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Texas Needs More Than Love To Fix Its Infrastructure

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

That homegrown spirit of caring and support that people across Texas have shown since Hurricane Harvey may be heart-warming, but all the love in the Lone Star state can only go so far towards fixing its battered infrastructure, let alone move it towards better flood planning.

Texas, and particularly its flood defense infrastructure, has been on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ critical list for many years. It last earned a ‘D’ in the the ASCE’s infrastructure report card in 2013. That’s largely because the state spends virtually nothing on flood-control infrastructure, leaving whole counties to fend for themselves. Florida, in case you were wondering, got an overall ‘C’ rating in the latest 2017 report card, but a ’D’ for its critical stormwater drainage systems.

Most will agree that with the benefit of hindsight, the neglect of critical flood infrastructure systems is not good public policy.

Anti-Washington Mindset

Making matters worse for staunchly anti-federal Texans, the state doesn’t participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, even though the state typically leads the nation in terms of dollars paid out for flood claims.

Houston’s liberal zoning laws allow developers to build pretty much anything they want anywhere in the city. This has not only encouraged extensive overbuilding, it has run roughshod over any serious efforts at flood planning. A predictable result of this has been that there is now too little water-absorbing prairie left to soak up flood waters. When Hurricane Harvey hit, some believe the impermeable ground and failure to plan may have prolonged the flooding and the damage that it has brought.

Donald Trump’s climate change-denying regime in Washington has meanwhile been working to make future hurricane-related disasters in the Gulf as costly and destructive as they can be. On Aug. 15, the President used an executive order to overturn a key Obama-administration initiative requiring that infrastructure projects in flood-prone regions, notably roads and bridges, adhere to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard for “climate resilience.” This sensible rule was designed to protect infrastructure and people from exactly the kind of damage that resulted from over-development in flood-prone areas of Texas.

Trump’s zeal for overturning every infrastructure policy that his predecessor put in place, even as prospects fade for his own promised Infrastructure Plan, appears to have no limits. His transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is by no means the only crony capitalist in his administration, but she’s one of the most visible. True to form, Chao has been selling off critical infrastructure development decisions to the highest bidders while telling the rest of us that deregulation will slash the amount of time needed to deliver new projects.

Politically Motivated Fix

The importance of being seen to be doing something to aid the victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida, as well as Hurricane Harvey in Texas, has caused Trump to reverse plans to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s Disaster Relief Fund, at least for the time being. Thanks to the President’s agreement with congressional Democrats to raise the debt ceiling earlier this month, some $7.4 billion of federal funding is now being allocated to FEMA’s DRF, with another $7.4 billion going to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grand Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds. These can be used to rebuild housing for both owners and renters.

However, HUD, which runs federally funded Disaster Housing Assistance Programs, currently has no one filling the position responsible for overseeing the Disaster Voucher Program, so it’s anyone’s guess how effectively this will be carried out. Meanwhile, under the Trump Administration’s proposed 2018 budget, both of these programs are still slated for elimination.

Everything Tied To Tax Reform

Beyond short-term fixes, the nation’s long-term investment program for critical infrastructure remains hobbled by Trump’s inability to work with Congress. The latest iteration of Trump’s Infrastructure Plan is entirely dependent on the passage of his corporate tax reform agenda, which can’t even be considered before he passes a budget bill for 2018.

The tax reform plan itself faces opposition from both sides of an increasingly divided Congress because it involves extensive giveaways to multi-nationals to encourage them to repatriate their estimated $2.5 trillion of accumulated overseas profits. Delivery would then depend heavily on these same companies providing equity financing for around $800 billion of the $1 trillion of new infrastructure that the administration would seek to deliver over the next 10 years.

Even if the administration did manage to push through an infrastructure plan, the role of private sector developers in delivering Trump’s vision is unlikely to produce outcomes that benefit the public interest. This is because private companies, when offered choices for investing in projects intended to provide a public service, tend to pick those that produce the biggest returns for their investors, rather than delivering what’s most needed by the public.

The Trouble With Privatization

Texas has been at the pointy end of this issue for some years. Its inadequate public funding resources, fast-growing population and huge requirements for new infrastructure have led to some disastrous experiences with privately-run transportation infrastructure.

Under former Texas governor (and now Energy Secretary) Rick Perry, Texas expanded the use of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to deliver new transportation infrastructure during the early 2000s. This was done primarily using a concession-based model that led to an expansion in the use of toll roads. The subsequent public outcry over the cost of using these, along with the high profile bankruptcy of State Highway 130 and other PPP projects, led the Texas legislature to end the state’s use of toll-based PPPs.

So what options do Texas and Florida and any other state hit by powerful natural disasters have to begin fixing, rebuilding and developing new climate resilient infrastructure?

Given the scale of what will be needed, its hard to imagine either Texas or Florda state risking its hard-won Triple-A credit rating by borrowing heavily to make the necessary infrastructure investments. States with lesser credit ratings will be even less inclined to go that route. At the same time, Republican-run state legislatures in both Texas and Florida are going to be wary of raising taxes.

Better Partnerships Can Help 

That leaves no alternative but for public authorities to engage with the private sector for any long-term solution. In this regard, it is fortunate that most states, including Texas and Florida, have PPP-enabling legislation in place. PPP, or P3, is a model for procuring and managing long-term infrastructure that requires private consortia to competitively bid for a contract to design, finance, build, operate and maintain a public asset. It is distinct from privatization because the asset remains in the public domain. There are also ways to structure long-term payments for project delivery, operation and maintenance so that users aren’t stuck with the tolls.

Florida is expanding its existing PPP procurement program beyond transportation infrastructure to include social infrastructure projects in education, water and wastewater facilities, healthcare facilities, sporting and cultural facilities.

Texas, for its part should be exploring alternative PPP procurement models that don’t rely on tolling, but rather on availability payments linked to general tax proceeds. These can be used on their own or structured into a variety of long-term payment arrangements on terms that the state budget can support. Texas also established The Center for Alternative Finance and Procurement in 2015 to help devise better ways for public authorities to engage the private sector in the delivery of future infrastructure programs.

Don’t Call Washington 

The ASCE estimates America’s infrastructure deficit at $1.44 trillion between 2016 and 2025, largely because governments at the state and federal level are only paying half of their bill. The PPP model is currently being used for less than 1% of the projects that are undertaken, so there is plenty of scope for growth as well as for improving outcomes.

In the absence of a workable infrastructure policy, or for that matter any coherent leadership from Washington over the next three years, states will be on their own to develop creative ways to meet their infrastructure procurement needs. P3 offers a way forward that they should all be considering.

This article has previously run in The Market Mogul

Has Trump Deep-Sixed His Own Infrastructure Agenda?

Image by Henry Teitelbaum

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore America’s failing infrastructure is being squandered by a dysfunctional White House.

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

It would be difficult to overstate just how wide the chasm running through the American political landscape has become since Donald Trump entered the White House. It is evident on the streets, at town halls, and in every proposal that comes before Congress. Even so, there is a lot of common ground when it comes to appreciating the need to invest in restoring the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

America has some of the oldest, most inadequate and poorly maintained public roads, bridges, transit systems, waterways and sewage infrastructure in the developed world. Its condition is seriously affecting everyone’s quality of life, whether through clogged roads, flight delays or flooded homes. In the face of challenges ranging from the threat of bridges collapsing to an entire city’s water supply becoming tainted, there should be no scope for partisan disagreement on the need to act quickly.

Failing Infrastructure’s Real Cost

In the just-released 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a particularly grave assessment of the state of these critical public assets. The nation received another cumulative GPA of D+, unchanged from the previous survey in 2013 and consistent with “D” grades going back to 1998. That’s an exceptionally poor performance for a country with the kind of wealth America has, particularly given the number of high-profile infrastructure-related emergencies that have hit since the last survey. Lead tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2014 and this year’s evacuation of 200,000 people living downstream from the Oroville Dam in California are two incidents that made headlines, but there are many others.

One might have hoped that such crises would focus more minds on the condition of the nation’s dams and drinking water infrastructure. Sadly, according to the report, this has yet to happen. Both got “D” grades, which is one level above failing, just like last time. Meanwhile, the condition of America’s neglected transit systems, parks and solid waste infrastructure meanwhile, has actually worsened, according to the ASCE. In 2013, for example, it found that only 51% of people in America are able to use public transit to do their grocery shopping. This means more cars on the road, more unnecessary traffic congestion, more pollution, and more cost to those who can least afford it.

The reason, according to the ASCE, is that America is paying only about half of its infrastructure bill, and this is creating a funding gap of the kind that costs businesses and the economy hugely in terms of lost sales and productivity. This gap is estimated to total somewhere around $1.44 trillion between 2016 and 2025, or just under half of the nation’s $3.32 trillion infrastructure funding needs for the period. The cost to the US GDP, according to the report, will grow to an estimated $3.9 trillion by 2025 should infrastructure needs continue to be ignored.

The Case for Investing

Aside from the economic costs of not fixing America’s broken infrastructure, there are excellent reasons for making new investments in it today. Borrowing now, while interest rates are still low, reduces the cost of financing, which improves the financial feasibility of long-term projects. This makes them more attractive to the types of investors that are structurally geared toward this type of investment.

Increasingly, for example, pension funds see infrastructure as a good way to invest safely over the long term. When they are operational, public assets such as toll roads generate secure long-term, even inflation-indexed cash flows that are easy for pension funds to match to their liabilities. At a time when large pension funds in the US are lamenting the lack of attractive long-term investments at home due to low yields on government bonds, infrastructure could provide just the kinds of returns they seek to meet the needs of a growing population of retirees.

Infrastructure investment also has a long-standing history of generating high-quality jobs, both directly in the construction industry and in a range of services to local economies. Building a better physical infrastructure that brings benefits for future generations can also encourage stronger communities. It does this by helping to restore a sense of common purpose to a nation where faith in government has been eroded and where voters worry about their future and their children’s future.

Does Washington Know About This?

So why is it taking so long for Washington to get behind a big infrastructure plan? For the answer, look no further than President Donald Trump’s failing leadership and divisive style of governing.

It’s not just that the US President has failed to set, lead or seriously promote his infrastructure agenda so much as his inability to engage seriously with any issue long enough to see it through. Infrastructure, as much as any legislative program, requires discipline, bipartisanship and patience – none of which has been in evidence from the Oval Office.

“…the Trump Administration quietly moved to Plan B, and practically nobody noticed.”

Over the past six months, we’ve instead witnessed a distracted and belligerent President failing to push through any of his campaign’s legislative agenda, whether it’s tax reform or his repeated efforts to repeal and/or replace Obamacare. The way with which Trump moves from failure to failure while blaming everyone else is as astonishing as it is consequential. Which brings us to Trump’s infrastructure agenda.

During the campaign, Trump promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. The original proposal, the “Trump Private Sector Financing Plan,” relied on passage of a huge, heavily flawed and ultimately un-passable overhaul of the entire US tax system. This would have included reducing taxes on the repatriation of US corporate overseas profits from 35% to as low as 10%, if companies then invested those profits into infrastructure redevelopment. Some $2.5 trillion of deferred taxes overseas earnings could then be eligible for investment in rebuilding America’s roads, airports and water systems, and other essential assets.

But because the Trump administration doesn’t have a budget bill yet, even with Republicans dominating both houses of Congress, none of these overseas profits are available for investment. So when “Infrastructure Week” came around a few months ago, the Trump Administration quietly moved to Plan B, and practically nobody noticed.

Stealing A Page From Hillary

The proposal that was finally unveiled bears very little in common with his original infrastructure proposal other than the $1 trillion aspirational figure over 10 years. Instead of relying on tax revenue and credit giveaways to incentivize private sector equity investment, though, the plan appears to rely almost entirely on Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to bring private financing and expertise to the task.

Even to the untrained eye, this looks an awful lot like the infrastructure plan that Republicans ridiculed and then blocked for much of President Obama’s eight years in office. It’s also very much like the plan put forward by Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which envisioned mobilizing private capital for investment in public infrastructure through the PPP model.

PPP, or as it’s called in the US and Canada, P3, is a model for procuring and managing long-term infrastructure that has been used successfully around the world in both developed and developing countries. It requires private consortia, typically construction firms and their financial backers competitively bid for a contract to design, finance, build, operate and maintain a public asset. The private companies also shoulder the risks around project delivery and face stiff financial penalties for failing to perform contracted duties. In this and other ways,P3 is distinct from privatization because the asset, whether a road, an airport or a school district, remains publicly owned.

People debate the merits of this model as opposed to traditional public sector borrowing and spending. But in an age when governments, including the US, are close to broke, it has broad appeal. In Canada it has become something of the default procurement option for the government because it delivers reasonable value for money and better mobilizes the skills, discipline, financial capacities and risk management capabilities of the private sector.

Dysfunctionality As Policy

So what does the Trump administration’s failure to push through a corporate tax reform bill linked to his original infrastructure agenda, or for that matter even a budget, mean for America over the next three and a half years?

We will have to see after the summer recess. But it doesn’t take a tarot card reader to tell you that the signs are not good. A federal government led by an incompetent administration that stumbles from crisis to crisis of its own making is unlikely to follow through on any kind of infrastructure agenda. That would be a huge lost opportunity for America because an infrastructure-led government agenda could go a long way towards putting investments to work in restoring the country’s competitiveness while delivering the jobs that Mr. Trump boasts about creating.

With or without support from the current administration, P3 projects are destined to become a permanent part of the infrastructure investment landscape in the US because the alternatives are expensive and sometimes deliver poor value for the public funds that are invested. In Canada, they account for some 36% of all infrastructure investment while in the US it’s 1%.

The most likely scenario for the next few years will be for many of the 33 states that have PPP-enabling legislation in place to formulate their own infrastructure agenda, perhaps in cooperation with each other. This could go some ways towards making sure these next few years are not wasted while waiting for Trump’s dysfunctional government in Washington to do its job.

This blog post has also appeared in The Market Mogul.

How Climate Change Might Hijack Trump’s Infrastructure Vision

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3-Planet

Any global warming-related catastrophe that hits US coastal areas over the next four years could quickly lead to an unraveling of key features of the Trump administration’s program for rebuilding America’s failing bridges, water systems, and other essential public infrastructure.

If the risks stemming from accelerating climate change do bring disaster to American shores, it will be a hard lesson learned by an administration that shows no signs of accepting the science behind global climate change. Rather than investing in the long-term potential economic benefits of a 21st century infrastructure, the administration could find itself spending all of its available resources fixing broken, inundated or degraded public assets.

Latest Hot Topic

The latest in a string of bad news for the planet’s ecosystem is that 2016 is officially the hottest year on record, marking the third consecutive year of record breaking global temperatures.
Recent evidence also shows that levels of floating sea ice around the world are in a state of collapse, threatening coastal areas with a potentially catastrophic rise in sea water levels. By the middle of this month, total sea ice, as measured by satellite was at its lowest level since records began in 1978, and is likely now at its lowest level in thousands of years.

national Snow and Ice Data Center

 

 

This pattern of melting has been most apparent in the Arctic, where in addition to the general rise in temperatures, “dark snow” or blackish deposits of man-made industrial particles on ice and snow formations are accelerating icemelt across the region by absorbing heat from sun where previously it was reflected by snow and ice. In the Southern hemisphere, a giant crack has appeared in the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica, threatening to raise sea levels if it breaks off, not just by melting, but by allowing vast amounts of melting glacial water to run directly into the ocean.

Of course, no one can predict if, when or how future catastrophic weather events will bring destruction to US shores. Some scientists using climate change models for predicting weather patterns and changes in sea levels think climate change is already producing more intense cycles of droughts and floods, more powerful storms and more destructive hurricanes.

Rising Cost Of Disasters

Few outside the Trump administration would question that the risks are high, or that they are growing both in cost and in their potential for causing human suffering. Among notable weather related disasters, recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2007 was the most expensive in US history, costing an estimated $108 billion of damage, while Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was the second most destructive. In both events, urban areas were hard hit by high winds, flooding and storm surges.

It bears noting that 40% of the US population, or 125 million people, now live in counties along the coastal shoreline. The population density in these regions, which include some of the largest metropolitan areas of the country, is six times that of inland counties, and they continue to grow at a much faster pace than inland regions.

This mostly urban population is particularly vulnerable to the kinds of disruptions to infrastructure services that occur as a result of extreme weather events associated with climate change, most notably rising sea levels, storm surges, and heat waves. This is because many urban infrastructure services are interdependent and locally based. So any electrical grid failure due to flooding is also likely to pollute clean water supplies, disrupt emergency services and shut down transportation systems.

Private Sector Infrastructure Push

Mr. Trump has made redeveloping public infrastructure, notably America’s aging roads, bridges, airports and public water systems, a top priority for his administration. Specifically, the “Trump Private Sector Financing Plan” is designed to be a revenue-neutral privately funded 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.

It is entirely possible that the Trump Administration will be forced by a budget-minded Congress to curtail its ambitious infrastructure plans in the first place. But what if funding for the incentives that are needed to make these projects viable for private investors instead goes to covering the cost of restoring essential infrastructure services in cities hit by weather-related disasters? It’s hard to imagine private investors then being willing to take on the risk of long-term infrastructure investments on their own. So the whole program becomes non-viable.

What should worry Americans even more is that Mr. Trump and his choice of like-minded climate change deniers for key cabinet posts pretty much guarantees that the country will be blindsided by any real world climate change scenarios that play out over the next four years.

Featured image  courtesy of Timo Lieber from “Thaw”, an Exhibition of the Melting Polar Ice Cap, depicting photographic evidence of “dark snow” in the Arctic .

This blog post has also appeared in The Market Mogul and Ecosystem Marketplace

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’.

Brexit: What Happens When Governments Stop Investing

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

The Brexit vote not only exposed how out of touch the government here is from British voters, it laid bare the extent to which its leaders have failed to address the twin issues of low growth and rising inequality that led to this fiasco.

More than anything else about the UK referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU), it was middle class economic insecurity and diminished hope for the future that allowed people to be influenced by mostly false propaganda about immigration, compromised independence and lost identity.

Assigning blame for the conditions that led to these misconceptions is the easy part. Prime Minster David Cameron and Chancellor  George Osborne had tough choices to make starting in 2010 as they tried to navigate the UK economy out of the worst recession in the modern era. They  consistently made the wrong ones, and it is fitting that they should now resign.

As Goes Britain…

The question for Britain and the many other western countries that face populist rebellions, is whether their leaders will have the courage to do things differently before they too feel the wrath of a despairing and disenfranchised electorate. It could well become the ultimate measure of success in post-globalization politics across Europe and the US.

I am of course referring to fiscal policy, or in the case of this Tory government, the absence of one. It always seemed counter-intuitive, to put it mildly, to expect that piling  austerity onto one of the worst hit economies of the 2007-2009 financial crisis would produce anything other than misery.

But that’s exactly what they did. Public spending has been cut by 8.3% since 2010, and there’s no end in sight,  with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now estimating that it will be 2020 before the budget is balanced.  Benefits were cut without consideration for the massive workplace displacements that people were experiencing, and investment in  public infrastructure was drastically reduced after Osborne decided in 2011 to suspend Private Finance Initiatives. This is no different from the ruinous austerity that has prolonged recessions and hobbled growth across the EU for the past seven years.

Stoking A New Housing Bubble

But Cameron and Osborne have done even worse. Instead of using ultra-low borrowing rates to encourage productive investment in long-term growth, they reflated the housing bubble with questionable programs such as Funding for Lending. Near-term, this  generated some stamp duty revenue for the government, but not nearly enough to close the budget deficit.

It also did nothing to create jobs outside of the real estate business. In fact, it probably added to peoples’ sense of financial insecurity by putting the cost of home ownership even further out of reach.

The result of these policies has been one of the most uneven recoveries, and one of the world’s most persistently wide income gaps.

 

Historically, this level of income inequality would be resolved in one of three ways. Politically, it could happen through tax policies that re-distribute wealth. Economically, it could result in financial collapse, which causes massive bond defaults that disproportionately destroy the wealth of those with income to invest. Or it could happen by way of  Europe’s traditional equalizer: war.

Britain’s Infrastructure Deficit

But there is a much less painful way out of this mess. And all it requires to produce real results for people, their communities and the economy at large is some big picture thinking and the courage to grasp the opportunity.

Britain is sitting on a more than £60 billion deficit between what is needed and what is currently being spent on public infrastructure. This is not unlike other parts of Europe, where government spending has become a dirty word. What needs to happen here is to make infrastructure development a priority the way it was during the depression era, because this investment creates stable, well-paid jobs in precisely those sectors of the economy where middle-class incomes have eroded.

Investments in infrastructure, whether financed by the government or through partnerships with private sector delivery organizations, create enormous value for the economy in both the short- and long- term that fully justifies their cost. In the short-term, new jobs restore middle class incomes, and get money circulating in the real economy. This supplies a key ingredient that has been missing from this recovery, where  aggregate demand has been  too weak to prevent price deflation.

Longer-term, the essential assets that are delivered  – modern roads, railroads or better schools and hospitals – boost productivity and attract new investment at home and from abroad.

The Multiplier Bonus

There’s also a big bonus from the multiplier effect. This is the impact on GDP from the increased amount of money that people spend as a result of  job creation and the contribution that the new asset itself makes to economic activity. According to Standard & Poor’s Corp., the UK would benefit twice as much from this multiplier effect than would Germany or France. It also specified that an increase in infrastructure spending of 1% of GDP returns 2.5 times as much as the cost of that investment over a three-year period.

Government tax collections meanwhile typically increase dramatically due to  all of this additional consumer spending, eliminating the deficit far more quickly than any policy fix this government has tried.

The UK government’s updated National Infrastructure Plan (NIP), published at the end of 2014 and updated last year, contained 550 projects and programs with a combined capital value of £413bn. The pipeline of planned projects includes investments in the energy, transport, flood defense, waste water and communications sectors and features 40 major infrastructure projects termed as high priority.

It would be nice during his remaining time in office to see Mr. Cameron put an effort into mobilizing the nation around delivering  these projects before interest rates start to rise. It would go a long way towards giving people hope for a better future, as well as bringing a new sense of identity and purpose to the nation.

Nearing A Watershed for Water Infrastructure?

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

When public water infrastructure makes it into the presidential campaign debate, is it a sign that public discourse is at a tipping point?

Considering the scale of the looming national  water crisis, let’s hope it is. Public debate has been long overdue over how best to cover the giant backlog of under-investment in safeguarding sustainable drinking water supplies. We’re now at a point where doing something about it is as important as finding new sources of fresh water to supply the parched Southwest corner of the US.

Traditional Delivery

In most countries, the US included, the idea used to be that water is too precious a public resource to allow the private sector to have any control over managing its delivery, or even the operation and maintenance of its physical infrastructure.

But the  Flint, Michigan lead poisoning scandal changed all of that. For one thing,  the myth that dedicated public sector servants somehow can ensure better safety standards than if water supplies were privately run has been exposed. Not only did the government fail in its mission to protect and serve the people, it has claimed the right to hide from its responsibilities. 

Michigan’s Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

Michigan’s ‘sovereign immunity’ doctrine is a piece of self-serving state legislation that now presents a significant legal obstacle to anyone seeking compensation, or even medical treatment for the long-term health damage caused by lead in the water supply. Under the law, Michigan and other states must grant permission to anyone making a legal claim against it.

In other words, officials elected by many of the same people who have been poisoned by their subsequent  negligence are in a position to deny legal responsibility for actions they take in an official capacity. So victims can give up on the idea that the government is better motivated than the private sector to pay for heath care,  worker’s compensation or damages, when things go badly wrong.

Blame it on the Budget

The lack of adequate public financial resources to pay for water infrastructure maintenance cuts to the heart of the issue, not just in bankrupt states like Michigan, but  across the country and, indeed, around the world.

It goes a long way towards explaining why water regularly ranks at the bottom of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card on the nation’s infrastructure. It’s current grade is a D-minus, placing it one notch above failing.

Private Money to the Rescue?

The free market approach, as often advocated by business-minded politicians, is that privatizing these assets will bring better cost control and more efficient service. This is predicated on the shaky assumption that any company that gets the contract will treat public health as a solemn trust, even as it strives to provide fat returns to its shareholders.

If you think calling in the private sector is always the best alternative model for managing water and other essential public resources, consider the largely preventable water crisis that recently brought the western hemisphere’s largest mega-city Sao Paulo, Brazil to the brink of disaster.

Sao Paulo’s Near Miss

SABESP is a mixed capital company that is both stock-exchange listed and publicly owned.  It has a 30-year concession for water and waste management in Sao Paulo, but has utterly failed to  manage the city’s available water supply in a country often referred to as the Saudi Arabia of fresh water. By neglecting to make critical investments in water infrastructure that might have prevented a severe water shortage in 2014,  it bears direct responsibility for bringing the city to the verge of catastrophe.

An equally damning  criticism  is that the profit-oriented structure of the company is fundamentally at odds with its ethical and public health duty to deliver an essential public service. The company’s long history of stock splits and  increasing dividends to stockholders does little to discourage this view.

Short-changing  Public Health

While the water crisis there has receded for the moment,  critics say SABESP’s failure to invest in critical water infrastructure gave short-shrift to the health of 30 million citizens of Sao Paulo.

Beyond the near criminal neglect of infrastructure are systemic legal issues, such as Brazil’s constitutional requirement for shared management of water resources by Federal, state and municipal authorities. A lack of communication or coordination among these levels of government resulted in watersheds being managed based on political rather than more logical geographical criteria.

Water Delivery in The Age of Shortages

So what is the right structure for water infrastructure delivery?

There is of course no single blueprint that applies to all situations. But considering how climate change is likely to bring a lot more spot shortages of water going forward, it’s fair to expect that water  infrastructure issues are going to come up again and again.

Given the gravity of water issues around the world a look at how Israel has overcome chronic water shortages by adopting holistic delivery and  management practices coupled with advanced desalination technology provides some scope for optimism.

Israel, like many countries, faces challenges related  to  a growing population, a thirsty agricultural sector and over-exploitation of natural water resources. It also exists  in a particularly hostile, crowded and arid region of the world.

As water shortages became critical earlier this century,  the Israeli government established an inter-ministerial agency in 2007 with the goal of coordinating policy at all levels and implementing the most comprehensive water management program ever undertaken.

Holistic Approach Needed

The program included a big push on water conservation, but also an ambitious wastewater recycling plan to ensure adequate water was available for agriculture use. For human consumption, the country planned. and has now mostly completed building five giant desalination plants using the latest reverse osmosis technology.

These convert sea water into potable water by forcing it through a membrane that filters out the salt and other impurities. The plants were delivered using the public private partnership (PPP) model, which enabled the government to tap the private sector know-how and financing to bring innovative approaches to reducing energy consumption and boosting efficiency.

In return, the company, IDE Technologies, got a concession to operate the plants for 25 years, after which time the assets will be transferred to state ownership. The state, for its part, retains final ownership of the assets, but buys the desalinated water from the company for 58 cents a cubic meter. That’s actually cheap by Middle Eastern standards. It then reinvests the money it collects from taxes into new water infrastructure, which is being developed by the national water company, Merokot.

Making Friends In the Middle East

The country now has a water surplus, which in a hostile neighborhood such as the Middle East, could go a long way towards building lasting friendships.

The risks are weighted toward further severe water crises, whether due to over-exploitation of existing natural supplies, or the effects of climate change. So at the very least, Israel’s successful use of PPP to manage its vital water requirements represents one highly effective model for water delivery in an increasingly thirsty world.

This article has also appeared on Medium and Business Daily

 

Our Fragile Markets, or Why China’s Your Daddy

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

There seems to be very little western investors, governments or central banks can do to stem the tide of contagion from China’s collapsing stock markets.

While it’s tempting to dismiss this selloff as merely a correction in equity markets after they hit sky-high valuations, it’s troubling to see how quickly the wealth of millions of people has evaporated. Of greater fundamental concern for markets is that as China’s export-driven juggernaut slows, there are no real economic growth engines in the world to replace it. The fact is that our economies remain weak and vulnerable, and for that we have ourselves to blame.

During the past 20 years, when China’s booming economy was busy exporting goods and importing western technology and capital, governments in the US and Europe did very little to mobilize investment in the essentials of future growth at home. In Europe, the focus was on futile efforts to rein-in social spending, reform labor markets and keep jobs from disappearing, while in the US little attention was paid to economic fundamentals. Instead, successive governments, Democratic and Republican alike, threw everything behind politically popular efforts to expand home ownership to the millions.

Critically, nothing much happened at either the federal or state level to develop the public infrastructure that would be needed to support a thriving and productive 21st century economy. Whether it was upgrading roads and bridges, rail networks and airports, or building schools and public healthcare facilities, investment utterly failed to keep up with society’s needs. What we got instead was the biggest housing bubble in US history.

US Labor Productivity

Wrong-Headed Crisis Response

Even after that bubble burst, western leaders ignored or were thwarted from making these investments. Across the Euro-zone, governments focused on a self-defeating exercise in fiscal austerity, while in the US, an initial investment in fixing public roads was followed by political gridlock. Despite the opportunity to borrow long-term at historically low cost,  governments in both the US and Europe continually failed to make these urgently needed growth-generating investments.

The private sector has also failed us. Businesses across the US and Europe — rather than make bold investments in their flat-lining economies — have been sitting on their expanding piles of cash for years. Dividends to investors reached record levels while companies waited for that elusive economic turnaround that never seemed to take hold. Predictably, when the investment-starved turnaround finally did come, it was weak and woefully inadequate.

So here we are. The US, Europe and Japan are all still drowning in debt, either outright, or as a percentage of GDP. And investment spending, such as it is, isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be to allow economies to grow their way out of debt. So western economies, markets and indeed their financial systems are all looking very fragile indeed.

Investment Opportunities Ignored

It didn’t have to come to this. Investments in infrastructure create enormous value for economies that fully justify their cost. In the short-term, they generate jobs, which helps to put money into circulation in the economy through increased spending on goods and services. Whether it is public money, or private sector investment through Public Private Partnerships, the multiplier effect that follows quickly generates economic activity and tax revenue for the government.

Longer term, the completed asset supports better services for both the public and private sectors, leading to a more productive economy and a more attractive investment destination for both domestic and foreign businesses. The debt generated from building these public assets can also make for a safe, long-term  investment that can contribute to the stability of domestic markets in the face of turbulence elsewhere in the world.

Studies have repeatedly shown that infrastructure investments, particularly during times of economic bust, generate a much higher fiscal multiplier than other types of government investment, (http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2012/november/highway-grants/).

In effect, they provide a Keynesian lift to aggregate demand at precisely the time when it is most needed. Further out in time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, there’s a medium term boost to the economy when the asset, in their example a public road, increases the economy’s productive capacity.

The SF Fed concludes that combining these multiplier effects can mean that every $1 of government spending produces “at least” $2 of economic output.

China’s Treasury Bond Option

The colossal failure of western developed economies to adopt growth-oriented investment policies means their markets will remain extremely vulnerable to exogenous shocks such as the one China has generated. And it’s not just equities. Treasury yields could be in for a similar shock if China, now the biggest holder of US Treasurys ($1.27 trillion as of June 2015), decides to start selling off its holdings to support its markets.

In the absence of western leadership, what’s likely to happen in our fragile markets going forward will depend on how quickly and successfully China re-positions its economy towards domestic consumption. Let’s hope they decide they don’t need to sell their Treasury holdings to get there.

This blog has appeared in Medium and Business Daily.

Henry is available for freelance commissions and long-term assignments and is reachable at hthq@hotmail.com.

Global Climate May Be Biggest Loser In India’s Growth Budget

By Henry Teitelbaum
Editor, P3 Planet

A lot of positive press has been directed at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a budget that promotes long-term economic growth by investing in infrastructure and reforming the way it is delivered. But insufficient attention is being given to the disastrous long-term climate change implications of its heavy reliance on coal.

Supporters of sustainable growth inside and outside the country need to do a lot more than cheer-lead for Modi’s agenda if they want to prevent a potentially catastrophic rise in carbon emissions from what is already the world’s third largest CO2 producing country.

Modi’s 2015-2016 budget focus is geared heavily towards spending and investment to develop the country’s transportation infrastructure. High on the agenda is ensuring that regulatory and land acquisition issues that have hobbled the completion of rail and road links are corrected. For years, these issues have prevented India from making effective use of its existing Public Private Partnership (PPP) model for transportation infrastructure, particularly highways. An estimated $10 billion of such projects are uncompleted due to the inability to secure the land that is needed to finish them.

PPPs allow governments in developing countries such as India to get the infrastructure they need without adding massively to public debt by allowing private investment capital to pay for much of the upfront development costs. In return, the private sector project delivery businesses that are selected receive the right to design and build the asset. Once the project is operational, they get paid to operate and maintain it over the long-term through a share of the tolls collected or from dedicated government tax revenue streams.

To give an idea of how much of this infrastructure is needed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that India, with the world’s second largest population, needs an additional $1 trillion in investment in the medium term.

Infrastructure’s Multiplier Effect

The experience in neighboring China over the past 20 years suggests the Modi government is right to view investment in infrastructure as central to India achieving its potential as a global manufacturing hub. With its stable democracy and vast pool of young, highly skilled workers, India has drawn interest from around the world, including from China, as a future export manufacturing center because wages are so low. But until now, the poor state of the country’s infrastructure has held India back.

Modi’s program for investment in infrastructure promises to do a lot to turn that around. His  pro-growth policies, which include business tax cuts and measures to promote bank lending, are likely to support continued strong GDP growth, currently estimated to be over 7%. According to the OECD, India is already on course to become the fastest growing large economy in the world by next year.

A focus on domestic infrastructure investment is particularly appropriate for India because it quickly puts money in the pockets of working people. According to a recent study by Standard & Poor’s Corp., the “multiplier effect”, that is the increase in final income arising from any new injection of spending, is particularly strong in developing countries. It estimates that in India, any increase in infrastructure investment would result in a boost to GDP of at least double that increase. So a little investment in India’s infrastructure can go a long way towards addressing wealth inequalities in one of the world’s most economically polarized societies.

Elephant in the Room

But Modi’s strategy also brings big environmental challenges that few seem to want to discuss. These derive mainly from the fact that the government intends to rely on domestic energy resources, chiefly coal, to power its economic expansion. Considering the size of India, unchecked expansion of India’s use of coal at a time when other coal consuming countries are either cutting back or have plans to do so could soon turn India into the world’s largest carbon emitting nation.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), more than 80% of electricity generation in India comes from fossil fuels, with the power generation sector alone consuming about 70% of the domestically produced coal. Developing modern economic infrastructure is very energy-intensive by definition, requiring vast amounts of cement, bricks, lime, steel and aluminum. Heavy industry in India is already heavily reliant on coal, which is also the only fossil fuel for which domestic reserves are still plentiful. So it’s not hard to to see where the energy for the vast majority of India’s growth agenda is going to come from, or why.

Worse yet, coal-fired energy production in India is currently very inefficient by global standards, running at around 31% at a time when efficient rates of 45% have been achieved, according to the IEA Clean Coal Centre.

There’s no reason to doubt Modi’s word when he expressed  the hope that India will become the “renewable energy capital of the world” through its focus on solar and wind deployments. But the government has released few details about how its renewable energy plan can be made to meet the country’s energy needs. In the meantime, its stated goal remains to double coal production to one billion tons annually within five years.

The Deafening Silence From Abroad

Perhaps the absence of a roadmap to sustainability in energy wouldn’t matter so much if there was at least a blueprint for eventually reducing India’s reliance on coal.

Unlike China, which concluded a bilateral deal with the US last November committing both countries to begin reducing carbon emissions, no such deal was struck with India when US President Barack Obama visited the country in January. And while China aims to start lowering carbon emissions by 2030, the best Obama could come away from India with was an agreement in which the US will financially support India in five clean energy programs.

It’s not just the US that’s been willing to overlook the potential for environmental degradation and global warming that will accompany India’s head-long rush for growth. IMF chief Christine Lagarde said nothing about the issue during her recent visit to India, where she instead heaped praise on the government for its pro-growth policies.

For the record, India’s latest budget does present some practical measures to fund renewable energy projects, notably a doubling of the coal tax for a second consecutive year. That represents about 10% of the price of coal and should bring in about $2 billion a year in revenue. This at least should start to encourage greater efficiency and lower CO2 emissions. But that revenue estimate will still bring in far less that the $100 billion commitment that Modi has made toward reaching India’s renewable energy targets of 100GW of solar and 175GW of total renewables by 2022.

Promoting Private Sector Involvement 

So it would seem likely that a great deal of private sector participation, particularly from foreign investors, will be required if there is to be any chance of achieving these targets. In other countries where PPP is in use, the need to mobilize vast quantities of private capital to deliver such improvements would present an excellent opportunity for using this model. But India’s poor record of project delivery through PPP, particularly in road transportation projects, is likely to cause a great deal of hesitation among foreign investors.

The modal unit for PPPs in new and renewable Energy at India’s Ministry of Finance didn’t respond to numerous efforts seeking to discuss specific plans for encouraging private investment in renewables.

In all likelihood, India’s government will need to find other ways to encourage private investment in public infrastructure, particularly for frontier technologies in wind and solar energy. This could be done through the issuance of low-interest projects loans, guarantees, or some form of credit enhancement facility.

India’s increasing reliance on coal could also make it an attractive proving ground for carbon capture and storage technologies, particularly as carbon taxes continue to rise. The retrofitting of existing coal-powered energy facilities, as well as the design and construction of new ones, could prove more attractive and perhaps less risky for foreign  private investors than PPP infrastructure, at least in the near term.

Ultimately, the best guarantee of performance for the energy and transportation infrastructure that India needs to reach  its potential in a globalized economy will be for the government to ensure that its PPP reforms are effective. That means doing what needs to be done to make sure projects achieve completion and deliver value for money.