracted personality. However, most political observers seem to agree that this is one domestic program that passes the smell test. It is potentially  a rich harvest of low hanging political fruit because behind all the angry rhetoric of the campaign, both candidates put infrastructure near the top of their domestic agendas.

Serious Commitment

An analysis written in October by Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross and and business professor Peter Navarro — both senior policy advisers to Trump — points to a serious level of political commitment to infrastructure investment. It also indicates a willingness to consider innovative approaches to private sector financing for infrastructure  alongside public sector and public private partnership investments.

The “Trump Private Sector Financing Plan” described in their analysis is designed to be a revenue-neutral option for financing up to $1 trillion of the nation’s infrastructure needs over 10 years. A key incentive for early stage private sector infrastructure construction would come from federal tax credits. These would be  equal to 82% of the amount of the estimated equity required to absorb long-term revenue-related risks on projects. Because the equity component of the required investment is tax credit-supported, it reduces the revenue needed to service the financing, thereby improving the project’s feasibility.

Tax Neutrality

By their calculation, $167 billion of private sector equity investments in infrastructure could then be sufficient to secure leverage financing of $1 trillion. All of this assumes interest rates of 4.5% and 5%, an assumption that the post-election jump in yields call into question.

To achieve tax neutrality, the plan calls for the repayment of the tax credits from incremental revenue generated from project construction. That would be mainly from taxes on additional wage income and taxes on additional contractor profits.

Trump’s proposed corporate tax reform plan is designed to incentivize private capital flows into redeveloping America’s infrastructure. It achieves this by using the tax credit on infrastructure equity investment to offset corporate tax liabilities on the repatriation of  untaxed profits from foreign operations – effectively turning a tax liability into an equity investment.

Trump has proposed to tax US companies’ accumulated offshore profits at 10%, down from the current top corporate income tax rate of 35% on a one time basis if they repatriate those monies. US companies currently hold an estimated $2.5 trillion in earnings overseas because current federal law allows them to indefinitely defer paying taxes on these profits until they return them to the US.

Trump, who has specified that as a businessman he has “always loved leverage”, has also indicated a desire to take advantage of the current historically low interest rates to borrow long term, likely for a sum exceeding $500 billion.

Clean Sweep of Congress Helps

It’s worth remembering that Trump has been a real estate developer for his entire career. It is where his main business interests lie. But  it also seems that creating impressive, modern, even garish physical structures really excites him on a personal level. During the campaign, Trump emotionally recounted his experiences visiting modern airports in China and Dubai and wondered why the US has allowed its own public infrastructure to fall into its current state of disrepair.

Another factor that supports a potential increase in borrowing for infrastructure investment is the Republican sweep of both houses of Congress. Historically, most of the increase in federal spending in the US in recent decades has occurred under Republican administrations, most notably under George W. Bush when both Houses were under Republican control.

There is also considerable bi-partisan support for large scale infrastructure investment. President Barack Obama’s first term featured the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was passed in 2009. It has been widely criticized for being too small in scope, and too focused on shovel-ready projects and other short-term fixes to address the enormous backlog of under-investment in infrastructure. But many still consider it an important Keynesian boost to the economy that contributed to the US outperforming other developed countries over the past eight years. A significant part of Hillary Clinton’s plan would have involved extending this investment program by creating a federally funded infrastructure bank that Obama was blocked from creating in the early part of his term by congressional Republicans.

Sorry State of US Infrastructure

There’s no question that the US would benefit enormously from new investment in these essential assets of future prosperity. The nation has been under-investing in its economic and social infrastructure for many years under both political parties, with overall spending dropping by half over the past three decades.

The extent of the neglect is evident across the board, with the American Society of Civil Engineers giving the country’s infrastructure a ‘D+’ GPA score on its 2013 report card. This includes a ‘D’ (poor) for drinking water and wastewater and a near failing grade of ‘D-‘ for levees and inland waterways. Aviation, roads and schools infrastructure are also rated ‘poor’ in terms of their fitness as measured by their capacity, condition, funding, future need operation, maintenance and public safety.

According to the ASCE, the US has infrastructure needs of about $3.6 trillion through 2020, including $1.7 trillion for roads, bridges and transit alone.

The Trump analysis points out that the future attractiveness of the US as an investment destination, its competitiveness, and its productivity are all at risk from the poor condition of the country’s infrastructure. It noted that the US now ranks 12th on the Global Competitiveness Index in infrastructure, with traffic delays due to inadequate transportation infrastructure costing the economy more than $50 billion annually.

Public Safety Issues Emerging

Beyond this, America’s quality of life and increasingly public safety are compromised, as recent episodes of lead poisoning and bridge collapses have demonstrated. The Trump campaign’s analysis cited an investigation by USA Today identifying nearly 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination of the past four years, including 350 systems supplying drinking water to schools or daycare facilities.

Since the Great Depression in the early part of the 20th century, infrastructure investment has been used as a fiscal tool for generating economic growth.

Citing the Federal Reserve, The Trump campaign paper says that in the US every $200 billion in additional infrastructure spending creates $88 billion in wages and increases real GDP growth by more than a percentage point, with each GDP point creating 1.2 million additional jobs. Other estimates, suggest that this multiplier effect could be even higher. According to the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, over a 10-year horizon, the average multiplier effect of government spending on highways is about two, which means that for every dollar spent, two dollars of GDP activity is generated.

There is also a potentially huge pool of domestic investment demand for infrastructure projects from pension funds, insurers and other institutions with long-term liabilities. The long-term nature of infrastructure programs means these investments are structurally well matched to the revenue flows from the debt that finances their construction, operation and maintenance.

Inflation Protection, Diversification Benefits

This revenue is highly reliable due to its link to dedicated tax revenue streams (availability payments) or revenue collected from tolls (concessions), it can provide inflation protection to the investor. Investors also look to infrastructure for its portfolio diversification benefits.

There are several challenges that could derail, or at least limit the success of Trump’s infrastructure plans. Among these is that the US unemployment rate has now fallen below 5% and continues to decline. That leaves very little slack in the labor market to prevent cost-push inflation from being generated. Regardless of the fundamental economic case for investing in infrastructure, shortages of labor are bound to appear, driving up the cost for delivery of these assets and making his goal less attainable.

It seems, in fact, that Trump’s plans for rebuilding America’s infrastructure will almost certainly be at cross-purposes with other key elements in his domestic agenda. Most notably, this includes his outspoken pledge to deport some 11 million illegal aliens.

Debt Spiral Risks

Another consideration is that the scale of Trump’s other policy initiatives, including higher defense spending and a range of tax cuts, could create a debt spiral that is potentially unsustainable. Already, the bond curve has steepened significantly amid concern that interest rates could start to rise quickly to prevent inflation from running out of control. If this happens, it could quickly and dramatically raise the cost of any large infrastructure investment program.

My own view is that Trump, or his Congressional allies will sooner rather than later have to decide which of his campaign promises needs to be curtailed so he can pursue the priorities that he believes will restore America to some semblance of his definition of its historic ‘greatness’.