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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’.