Infrastructure Asset Transactions

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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.

Investing in Infrastructure

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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.