The coronavirus pandemic will have significant impacts on how we design, develop, fund and operate infrastructure. As the pandemic evolves, the nature of these impacts will emerge, creating increasing risks. There is a stark difference between the impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and this pandemic. The former was initially a financial liquidity impact that affected cash flows around infrastructure investment and operation.
The pandemic’s first impacts are likely to be around the loss of human capacity in the systems that support this complex sector. The near term impacts are likely to be more associated with loss of certainty, affecting planning, operation and funding of infrastructure.
There is a range of considerations; which will have varying degrees of impact on governments, communities, organisations and people.
i) Demand-based assets are vulnerable because of the drop in use as with the coronavirus takes away discretionary spending. This particularly so for transport infrastructure, which directly engages with end consumers. Supply chains for these assets will be affected.
ii) Contracted assets have some increasing counterparty risk. Energy assets, for example, depend on the continuing creditworthiness of their counterparties. Many utility services may be called on by state actors to contribute to the overall effort to address the economic impacts of coronavirus.
iii) Merchant infrastructure potentially faces higher volatility in commodity prices and heightened uncertainty of demand. This kind of infrastructure operates at the margin of markets, rather than profiting from significant baseload provision at low, guaranteed margins. It will vary across markets for infrastructure services.
iv) Some specialised infrastructure has exposure to sports. This group of assets has both contracted and demand-based revenues. In Australia, we see the challenges facing our principal football codes with the loss of stadium revenues. It has exposed football codes that have not been developing multi-year contracts for stadiums and areas, and cannot defer refunds and provide credits for future ticket purchases. Some infrastructure owners have not undertaken sufficient risk analysis to determine the financial reserves for significant events.
v) Expect construction delays and cost increases as labour and material shortages occur, as well as the introduction of appropriate occupational health and safety processes are developed to address coronavirus.
vi) Expect the possibility of some operating underperformance of infrastructure assets associated with possible labour and material shortages. As operating environments are adjusted, with some delays in scheduled maintenance, this should only be a short-term impact. Retaining the capacity to do critical maintenance is essential.
vii) Contractual triggering of force majeure declarations may become more likely. The effectiveness of these declarations will depend on the specific wording in each contract, which may create many disputes around non-performance.
viii) Policy exclusions in business interruption insurance may affect the ability of infrastructure asset owners and operators to respond. Management teams are going to have to think more about internal liquidity policies and how to structure their cash flows in both infrastructure transactions and operations.
ix) The debt position infrastructure owners and operators will be compounded by refinancing challenges. More volatile credit markets mean more considerable uncertainty about the costs of refinancing when it is needed. Understanding debt maturation profiles and alternatives will be essential. Assets with long concession periods or very long useful lives possibly have a better ability to manage their short term debt profiles.
Some of these risks might be mitigated in part by the following:
i) Government intervention is more likely to occur. While some government actions might have adverse impacts. Across a range of infrastructure classes, governments might take interaction to support the overall performance of the economy.
ii) Infrastructure businesses are more protected at the enterprise level. Many firms operate in multiple markets and hold multiple sets of infrastructure assets. Also, many infrastructure businesses operate long-live assets with capex plans that can be modified and significant management discretion on operational tempo and allocation of surpluses.
iii) Infrastructure projects typically have strong capital structures. How cash flows are applied is tied to contractual requirements and ensuring funds flow to relevant parties. This is the core of traditional project financing. Infrastructure projects without recourse to full cash-funded debt reserves are exposed to prolonged delays and a slow economic recovery.
Our response to coronavirus is only limited by our understanding of it and our ability to imagine and execute solutions.