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Is A Private Infrastructure Bank A Good Idea - Or A Third Way Privatization Plan? Strong Regulation Is Key

Muniland is a Reuters blog that specializes in municipal bond-related issues, and this caught my eye - that infrastructure bank Obama proposed? The AIFA would require that funded projects generate revenues to repay the loan to the infrastructure

Muniland is a Reuters blog that specializes in municipal bond-related issues, and this caught my eye - that infrastructure bank Obama proposed? The AIFA would require that funded projects generate revenues to repay the loan to the infrastructure bank. That is, charge tolls for bridges that used to be free -- which, to at least some extent, privatizes the public works. And for what? Because congressional Republicans refuse to free up infrastructure funds for state and local governments:

The legislation seems to require public-private partnerships for funding. In the bill’s criteria for loan approval, there’s a preference for those projects which maximize private investment (page 41):

“the extent to which the provision of assistance by AIFA maximizes the level of private investment in the infrastructure project or supports a public-private partnership, while providing a significant public benefit”

Conceivably Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad could team up with a small municipality and receive below-market loans to fund improvement of their rail systems. There is a lot of gray area defining “public good” in the legislation and this makes way for many projects that might have a larger private component.

The legislation also requires that projects have dedicated repayment sources (page 43):

(3) DEDICATED REVENUE SOURCES.—The Federal credit instrument shall be repayable, in whole or in part, from tolls, user fees, or other dedicated revenue sources that also secure the infrastructure project obligations.

The essence of the American Infrastructure Financing Authority is to use the full faith and credit of the U.S. government to loan funds at below-market rates to public-private partnerships — in other words, to privatize the cash flows from public assets.

When you read the congressional testimony and materials about the proposed bank you always hear about the vast sums of private money waiting in the wings to be invested. When Robert Wolf, Chairman and CEO of UBS Americas and close confidant of President Obama, testified to the Senate Banking Committee last year he said:

Preqin, a private equity industry consultant, estimates that there is over $180 billion dollars of private equity and pension fund capital focused on infrastructure equity investments. This capital can play an important role in bridging state and local budget gaps.

There is no question that private money is interested in being used for loans to infrastructure projects and guaranteed by the federal government and taxpayers. It’s almost identical to senior bondholders who loaned money to too-big-to-fail banks. It’s the best setup for private money because there is no loss.

Although McClatchy is reporting that Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is unenthusiastic about plans for an infrastructure bank, it’s likely that the Senator Kerry’s legislation will be adopted since it has support from the administration, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But it’s a pity that a project dressed as job creator will really be a vehicle to create privatized public assets. Our nation was founded and grew strong on the basis of our shared public infrastructure. It’s a shame that the American Infrastructure Financing Authority will be the agency in which ownership of public assets becomes private.

Is this a free market solution in search of a problem?

Currently almost all American infrastructure is funded either through municipal bonds or federal funding. Even as federal funding has been constrained, municipal bond issuance has been very low this year, running at about half of last year’s rate. There is plenty of capacity to fund infrastructure with municipal bonds. From a funding standpoint it’s not clear why we need an infrastructure bank, especially a paygo infrastructure bank.

Consider the source of this article, though. The pinstripe patronage pit of the municipal bond market is where politicians hide all kinds of payoffs (i.e. "fees" and kickbacks), so muni dealers complaining about this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I just have to wonder if this private infrastructure bank isn't just a way for rent-seeking investors to siphon off the value from public projects via tolls and fees.

Seems like it would be a good thing for someone who's on the legislative side to explain.

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