Significance of O&M in Infrastructure


Installation of new infrastructure assets creates streams of services and improvements to existing services for users. Benefits accrue to these uses as well as a wider set of stakeholders. Maintaining the service potential is a critical element in ensuring that value for money is achieved from the initial capital investment.

However, many governments and asset managers are under significant pressure to trim maintenance budgets and scrimp on operating costs. In some contexts, this emerges as an extreme build-neglect-build scenario. Many Pacific Island nations experience this, as do a number of smaller Australian local government authorities. The full lifecycle cost of infrastructure assets is not factored into the budget planning processes of these organisations. Similarly, many private sector operators of infrastructure have commercial and financial incentives to focus on next quarter financial performance rather than long-term service provision from these assets.

The back end of infrastructure is seen as much less interesting, but it is where all the benefits are generated. So approaches to operating and maintaining these infrastructure assets is as equally critical as the planning and investment decisions to deliver them.

Two broad maintenance strategies are predictive maintenance and condition based maintenance. Predictive maintenance is like regular scheduled servicing based on the design performance of an infrastructure asset. It is less costly to implement but also less likely to match the actual performance of the asset. Condition based maintenance requires the collection of data and information about the actual performance of the asset and provision of a tailored asset maintenance response.

The approaches set up an economic challenge. Should an infrastructure manager simply maintain its assets according to schedule and only collect data and information on condition at the times of regularly scheduled servicing? Or should some initial data costs be incurred to change and adapt design-based, predictive maintenance? Decisions to underfund reasonable maintenance activities need to be made with good information and in an appropriate strategic context.

So it depends. In one sector, for example, the response is clear but not clear-cut. Analysis of wind turbine maintenance to address gearbox, generator and blade failure scenarios shows that for small wind turbines, predictive maintenance is more cost effective than condition based maintenance. Condition based strategies were based on an array of sensor data (optical, oil, vibration and temperature). However, for larger turbines, condition based maintenance where there is a high expected gearbox failure rate is a much better approach. In that instance, the cost of collecting additional data and information enables timelier and more appropriate servicing of the turbines.

For these reasons, infrastructure owners and managers need to ensure there are effective asset management and maintenance policies included in their strategic asset management frameworks. It is not enough to supply the assets, as only the services from them will be able to generate the full suite of expected benefits. This can only be achieved when the design potential of these assets is realised over time.

Infrastructure Asset Transactions


Economic infrastructure provides fundamental services to economies. Typically, this type of infrastructure provides electricity, water and gas to industry, businesses and large institutions, community organisations and households. It also assists in providing transport, freight and logistics services.  In the information age, access to low-cost, high-speed broadband facilitates a range of e-services.

The quality, cost, and access to these services affect the productivity of an economy, the efficiency with which goods and services are both produced and consumed, and the equity between different sections of society.

The physical aspects that underpin these services have a range of characteristics that separate these services from everyday goods and services delivered through competitive markets. Service provision can be characterized by a large, up-front capital investment. Installation of an asset can create a local demand response and establish a natural monopoly. Economic arguments for duplication of the asset to stimulate competition are usually weak.

Also, there is usually a long-term stream of benefits that are generally small relative to the capital investment. In some cases, user benefits alone are insufficient to justify the construction and operation of economic infrastructure. Wider benefits can accrue to society, and some societal costs can be avoided.

These assets contain a high level of optionality. Unlike purchasing a retail good, it is possible to develop the asset in phases or stages, with options to scale up or down or abandon operations. In other cases, once the decision to build has been made and construction started, it is tough to change the project scale or scope.

These factors contribute to determining how these assets can be funded as well as who should potentially own and control them.

The classic argument for government provision of infrastructure assets, and consequently related services, concerns market failure. That is, the operation of the private market leads to under or over provision of services from these assets. As a result, mismatch of supply and demand reduces economic value in the economy. In the case of under provision, supply is constrained and the level of inputs is less than required to meet the demand. As infrastructure services are critical inputs into other sectors of the economy, economic efficiency is impeded. The productive potential of the economy is not fully realized and potential economic growth is stymied.

Where there are significant externalities, these are not captured in the price mechanism, where price signals between buyers and sellers determine the optimal level of production and consumption.

This affects the funding and revenue models for infrastructure assets. Consequently, asset transactions can become very complicated.

Where benefits largely accrue to users, and use of infrastructure services can be individually identified, it is possible to develop cost reflective charging regimes. The funding model, without recourse to other sources than user charges, is only limited by extant economic regulation where this is imposed on assets with strong monopolistic characteristics. This river of user revenue forms the basis of the transaction value, and also the initial assessment of feasibility.

It is not without significant risk because of the long period evaluation, accompanied by the risk around maintaining fixed parameter assumptions over that timeframe. Construction cost blow outs, poor demand forecasts, changes in consumer preferences, shifts in relative related prices for products and services that are substitutes or complements can all combine to turn a positive investment into a financial fiasco.

This is before considering the situations where direct asset-related revenue streams cannot support the creation and operation of economic infrastructure.

An infrastructure asset that cannot be funded from its future stream of user revenues requires additional funding contributions. The private sector will not fund infrastructure without a financial return. It is important to distinguish from an economic return.

Economic infrastructure may produce a return to an economy but will not be provided by the private sector if the private sector cannot get a return on its investment. In other words, the return to the economy is contrasted with the return to the balance sheet of a private investor.

Given the extraordinary imbalance in costs and benefits in any particular period over the life of an infrastructure asset, some form of financial intermediation is necessary. It is important to see this as a financial service rather than a private sector investment. This ensures that the cash flows needed to build, operate and maintain the economic infrastructure asset are provided as and when they are required.

Similarly, change of economic control of an infrastructure asset occurs at a specific point in time – a transaction date. The control is exchanged for a specific valuation of the asset.

As an example, early stage infrastructure development is heavily exposed to construction risk and unproven demand. In contrasts, mid-life infrastructure assets have mature demand profiles and risks associated with construction are better known. Late life assets face potential increases in maintenance and rehabilitation costs, as well as changes in user demand and the impact of technology.

Having a very clear perspective on the inherent economic and financial values of an economic infrastructure asset is very important. These valuations are combinations of knowledge at a point in time. It is where a very strong risk assessment is needed as well as an understanding of the relevance of that point in time.

Infrastructure Complexity


Why does delivering infrastructure have to be so complex on so many different levels? It seems hard to correctly identify infrastructure, assess the need for services from those assets, discern which infrastructure to maintain, rehabilitate, replace or build new. Further, there are strong disagreements at the political level, between infrastructure agencies and, within infrastructure agencies, between different asset managers.

Complexity arises from the involvement of a broad array of participants in the provision of infrastructure assets, as well as the managers of the services provided from those assets.

It also arises from complex streams of benefits. In addition to benefits accruing to consumers of infrastructure services, there are often significant streams of benefits that are positive externalities. Wider benefits to society from improved health services, better access to education, cleaner water supplies, stable supply of electricity, and improvements to travel time and quality of the trip. A healthier workforce improves productivity. A more educated populace can generate higher disposable incomes. Purer water supplies enhance public health. Stable electricity supplies reduce business interruptions. Improved transport systems make labour markets function better and increase intra and inter city productivity. The benefits are multifaceted and often hard to quantify on cost-benefit analyses.

On the supply side, it is often too easy to overlook the range of solutions that are on offer. After a need has been identified, solutions could well include non-built options. This may involve active demand management, improving utilization and output of existing assets, repairing and rehabilitating existing infrastructure, changing the infrastructure asset operating environment to foster demand for alternatives.

The options analysis needs to be undertaken at the output/outcome level, rather than at the input/resource level. That is where actual economic value can be identified. To do otherwise creates the risk of estimating the cost of sub-optimal options.

Complexity also arises in terms of finding the financial resources to commission and operate infrastructure assets. Also, implementation through procurement and construction may have complexity.

Large, nationally significant infrastructure contains a lot of first pass risks. Getting the right scale and scope of infrastructure to match the most likely demand profile requires a lot of analysis.

Many infrastructure assets contain hiding optionality benefits. The ability to set the ultimate scale and scope, as well as the possible staging to achieve that is a significant real asset option. At the outset, a lot of choices can be made that close off options later on. Least cost solutions are not necessarily the best solutions where service quality between options can vary.

So what gets bought and how it gets built becomes critical.

Ultimately financial resources are committed. This is because small annual benefits are often realized over long periods. This is in contrast to large initial construction costs. Construction costs and some measure of operating expenses have to be funded. User charges do not always cover these costs. Finance addresses the imbalance of cash flows inherent in infrastructure. Ultimately, infrastructure must be paid for either by users or taxpayers. There is a significant range of public and private financing mechanisms. Financing choices are complex and can carry different risk profiles. This can affect asset valuation, as well as commercial risks around viability.

These are all significant touch points highlighting infrastructure complexity. They warrant detailed consideration and investigation in each infrastructure project.

Investing in Infrastructure


It is easy to think of investing in infrastructure as something that needs to be done on a routine basis – repairing power stations that supply our electricity or maintaining rail lines that carry our commuters and freight. This real foundation of our economy and society should be prudently addressed in a routine and methodical way, free from political and ideological agendas. Close to the operational level, asset management strategies address this.

At the same time, investing in infrastructure is anything but routine. It is a platform in which we determine the future competitiveness of our country, much the same as any other state. It also determines the extent to which we can maintain and enhance an open and inclusive society, one that also shapes long-term responses to climate change.

Infrastructure investment is a long-term investment to secure that future capacity and productivity in our economy. It provides a demand for highly skilled jobs in the professional service sectors, driving future employment growth.

While it can provide short-term stimulus through the installation and commissioning of capital assets, the long-term benefits are far more significant. The Depression-era stimulus from constructing the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been far outweighed by the benefits from the annual flood of traffic traversing the bridge over decades. Emphasis on the short-term stimulus from consuming resources to construct infrastructure misses the point.  These projects are justified only on the basis of the long-term streams of benefits they can generate.

Infrastructure investment needs to expand a nation’s economic frontier – it lifts potential constraints on future economic growth. In the past Australia has benefited from the development of its road and rail networks, the creation of terminals (airports and seaports) and the development of a copper-based telecommunications system. Our future points to benefits accruing from fast fibre optic broadband, carbon reducing power investments and new high-speed rail technologies.

Australia has been facing a challenge to the core model for funding public infrastructure for a long time. The use of the taxation system to generate funds for public investment will not be sufficient to meet all of the infrastructure investments we require. We cannot do it out of our government budgets. It was not enough in the past either, and we imported foreign capital in the form of sovereign loans.

The Australian economy was simply not large enough in the past to fund the infrastructure investments that underpinned the economic growth we have achieved and the living standards we enjoy.

The nature of our infrastructure investments and what constitutes economic infrastructure have changed over time. Historically we have looked to the physical capital side of the economic growth equation, with less emphasis on the human capital side.

We need a new bipartisan consensus that effectively decouples infrastructure from political and budget cycles, to drive investment in the public interest. Emerging governance arrangements at the federal and state levels are showing promise but remain captured by legislative, budget and bureaucratic cycles.  They are still in their early stages of maturity in the Australian federal system of government.

A new commitment to investment is required that explicitly learns the lessons from past failures, avoids the ghosts of white elephants (the lonely tunnels, quiet dams, and bridges to nowhere) and addresses the pressing demands for the infrastructure services that support a modern 21st-century economy.  We need to be honest about past mistakes, in order to avoid them in the future.

We need investment in infrastructure that does the following:

  • repairs and rehabilitates our stock of existing infrastructure assets to continue producing existing streams of services that our citizens demand
  • expands the capacity of our economy by growing our infrastructure asset base with newer, smarter investments that are more productive in supplying services, lowering input costs
  • improves the productivity or our economy by investing in new types of infrastructure technology, enabling new kinds of infrastructure services enabling improvements to other sectors of the economy
  • enhances human capital with savvy health and education infrastructure investments that make our people smarter and healthier, improve the productivity of our economy and improve the quality of life for all.

These investments will position Australia to be at the front end of continuing global technological revolutions, set us on a lower carbon trajectory and expand the frontier of economic possibilities for the economy.

Rather than run down our current assets we must renew, reinvigorate and expand them as prudent custodians for future generations. These investments will be the backbone on which our future prosperity will stand.

Inland Freight


Recently I have been thinking about inland freight and logistics to see how this affects Australia’s seaports. Volumes may be constrained by production factors – you can only grow what you can grow when the environment allows you to grow it – but where these volumes go can be determined by these inland costs.

Policy can have consequences as NSW’s freight and logistics strategy shows. Improvements in freight handling and inland cargo aggregation can reduce costs. Some of these improvements reduce the cost of multi modal handling, as well as reduce the cost of line haul by mode – whether that is by rail or road.

For an economist like me it is a relative comparison game. Relatively lower costs will shift the movement of commodities from one mode to another, as well as shift the direction of commodities. Subject, of course, to existing commercial agreements.

However this is not the only story. The other story is around the development of vertically and horizontally integrated businesses that develop their own end-to-end freight and logistics systems. This means they are able to profit maximize by using less profitable parts of their networks to feed the more profitable parts. These firms are also taking equity stakes in their clients.

This is different to geographically and modally constrained freight and logistics operators – they have to maximize efficiency of throughput at a single point or along the linear operation of a particular mode. They certainly do not own parts of their client’s operations. Also, singular operations cannot transfer price because the other parts of the network or system are owned by other parties, and often singular operations cannot aggregate the volumes of goods required to develop leverage over prices.

This article also provides a gratuitous opportunity to show some of the canola fields near my home town in the South West Slopes region of NSW. I took this picture last week on a visit there. Primary production remains an important part of the freight task, albeit a volatile one that is hostage to world demand, weather and yields.

A Civil Society


While working recently in Kuwait, I was privileged to be invited to a diwaniya ( along with colleagues from my project team.  This type of forum is fairly unique to Kuwait and it a key element of their civil society.

For around an hour we discussed industry policy with a number of leading lights from Kuwait’s business community.  I learned a lot from them.  The discussion took our project team beyond the numbers and statistics we were considering to just how the reforms might actually be implemented.  The exchanges were robust but expressed in good humour and with great politeness.

I think these kinds of gatherings are extremely important in shaping consensus.  Kuwait has hundreds of diwaniyas and candidates for public office often seek to turn up at as many as possible around election time.  In my view, it removes a lot of the adversarial nature that characterises public discourse in Western countries.  Where hard decisions are needed to effect significant change, a consensus based approach may deliver better outcomes than a crash or crash though approach.

Australia used to do evidence-based, consensus-driven public policy quite well.  It was grounded in clearly explaining the need for change.  I fear now that the people putting themselves forward for public office are increasingly driven more by populism and a startling touch of irrationality.

The Rent Economy


I am currently on assignment Kuwait, one of the oil drenched Gulf states. The economic incentives at play here are unlike anything I have ever seen. At university years ago we spent a couple of hours in undergraduate economics talking about rent seeking – looking for an economic gain without a reciprocal return to society through wealth creation.

Laid out before me is a whole economy resting on this premise and driven by the distribution of oil rents. Kuwait has been pumping around 3 million barrels of oil a day and is targeting 4 million  with some urgency now oil prices have collapsed. Currently this earns them an oil rent (after costs of production and depending on the price) around US$60 million a day. When oil prices were over US$100 a barrel they were getting US$300 million a day. Kuwait has one of the highest dependencies on oil – some 93% of its revenues come from oil rents.

Some indicative figures provide context. The population of Kuwait is about 3 1/2 million people.  Around one third of residents are Kuwaiti citizens, the vast majority of the remainder are guest workers. Guest workers remit around A$25 billion a year to their home countries. This is equivalent to 55% of the Kuwait national budget. Nine in ten Kuwaiti citizens are employed by the government. The country rests on a cash reserve of around US$600 billion.

All businesses, with a few limited exceptions, are required to be 51% owned by Kuwaitis. So there are a range of business partnerships that are not strictly commercial but compliance-based. At any stage, the dominant partner can take control of the business.

This creates some very peculiar incentives. Lack of permanency for guest workers provides little incentive to save, spend or invest in Kuwait. So Kuwait misses out on retaining a significant proportion of their remittances.

With significant reserves in the ground – over 75 years – there is little incentive to move away from this rent-seeking model and the inherent imbalances it introduces. However in the long term that transition will be necessary.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out over time.