Forget the budget. This week’s most interesting news was David Cameron’s speech on Britain’s infrastructure. While the headlines focused on the possibility of using private companies to help run the UK’s motorways and major trunk roads, the statement was actually much broader and also touched upon the roll-out of high speed broadband, 4G mobile networks, and reforms to the national planning system. The linking theme was that Britain is “falling behind our competitors and […] the great world-beating, pioneering tradition set by those who came before us”. In other words, our Victorian infrastructure legacies are inadeqaute to the needs of the twenty-first century.
This isn’t a problem that’s unique to Britain. In the United States for example, municipalities are struggling to maintain aging water infrastructures where, in some places, the pipes are over a hundred years old and made out of wood. And like in the US, the need for major infrastructure investments raises substantial questions about the role of such facilities and who should pay for it.
In this post, I want to sketch out some thoughts on infrastructure and look at three related questions:
- Is infrastructure a private or public good?
- How should it be financed?
- How do infrastructure investments relate to the wider economy and our prospects for growth?
Is infrastructure a private or public good?
Infrastructure is traditionally viewed as a public good, meaning that people can’t be excluded from its use and one person’s use doesn’t affect its availability to others. This is a somewhat stylised view – think of congestion on a roadway – but the important point is that the alternative view, infrastructure as a private good, would lead to a shortfall of provision. Left to its own devices, the private sector would only build infrastructure that provided a sufficient return on its capital, at commercial terms, and so roads would only be built on routes where there was sufficient toll revenue to justify their construction and similarly energy and communication networks would be built only in areas of high demand.
Governments have historically taken the view that society benefits from providing (near) universal access to these facilities at low or no cost, and hence they have been willing to pay for infrastructure projects with public money. This doesn’t necessarily mean that such investments are uneconomic, because governments are typically able to borrow at lower costs than the private sector and are willing to wait decades for such assets to pay off. And in the meantime, households and businesses benefit from the public provision of these goods. Unfortunately, these borrowings show up on public balance sheets which, in times of economic turmoil, may not be what governments want.
Cameron’s speech recognized the public good nature of infrastructure several times, remarking that these systems are part of a nation’s assets which “sustain future prosperity” and that exclusive private sector provision risks “leaving some people behind”.
How should infrastructure be financed?
One can therefore conclude that infrastructure in the UK is still seen primarily as a public good, but one for which the public purse is increasing reluctant to pay. So what alternatives are available?
Over the past two decades, one of the most popular options in Britain has been public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives in particular. The precise detail of these arrangements can vary significantly from project to project, but the general idea is that government contracts with a private sector firm for the provision of a public good or service. So the M6 toll route for example was built with private funds, in return for the ability to collect tolls over a 53 year period.
These arrangements have been widely critized, with a recent Treasury Select Committee describing PFI as an “extremely inefficient” method of financing public sector projects. The simple financial reason for this inefficiency is that “[t]he average cost of capital for a low risk PFI project is over 8%, double that of government gilts”. In other words, the government can borrow money much more cheaply than the private sector. The only problem is that this borrowing ends up on the national balance sheet and chancellors are loath to do this. This sort of short-term thinking is also common in United States, where long-term infrastructure leases are provided to private firms “in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best, usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.”
Having been criticised by the Treasury Select Committee and by the current chancellor, the political question is how can a PPP deal be structured that doesn’t look like PFI but still delivers new and improved infrastructure without a significant impact on government borrowing figures. The chancellor’s current strategy is to encourage investment from pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, but as the Guardian’s excellent fact check article discusses, the new proposals aren’t substantially different from previous PFI arrangements. And what’s more, new projects won’t magically appear as the UK still faces long-term challenges with the cost of its infrastructure projects (60% higher than in Germany). The proposed planning reforms are intended to help reduce these costs by speeding up the process and removing uncertainty for investors, but whether these changes will be effective is another issue.
Funding infrastructure in tough economic times is clearly a challenge. Public-private partnerships could be a good alternative but the UK experience suggests that these arrangements are very expensive and only have the benefit of deferring large line items to future budgets. However that may be enough for the current government to proceed with PFI Mark 2.
What do infrastructure investments mean for the wider economy?
One of the reasons why infrastructure is in the news at the moment is that constrained capacity in transportation, house building, and communications networks is seen as a barrier to economic growth. Build more capacity and the good times will roll, or so the theory goes.
There are two issues here. The first is the stimulus value of immediate infrastructure investment. If the private or public sector spends heaps of money on new roads, houses, and so on, then this boosts employment, demand for construction materials, and generally helps the recovery. I won’t get into the detail but plenty has been written about the merit of such projects, but with somewhat conflicting messages. On the one hand, when private sector demand is down, Keynesian economists would argue that it makes sense to use the public purse to boost aggregate demand. In the case of Japan’s lost decade, for example, Paul Krugman argues that the only problem with their infrastructure investment programme was that it wasn’t bigger, but at the very least, their spending on roads and rails kept things from getting substantially worse. On the other side, the Austrian school thinks that stimulus spending simply delays the inevitable realignment of the economy by propping up losing industries. (Reading between the lines, Michael White implies there might be some sort of benefit in selling our expertise in writing the PFI contracts.)
While I’m not a card-carrying economist, on the question of infrastructure as stimulus, my intuition would be similar to Dieter Helm’s argument: if the economy is depressed and savings can’t achieve good returns anywhere else, then you might as well invest them in long-term productive assets like infrastructure.
To my mind though, the more interesting question is whether or not these investments are likely to deliver long-term growth. Chris Kennedy’s recent book on the wealth of cities makes the point that infrastructures create patterns of consumption that last decades. Motorway networks for example have established an entire economy around vehicle manufacturing and repair, and support a suburban lifestyle with larger houses that need to built and filled with more stuff.
These sorts of effects can be seen in the following plot. It shows the UK’s GDP since 1500 and I’ve fitted three regression lines: one to the pre-Industrial Revolution period, another to the period after the UK railway boom of the 1830s and 40s, and a third to the post-war period or modern industrial age. The results are clear: each stage has a distinctly different slope, meaning that average rates of growth are in different in each period (0.07% prior to the industrial revolution, 1.1% after the railway boom, and 2.1% in the modern era). I would suggest these changes are due to the infrastructure investments made at the start of the period: railway investments at the start of the 19th century boom, and modern manufacturing methods and the use of oil in the 20th century.
This analysis isn’t entirely novel and fits in with the notion of Kondratiev waves. But it does suggest that only some of the proposed infrastructure improvements will lead to long-term economic benefits. New investments in the roads? That doesn’t change the structure of the economy and lead to new patterns of consumption; it only ensures that the current system keeps working. Investments in 4G mobile and high-speed broadband? These are more promising and could enable a range of new products and services.
In concluding his speech, the Prime Minister asked “what is it that people want for the future? They want reasonable things; a decent home, a clean environment, jobs for their children, the ability to get around without hassle, huge costs or endless jams.” These are modest aims and, despite his subsequent call to “be bold”, the discussion presented here suggests that the proposed infrastructure reforms will indeed have only minor consequences. We have seen that infrastructure will continue to be viewed as a public good in the UK, even if the private sector has a significant role as a co-provider of these services. The financing of infrastructure projects will continue to driven by a desire to keep borrowing costs off the public balance sheet, even if current low bond rates suggest and the poor value of past PFI contracts suggests that this may not be the best strategy. And finally, while there may be some short-term boosts in economic activity, the long-term prospects are mixed. Improvements in communications infrastructure should help support long-term growth but investments in roads and housing are largely maintenance, part of the ongoing costs of supporting our current way of life.
- Dieter Helm comment piece on the relationship between infrastructure, GDP and national prosperity
- Chapters 18 and 19 of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful contain a useful discussion on public versus private goods, in particular noting the benefits that private firms receive from the public provision of these services.