More Infrastructure Debt Now? Yes but …

infrastructure

The Economic Society of Australia recently polled a number of senior economists on its National Economic Panel, posing the following question:

“As interest rates are at low levels by historical standards, federal and state governments, despite their public debt levels, should be borrowing more than they currently are to invest in infrastructure”.

Just over 70% of respondents either agree or strongly agree, and on a confidence-weighted basis, 75% agree or strongly agree. This is a rare consensus.

But …

It is worth reading the individual responses. This strong consensus is backed by a requirement for solid cost-benefit analysis, case-by-case consideration of projects and a recognition that any infrastructure spending is not automatically a ‘good thing’.

See: http://www.monash.edu/business/economics-forum/polls/public-borrowing-for-infrastructure-investment

Do you think we should increase public debt now to invest in infrastructure?

Success Diagnosed

png-roads

Very pleased to see PNG and Australia have signed an Agency Support Arrangement for the PNG Department of Transport this month.  I led an earlier Agency Capacity Diagnostic of the Department for the PNG Transport Sector Support Program.

“These diagnostics are undertaken by independent consultants and provide the agency management with objective assessments of capacity, including through the identification of existing strengths and skills gaps. The diagnostics also provide recommendations for addressing agency needs.  TSSP then works closely with the Australian High Commission and agency heads to develop programs of structured capacity support to improve performance and address identified priority capacity gaps.  This is formalised through  Agency Support Arrangements (ASAs) which detail the multi-year frameworks for funded activities to bridge some of the gaps highlighted by the diagnostics.” (Source: TSSP website)

A great outcome which also included a lot of hard work from senior officers in the Department, the Transport Sector Support Program and at the Australian High Commission.

[Link to article]

 

Transport Planning Award

aitpm-2017-winning-presentation

A great collaboration with the Department of Transport and Main Roads and Aurecon.

Lytton Advisory prepared cost benefit analysis modelling of this active transport infrastructure program for TMR, drawing on great research and analysis undertaken by the project team.

Queenslanders will continue to benefit from TMR’s engagement in developing further active transport infrastructure.

Many thanks to all who contributed to this.

Economic Benefits of Cycling Infrastructure

cycling-brisbane

Very pleased to see that my colleagues at Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads and Aurecon will be presenting our analysis on the economic benefits of cycling infrastructure at the National Traffic and Transport Conference of AITPM in mid-August.  The abstract is available here:

https://www.aitpm.com.au/economic-benefits-of-cycling-infrastructure/

 

Image: Southbank, Brisbane. Source: Brisbane Tourism.

Anatomy of an Economic Decision

touch-decisions

Clear thinking is a prerequisite for good economics.  This leads to improved decision making, and that creates better outcomes.

The next time someone claims to be making an economic decision or proposes an economic course of action; dissect their claim or assertion.  You do not need to be an economist to do that.  There are five simple signs for good economic decision making:

  1. Decision to be made is articulated
  2. Available choices are considered
  3. Measurable objectives are described
  4. Input variables are identified
  5. Relationship between variables is determined

Without these famous five, the risk is the economic decision may be dead on arrival.

Significance of O&M in Infrastructure

maintenance

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.

Household Debt and House Prices

household-prices-debt

Lytton Advisory was at the Economic Society 2017 Business Lunch in Brisbane yesterday. RBA Governor, Philip Lowe, gave a very lucid presentation on Australian household debt and house prices.

Over 25% of mortgagees have a buffer of three or more years on their home loans.  The top two household quintiles by income are carrying the largest debt burdens.

Recent regulatory changes imposed on banks by the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority will tighten up lending to property investors.  This may create some short-term breathing room to address fundamental supply-demand imbalances in some of the Australian property markets. It may also take a bit of the speculative heat out of the Sydney and Melbourne property markets.

The RBA Governor touched on a number of other issues as well.  Details can be found at:

http://www.rba.gov.au/speeches/2017/sp-gov-2017-05-04.html