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Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Apprentice: Borrowing a Little Common Sense From the Old World

by Heinz Riehl and Ingo Walter

“The Germans are bad, really bad,” President Trump tweeted a few weeks ago. How’s that? He really meant “They’re good, really good. So good at competing in world markets, that they’re really bad.”

So how come President Trump this week gave a speech on the need to take the modern “apprenticeship” pages from the German playbook and make the case for opening a new chapter on the US professional labor force - one that can compete more effectively with the best-trained and most productive workers around the world? Adapting the apprenticeship model to US conditions, currently pretty much limited to German companies manufacturing here, has a lot of potential but requires some new thinking.

America’s economic challenges today include labor shortages in key high-skill vocations – set against a large overhang of young people lacking marketable qualifications. True, the US is not producing enough technicians, programmers and engineers who understand “the hard stuff.” But we fall particularly short at the lower end of the skills spectrum, including plenty of college grads looking for meaningful work or functionally underemployed. Nor are these same college grads particularly good candidates for the many high-paying positions for skilled manufacturing workers, technicians and specialists.

Many are weighted-down by uneven high school preparation, lack of focus, and illusions about the world of work. So what else is new? Sounds like many of us at age eighteen. The obvious question is, should everyone go to college? The standard American answer has been “yes,” even though we are perhaps doing a disservice to young people who end up after 4-6 years of college, perhaps as better human beings but no better trained for productive employment than the latest crop of high school grads.

This reality contrasts sharply not only with the usual suspects like China and India, whose young people have voracious appetites for applied education and training, but also countries in “Old Europe,” like Germany, which has performed superbly in global markets and absorbing the unemployed despite high prevailing wages. Germany bounced back faster and better from the Great Recession than most countries, and one reason may be a more effective approach to vocation-oriented education and training. Germany eschews traditional university education for all in favor of challenging, highly structured apprenticeships — distinctly different from US-style on-the-job training.

German-type apprenticeship programs are tough to get into and complete. They combine practical training with classroom education equivalent to two years of college. Tracing their roots back to the medieval Guilds, apprenticeships continue to provide a path to professional success path for young people, even in a high-tech world.

Classic apprenticeships — more recently renamed “dual education”— are available for hundreds of professions, ranging from crafts like auto mechanics, bakers, chimney sweeps, masons, electricians, and opticians to tax accountants, insurance agents, restauranteurs and hoteliers. Apprentice-based careers include telecommunications, business analytics-based agriculture, marketing, public relations, and medical care.

Following secondary education, around age 16, professional education and training occurs predominantly via the "dual" system — "dual" because the know-how and skills for each profession are conveyed in two distinct settings: (1) A company, business, or workplace for the practical component; and (2) A related professional trade school for the more academic education content. Dual education takes between two and three years, with the apprentice working three or four days every week for the employer and attending professional trade school for one or two days. Besides the cost of training, the employer pays a modest wage.

The professional trade schools complement the practical learning with a profession-specific yet comprehensive, college-style education. Bakers learn the chemical composition of yeast and flour, bankers learn the difference between a mortgage and a loan secured by real estate, and all apprentices learn how federal, state, and local governments are organized and how elections work. Employers and schools cooperate closely. Importantly, apprentices are exposed in their employer’s business to mature, skilled, and professional adults as successful role models.

The typical apprenticeship concludes with a government-supervised examination confirming the successful apprentice as a certified professional in his or her occupation. Certification almost always leads to successful placement in a permanent position. The system also provides additional full-time schooling in a "master class," which again ends with a state-supervised examination. So the more ambitious can go on to become “master craftspeople,” supervising others and educating subsequent generations of apprentices. Only businesses employing one or more “masters” may hire apprentices, so there is always someone from whom young people can learn.

Germany’s arrangement is a successful model that can be adapted to provide job opportunities and well-paid careers for US high school grads — a time-tested system we could emulate to generate more skilled workers who can compete with the best craftspeople in global markets and create goods and services that people want to buy. The model is technologically robust and adaptable to disruptive technologies. And it is a ready-made approach to promote entrepreneurship among small and medium-size businesses — where the bulk of new jobs are created — and to rebuild the American middle class. Next time you call an electrician, see if the guy isn’t dreaming about going into business for himself and starting an electrical contracting business.

President Trump is onto something. As usual, the devil is in the details. But the idea has legs. We should learn from the apprenticeship masters of the Old World. With the right incentives, there are plenty of benefits to be had.

Sagging Hopes for Trump’s Growth Plans

By Roy C. Smith

Trump-drama may be obscuring an important reality – the US is still stuck in a 2% growth mode with little relief in sight. The real culprits may be the professional politicians of both parties.
Since Mr. Trump’s election there has been strong market rally, and the economy has recovered to the point that Janet Yellen in April proclaimed it “pretty healthy,” thanks in part to the Fed’s long-running stimulus campaign, which it is moving to end. “Looking forward, I think the economy is going to continue to grow at a moderate pace,” she added. Financial markets seem to agree with her.
Her upbeat comments were made just after the first quarter GDP growth of 0.7% was announced. This less-than-moderate figure has since been revised to 1.1%.  A WSJ poll of economists now puts the consensus expectation for 2017 growth at 2.3%, with most saying the risk is on the high side. Forecasts for 2018 average 2.4%
Growth in the low 2’s is a long way from the 3% forecasted in Mr. Trump’s 10-year budget proposals, the result of his bold new economic policies. Lifting the US growth rate to the 3% level would almost bring it back to the long-term 3.3% rate enjoyed in America from 1950-2000.
Indeed, falling below that level to a 2.0% average growth rate for the 16.5 years since 2000 is what has hardened up the economic discontent that has coursed through the American electorate, empowering such extreme, outlier figures as Mr. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders.
But six months into Mr. Trump’s administration, there is little in his economic policies that seem able to make the big jump to 3%.  His trade and immigration polices are actually inconsistent with growth in our fully globalized economic system with a shrinking labor force.  (Both of these policy initiatives have generated enough resistance to suggest that significant dilution in them will be needed to put them into effect).
Other policies (health care, tax and banking reform, government spending cuts but military and infrastructure increases) aim to provide a job-boosting stimulus effect financed by increased debt. Because the budget forecast assumes higher tax revenues from the 3% growth rate the net deficit result is supposed to be minimal, but it is hard to see how the proposals (even if sound economically) could generate that much new growth in a full-employment economy with low inflation and aging demographics. It might just produce inflation instead.
The economic plan is to be accompanied by executive orders that will reverse some Obama administration policies, and deregulate where it can. So far these orders have mainly been staged political events requiring new studies or extra efforts to be more efficient.  Even so, when the administration is fully staffed, which it is far from now, we have to assume that newly appointed regulators would undo what they can.  A 2013 study by The American Enterprise Institute concluded that the aggregate economic cost of regulation in the US since 1949 -- i.e., the total cost of compliance and reduced investment -- led to a 2% average annual reduction in U.S. GDP growth. Not all of this regulation is federal, or bad, but there is certainly room for some of it to go. However, how much of it might be unwound by the Trump administration without legislative changes is unclear.
Anyway, the combined Trump economic program, as we now see it, does not appear likely to affect the GDP growth rate very much in the near term. Other administrations have learned how hard it is to boost growth when you need it.
But most important, Mr. Trump, even with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress is unlikely to get what he wants because he won’t be able to pass it through Congress. His own party has balked at a replacement for Obamacare, producing House and Senate bills that seem cruel to most Americans. It is hard to guess what, if anything, is likely to get passed by a Congress as chronically divided as this one is, especially when it operates on a strictly partisan, cram-down basis with no support at all from the Democrats.
Tax reform, infrastructure spending and financial reforms all have been pushed back, perhaps until next year during a Congressional election campaign. These will involve increased government borrowing, and some of Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans, fearful of the increasing government debt ceiling and perilous debt-to-GDP ratio (now at the highest level since WWII), are likely to resist his budget plans. Others may fear that supporting Mr. Trump’s economic plans that harm the middle class could endanger their support at home. Most observers, however, believe that some, watered-down version of Mr. Trump’s proposals will get through.
By now, most of America’s “establishment” community of business and civic leaders (the ones who have run the country in the past) have now recognized the Trump phenomenon for what it is – an accidental political event that sprang from serious economic deceleration and imbalances, and realize that the best they can do is ignore what Mr. Trump has to say (and tweet) and just watch what he does.
So far this has been much less radical and dysfunctional than what was promised during the campaign. Mr. Trump is still a controversial figure with only around 40% support, and much of that is still based on the idea that he will shake things up for the better. If this doesn’t happen, and at this point it seems unlikely that it will, then Trump and his party may be in big trouble when they seek reelection. 
That of course will also depend on whether new leaders of the Democrats, with more deliverable economic programs, can be found. So far, none has emerged but there is still plenty of time.
But for good, deliverable economic policy to be put in place major efforts to rethink what our competing political parties really want to stand for are required.
Both parties need to broaden their political bases and not rely only on the narrowest, most extreme factions. Both parties need to support economic growth as the best way to create opportunity and prosperity for all.
A large part of the American electorate believes it has been left out by policies that have favored the well to do. This group has been persuaded of the evils of globalization, deregulation, and incentive compensation schemes that are necessary to keep the private sector that generates two-thirds of our economic growth and employs 85% of all US workers in a healthy state.
Both parties also need to recognize that 47% of Americans paying no federal income taxes means that they don’t earn very much and are far from participating in the American Dream. That is too large a segment of our society to be left behind. As a trade off for allowing the private sector the freedom it needs to resume a 3% growth rate, there also have to be public policies that provide job retraining, and insure adequate health care and retirement income.
Blusterous and ill informed or not, Mr. Trump cannot really govern without a political base of both parties that is broader and more moderate than what we have now. That may be the real lesson of the Trump era.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Infrastructure Illusions

By Roy C. Smith

Last week in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump announced a series of deals to generate new jobs and growth in the US. One of these was a $20 billion (nonbinding) commitment by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to a $40 billion private equity infrastructure fund to be managed by Blackstone, whose CEO, Steve Schwartzman, is one of Mr. Trump’s business advisors. Blackstone says it aims to invest up to $100 billion in new infrastructure projects, mainly in the US. Its inspiration for all this, it said, is Mr. Trump’s announced plans to fund $1 trillion of infrastructure projects through “public-private partnerships” (PPP, or P3). Mr. Trump earlier proposed funding these investments through $137 billion of tax credits for private investors committing to such projects.

Blackstone is not the only private equity manager striving to raise infrastructure funds. Over the last 10 years, $230 billion of these funds have already been raised, with nearly $100 billion still uninvested; still many of Blackstone’s competitors have new such funds in the works. Investors, especially pension funds, are eager to sign on, so why not raise the money if you can – the fees are very good.

But there are problems with all this.

First, the vast majority of US infrastructure projects are funded directly by the federal or state governments - most for maintenance and upkeep. But both Congress and state legislatures are reluctant to pay for them if doing so requires raising taxes or user tolls. The federal gasoline tax was last raised in 1993, and the Highway Trust Fund only survives on piecemeal allocations of small amounts on an as needed basis. And, you can drive the entire 122 miles of the NJ Turnpike for less than the cost of the 1.5 mile Lincoln Tunnel. This is no way to maintain existing infrastructure or to plan and develop major projects that take years to complete. Nor will PPPs accept such underfunding of tolls and rates in projects they are investing in.

Second, unlike Europe, there is little appetite in the US for privatizing public infrastructure as legislatures distrust Wall Street private equity firms’ intentions to maximize profits for wealthy investors out of assets intended for the public benefit. Congress, too, is reluctant to provide large amounts of tax credits to the same crowd that brought on the 2008 financial crisis.

Third, there are not that many projects waiting to be financed from PPP resources.
InfraPPP, an infrastructure information company, has a database of 156 such projects, but these cover the whole world, range across many different types of infrastructure in various states of development, including many in the planning stage. In the last year or so, 14 projects with an estimated cost of $14 billion were “awarded” in the US, and 20 more (for $10 billion) were in the “tendering” stage.  The supply of PPP projects so far is way less than the demand for them, which, of course, means that investors will have to lower expected returns to compete for the business.

And fourth, there are a lot of public infrastructure projects already underway, and these utilize much of the skilled labor force available for new projects. Indeed, much of todays frequent traffic delays on the north-south roadways on the East coast are caused by road and bridge repairs begun in 2010 and funded by the $747 billion economic stimulus package passed in the Obama years. So, if the supply of good PPP projects should increase rapidly, that does not mean that the means to construct them will increase at the same rate.  That will make the projects inflationary.

Even so, infrastructure is “hot” now and drawing lots of moths to the flame. Both Republicans and Democrats are for it because of the expected job creation and economic stimulus associated with it.  There are at least two major projects waiting for action – The NextGen digital air control system (many billions over 10 years), that has only had preliminary funding so far, and the badly needed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to be paid for by the NY/NJ Port Authority. Neither have funding commitments for the full cost of the projects.

If Mr. Trump’s new budget proposals are any guide, the commitment to infrastructure is quietly beginning to sag. Tax credits for PPP projects are out, and have been replaced by a 10-year $200 billion commitment to direct funding of new projects (hardly a trillion), And, the budget has cut commitments to existing infrastructure projects at the Dept. of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers by more than 12%, and imposed cut-backs of $145 billion of commitments to Amtrak, the Highway Trust Fund and other agencies.

Could it be that all the emphasis on public infrastructure spending is just a political show, an illusion? Maybe the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, knew something we didn’t, and consequently only agreed to a “nonbinding” commitment.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

America’s Former Spanish Colonies at Painful Crossroads

by Roy C. Smith

Puerto Rico’s $73 billion bankruptcy, the largest ever among US municipalities, brings to mind the sad history of two former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean – the other being Cuba - annexed to the US in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.  Though Cuba (current population 11.2 million) was allowed to become an independent nation in 1902, it did so under conditions that essentially made it an economic colony of the US that collapsed into the corrupt, authoritarian state overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959.  Puerto Rico (current population 3.5 million) was retained as a “Territory” of the US just as Guam (also acquired in 1898) is today, and Hawaii was before it became a state. Congress made Puerto Ricans US citizens in 1917.

Both Cuba and Puerto Rico have retained similar Spanish-speaking cultures and traditions (note the similarity of their flags), and both have had the presumed benefit of being closely affiliated with the US acting in a benign capacity to assist in economic and political arenas. US corporations made investments and purchased commodities, mainly sugar, and facilitated commerce and trade in both.
Yet, these relationships with the American colossus came with a dark side.

Cuba was considered a tame and useful ally by successive US governments, but otherwise it was ignored. Large corporations freely lobbied Congress to enable them to exploit Cuba’s resources, and ultimately American gangsters came to dominate the oppressive government of Fulgencio Battista. A large portion of the Cuban population was no better off economically in 1959 that it was in 1899. Castro was able to change the government and introduce reforms, but wasted the opportunity to create an economically independent Cuba by rendering it into “Socialismo.” Today, Cuba’s economy, even after several years of efforts to upgrade it by Raul Castro, remains a mess. Its GDP per capital in 2016 was $6,500, about the same as the Republic of the Congo. Puerto Rico’s was $27,900, though this is lower than all but one of the 50 US States and about the same as Russia’s.

Because of its status as a Territory, Puerto Rico has been provided with many more economic advantages than Cuba, but it has never realized its potential. Several efforts to industrialize the island were undertaken through tax benefits offered to entice US corporations (especially in pharmaceuticals) to the island, but as these wore off so too did the investment flows, and Puerto Rico has struggled to keep its economy above water for a decade. Today its unemployment rate is 12% and nearly half the population lives in poverty.

Puerto Ricans, however, as citizens have the advantage of free access to the US. So, when times are tough at home, the best and brightest can relocate to New York or Miami to make their way.  About 10% of the Territory’s population has left in the last decade. There are now more Puerto Ricans (5 million) in the US than in Puerto Rico.  This has had a significant hollowing-out effect on the island’s economic potential.

Also, since 1917, Puerto Rico, as a sovereign Territory, has been able to issue bonds free of any Federal or State tax on interest (tax-free municipal bonds) and, since 1952, Puerto Rican bonds have been enhanced by a Wall Street-backed constitutional provision giving priority to bondholders over all assets and resources of the government. Thus secured, Puerto Rican bonds have long been hugely attractive to US mutual and hedge funds – so attractive that Puerto Rico has been able to issue new bonds continually despite mounting economic problems and a deteriorating credit rating. Accordingly, Puerto Rico’s public debt has exploded well beyond its ability to service it.

Last year, in an effort to assist Puerto Rico in managing its financial burdens, Congress passed a law that enabled the territory to seek a form of bankruptcy protection from its creditors in order to restructure its debt. This law essentially bypasses the Puerto Rican constitutional protection that bondholders have, and sets the stage for a major legal battle that will be fought over the next year or so. A bankruptcy proceeding would take into account the interests of other public creditors and claimants (pensions, public services, etc.) which would dilute the claims of bondholders.

Puerto Rico surely faces a lengthy period of economic austerity, no matter who wins the bondholder lawsuit. The irony is that after a hundred years of operating in the shadow of American capitalism, Puerto Rico has been brought to its knees by it. To regain its solvency, the island will have to become competitive. For this to happen, wages and pensions will have to decline and public services cut back.

Meanwhile, Cuba, after half a century of socialism that has left it on a GDP per capital par with Albania, has ended up in a similar position. So far, Cuba’s efforts to reopen relations with the US have not have much economic benefit. Tourism has experienced a boom (though it is now receding) but Raul Castro’s economic reforms have been cautious and ineffective. After his death, Cuba’s economic future will be open to greater experimentation, but for it to aspire to the GDP per capita of Puerto Rico, it will have to convert itself into a high growth economy.

Both former Spanish colonies have reached points of starting over. It will not be easy for either, but it is essential that they find their way to competent leadership and good policy. Both will have to avoid the perils of socialism, which has wrecked the economies of Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and from time to time other former Spanish colonies in America, and of the benign neglect that the capitalistic US bestows on its former colonies.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Passive Investing is Changing Everything, at a Price

By Roy C. Smith

Eight years into a bull market in which the S&P 500 has tripled, investors seem to have given up on active managers, preferring index funds and ETFs instead. Survey after survey have shown that the overwhelming majority of active managers have failed to beat their benchmarks over 1, 3 and 5 year periods. Passive investing now accounts for nearly 40% of all US equity assets-under-management, more than twice the level in 2005. Passive funds together now hold about 13% of the S&P 500, up from 9% in early 2013, and account for about 25% of trading reported on the consolidated tape.

In the last two years, according to Morningstar, over $500 billion of funds were withdrawn from active managers and nearly $1 trillion found its way into passive funds tied to market indices. Hedge funds, too, have suffered as investors have withdrawn funds after years of paying high fees for low returns.

This trend is having a devastating effect on Wall Street sell-side research, the production of which is now well below historical norms. A recent Sanford Bernstein report referred to passive investing as “worse than Marxism.”

The principal explanation for the massive migration into passive funds over the last decade is the difference in fees and expenses charged by active managers, especially mutual funds, as compared to the exceedingly low cost of index funds.  This is a theme first expressed by Jack Bogle, former Vanguard Chairman and passive advocate, thirty years ago, but recent events have accelerated the move to passive investing.

Some observers say this new market dynamic is because of the $12-15 trillion of central bank intervention in fixed income markets in the US, Europe and Japan that have made stock investments of all types relatively more attractive than bonds. This unintended consequence of Quantitative Easing has led to mindless notions of “risk-on,” risk-off” investing that ignores individual company performance. Though these QE programs are being wound down, there is no assurance that they won’t be reinstituted during the next downturn.

QE is thought to have raised correlations of stocks with the market as a whole -- to a level of 70%-90% since 2009 from much lower levels before. Low correlations suggest good opportunities for expensive, research-driven stock pickers, and high correlations suggest any stock will do.  

All this confirms that the 2009-2017 bull market has had a substantial synthetic component to it. Continuous market appreciation during a period of unusually low economic growth and an unusual amount of political uncertainty in the US, Europe, China, Russia and the Middle East is hard to explain. These uncertainties have led many active managers to hold unusually large cash positions, but they would probably have been better off if they had been fully invested. They did not participate in the market upside as fully as index funds with no cash holdings did, widening the performance gap.

A recent Goldman Sachs report points also to a new dilemma faced by corporate directors because of the rise of passive investing. Boards can no longer trust the market to value their corporations appropriately, both absolutely and relative to the performance of its peers. Incentive compensation tied to stock prices may no longer be the best way to reward corporate managers – the compensation provided by the market may be completely out of synch with what directors want. Stock prices may also be sending the wrong valuation messages to potential corporate predators, making companies more vulnerable to takeovers.  How boards should respond to these challenges opens a whole new chapter in corporate governance.

Indeed, the surge in passive investing also tends to diminish the effect of the voting power of institutional investors in corporate governance. Long looked upon as a reasonable defender of basic shareholder interests, institutional investors have been the market’s enforcement arm. Passive investors, however, have little concern for governance issues and tend to outsource their voting decisions to firms like Institutional Shareholder Services, concentrating their power in governance issues to an all-time high.

Wall Street has claimed for years that passive investing is useful and has a place as long as it doesn’t “become the market.” Well, are we there yet?

When QE programs began, concerns about market distortions they would cause were brushed aside as less important that rescuing crisis-ridden economies from high unemployment and low growth. It is hard to see, eight years later, that these programs helped growth very much (yes, it might have been worse) though at least nominal unemployment came down significantly in the US.

Future programs, however, will have to recognize that the many long-term effects of distortion of the equity markets can be a high price to pay for their benefits.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Getting Serious About Private Investment in Infrastructure Finance

Getting Serious About Private Investment in Infrastructure

Ingo Walter

Back on 9th November, after his victory in the American Presidential election, Donald Trump declared, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

His eye-catching, pledge for the nation to spend one trillion dollars on infrastructure projects over ten years has raised an important issue: How will all this be financed? Trump has proposed ideas such as public-private partnerships and a “deficit-neutral system of infrastructure tax credits” to encourage private investment in infrastructure. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled her support for major infrastructure investment, but she has also noted that, “on Capitol Hill, the divide is always over how to pay for it.”

Observers of the global economy have often commented that investment in infrastructure —from airports in the U.S. to power plants in Nigeria — could help boost sluggish growth throughout the world and address challenges in both advanced and emerging economies by raising productivity, prospective returns on a variety of capital investments, and expectations about the future. And there can be political dividends as well. Populism and extremism thrive when people are generally testy, feeding global instability. But while the estimated requirement for global infrastructure investment to sustain “acceptable” growth is about $4 trillion annually (pretty much a guesstimate), less than $3 trillion is actually taking place.
New ideas to transform this gap from a challenge into an opportunity to create value for the global economy, and society more generally, are the focus of a new study by key members of the faculty at NYU’s Stern School of Business, just published.

The premise is that dissolving “clogs” in the global financial plumbing will be required to turbocharge infrastructure investment.  The focus is to better harness large pools of institutional capital such as pension funds and insurance reserves (whose managers owe duty of care and loyalty to their beneficiaries in creating investment portfolios) to sponsors of infrastructure projects (who need to optimize their capital structures) through better global financial allocation.

A key issue In the US is that the main source of infrastructure finance (state and localities and special districts created by them) are budget-constrained (in particular by public employee pension obligations) and have limited borrowing capacity, while the Federal role has historically been fairly muted. With the exception of the Eisenhower interstate highway system in the 1950s there have been few big infrastructure ideas since the end of World War II.

Trump wants to greatly expand the Federal role predominantly as a catalyst, harnessing both private capital and market discipline as to what gets done, when, how and where. The subtext is getting significant infrastructure finance off the public balance sheet and avoiding the waste of capital associated with politics overriding economics in infrastructure development. The two ultimately need to strike a sustainable balance, which the Trump plan wants to move in the direction of economics.

Where is that capital going to come from, and who is going to bear the risk? Trump may be exaggerating the appetite of investors in very long-term infrastructure debt and the inevitable political exposure (e.g., limits on fees that infrastructure projects can charge and difficulties in avoiding “free-riders”) without some form of Federal guarantees.

Serious financial innovation can dissolve some of the clogs in the financial plumbing and move infrastructure finance to a different level, harvesting real gains for the public interest - alongside gains for debt and equity investors. So far Trump's remain are “huge” but fuzzy. Still, if the political and financial momentum is there, that’s half the battle.

Infrastructure Could be Trump's Key to Tax Reform

Infrastructure Could be Trump's Key to Tax Reform

Ingo Walter

Getting close to the end of his first 100 days in office, President Trump badly needs a win on domestic policy, and he’s selected tax reform. Tax reform is almost as complicated as health care reform, but most people believe good tax policy can benefit things they care about - incomes, employment and growth - so the political underpinnings are there to bust the bunker of special interests entrenched in the current US tax system. A promising approach: Use infrastructure as a powerful wedge to meaningful reengineering of the tax system. 

Like a ship that collects lots of barnacles after a long time at sea, the federal tax code affects economic performance at all levels. Don’t believe it? Read it. Or at least do your own taxes this year to better understand what’s inside the box. It’s a disgrace.

There are plenty of connections between the two worlds that could make this work.The fact that the last significant tax reform in the US took place over 30 years ago - in 1986 under Ronald Reagan - shows how hard it is to make meaningful improvements. Riddled with loopholes, carve-outs for special interests, attempts at social engineering, conflicts with state and local governments, and pitting stockholders against bondholders, foreign against domestic tax residents - the list goes on and the lawyers and lobbyists keep circling.

If the tax system is widely regarded as an open sore, that opinion seems in line with many people’s opinion about US infrastructure as well. In both cases the issues are not abstractions. Voters experience them “up close and personal” - with the next head-scratcher of a tax worksheet or the next tire-shredding pothole.

Much of the infrastructure focus in the US is on transportation facilities, widely associated with words like decrepit, rotten, obsolete and third world. Financially strapped local governments, saddled with much of the cost and beset by other fiscal priorities, have skimped on depreciation and maintenance. Everyone wants the benefits of good infrastructure and nobody wants to pay, so things are allowed to deteriorate to a point where “crumbling” becomes the right word.

Everybody on the Trump team knows that making a run at tax reform will stir up a political hornet’s nest and possibly create a second political setback for the Administration after health care. So it’s smart for Trump to couple tax reform to his (and Hillary Clinton’s) widely supported campaign promises on infrastructure. But Trump first has to answer a simple question: What’s the plan?

Boiling it down so far, the plan involves $1 trillion of additional capital spending in the near-term, with an emphasis on greater reliance on the private sector and the use of tax credits as a key policy tool. The details - What? Where? When? How? - are supposed to be forthcoming soon. Eager to get a slice of whatever is going to happen, 49 states submitted 428 “shovel ready” infrastructure projects back in February. In getting the initiative off the ground, here are a couple of things the Trump team might want to consider.

·       Transportation is the lynchpin. Electric power generation and transmission, freight rail, warehousing and logistics, pipelines and energy terminals are mostly in private ownership and doing just fine. Social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, the courts) creates broad public benefits and is largely publicly financed, albeit with private competition in some areas. Same with water and sewage. So those are mainly off the table. Fixing our roads, bridges, tunnels and transportation hubs are a must and will have the biggest impact. Government tends to be pretty bad at multitasking, so Trump should narrow the immediate focus on the transport sector.

·       Public or private, or both? Done right, government involvement in infrastructure is inevitable. It is the key to the effective use of private capital in transportation. It provides operating concessions, eminent domain, rate-setting, engineering and safety standards, and in some cases financial partnerships with the private sector (public-private partnerships). There always has to be a coincidence of interest between the private and government sectors that is carefully anchored in durable and robust project agreements, and everyone has to be able to claim victory.

The key issue is to identify projects that generate robust future cash flows that can be turned into today’s private sector financing – attractive non-listed and listed equity investments, bank lending facilities capable of coping with construction risks supported by solid infrastructure bankers who have been around the block a couple of times, and the kinds of high-quality long-duration debt instruments backed by realized cash flows that big institutional investors like insurers and pension funds crave. Attractive projects that cannot be calibrated to meet these conditions, however valuable, will have to remain off the table for the private sector. 
Be patient about jobs. Infrastructure investments increase aggregate spending in the economy but at the same time require high-quality, specialized labor that’s in limited supply due to U.S. education and training bottlenecks. This could put the brakes on promised employment gains. The newly popular emphasis on vocational training for high-skill jobs and attractive pay that comes with it should help. A key issue is the excruciating delays that often beset US infrastructure projects in our hyper-litigious and politically testy environment. Trump has already tried to clear away some of the regulatory underbrush and should make sure it actually happens. Still, benefits that start flowing a decade or more from now aren’t worth very much today, and in any case will be harvested by governments - so they require a good dose of statesmanship.·       
OK on the private sector involvement, but what’s with the tax credit idea? It’s not obvious how private infrastructure financing can benefit from tax credits. Municipal bonds are already tax-favored - a status that may be up for negotiation as part of Trump’s tax reforms. Any additional infrastructure-specific tax benefits would probably take the form of corporate “tax subsidies” on “approved” projects, which puts the government in a position of deciding which worthy projects would count toward the promised $1 trillion in federal support. Here the U.S. can learn quickly from Europe and Asia, where good outcomes in many cases seem to have captured broad public support for public-private ventures and where creative moves, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) by now have a track record that can teach us some valuable lessons on what works.
The devil is in the details. But the product of a good infrastructure plan is significantly higher income and output in the short term and economic growth in the long term, so that prospects are seen to improve for everyone. The product of good tax reform is much the same. The two issues are joined at the hip. Both are positive-sum games, with plenty of scope for promising gains in one domain to compromise perceived losses in the other. In politics, more degrees of freedom are good for outcomes that are in the public interest. Linking infrastructure to tax reform can make a positive contribution, so Trump should give it a shot.