Monday, February 12, 2018

The false dawn of blended finance in infrastructure

Blended Finance is the new buzzword in international development. Nancy Lee has a new paper in the CGD website which examines the potential of blended finance to crowd in private capital to finance infrastructure projects in developing countries. It suggests reforms to the private sector windows (PSWs) of multilateral development banks (MDBs) and development finance institutions (DFIs) to achieve this objective. 

She writes
Many were optimistic when the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015 that the private sector — and domestic resource mobilization — would fund much of the investment needed to achieve these goals — especially as public aid flows stagnate. As 2018 begins, we would do well to reassess these optimistic projections for private finance for development, and ask are the “billions to trillions” materializing?... Many changes will be necessary, but I would highlight two as fundamental: First, greater risk tolerance and lowered expectations for risk-adjusted returns, and second, a major cultural shift to encourage collaboration rather than competition among the MDBs... Current data do not suggest that private investment of sufficient scale will emerge under the status quo, or that poor countries have a real chance to capture a larger share.
The paper suggests several reforms to the environment as well as the structures of PSWs of MDBs and DFIs - off-balance sheet financing of riskiest projects; aligning institutional incentives to doing more stuff like credit guarantees; consolidation and rationalisation of multiple trust funds; collaboration between the PSWs of all institutions to share pipeline, harmonise and pool financial instruments; assuming more leverage and risk; specialise in high-risk greenfield infrastructure etc. 

Unfortunately, none of these reforms are likely to make any significant dent (turn "billions into trillions") on the problem and change the status quo. This naive optimism glosses over fundamental structural factors which strongly militate against the use of foreign private capital to finance infrastructure in developing countries to any meaningful extent.

For a start blended finance is not new in infrastructure. Further, the use of blended finance instruments cannot meaningfully address the deep underlying problems. My guess is that this blog alone has atleast a hundred posts which explore different dimensions of the challenge with making private capital work in infrastructure sector, except a few areas (telecommunications and power, in particular). 

The challenge facing foreign private capital financing of infrastructure in developing countries centre around questionable premises about the use of both foreign and private capital in infrastructure sectors,

1. The total volume of dry powder from all types of sources, including alternative investment funds, available for developing countries (excluding China) is very small. They are minuscule for the low income countries. The report itself says that they received just 1.7% of total private capital flows to developing countries in 2016!

2. While the revenues of most infrastructure projects are in local currency, the repayment or profit repatriation is invariably to a foreign currency (dollar). For countries prone to macroeconomic vulnerabilities, the currency mismatch risk can by itself be a major source of instability. 

3. There are limits to the foreign currency liabilities (of all kinds - debt and equity) that developing countries can assume and the desirability of assuming them. Foreign capital as a share of gross fixed capital formation  (and infrastructure is just one of the destinations) even among the East Asian economies and China during their high-growth years have rarely crossed even 10%. Many African countries are still struggling to recover from the last round of Eurobond issuances. The perils of the original sin and the risks of sudden-stops and capital flights from cross-border capital flows are recurrent and too well documented to be repeated. 

4. Infrastructure projects, especially the large ones and in sectors requiring land acquisition and right of way, invariably get delayed and suffer cost over-runs, often causing escalations which are multiples of original cost, are commonplace. Private parties cannot be expected to bear the associated construction and commissioning risks.

5. Private borrowing is far more expensive when compared to government borrowing. The cumulative costs, as the recent UK NAO report shows, can be very significant. 

6. Even in the developed economies, such infrastructure projects invariably end up in renegotiations within a few years of the concession being granted or project being commissioned. In countries with limited state capacity, weak contract enforcement mechanisms, and poor governance such renegotiations can be very tricky and impose prohibitive ongoing risks for investors.

7. Finally, for all the aforementioned reasons, the returns required to make infrastructure investments attractive enough in developing countries (for both domestic and foreign investors) would be too high for most infrastructure assets to be able to provide. 

While several more challenges can be outlined, historical experience from across the world shows that the aforementioned factors can be insurmountable.  

For sure, developing countries should try to attract foreign private capital to their infrastructure sectors and the reforms suggested by Nancy Lee should be implemented. But these efforts are unlikely to improve things meaningfully and foreign private capital is most certain to remain a marginal contributor to financing infrastructure in developing countries.

In conclusion, the premise of private capital, and foreign one at that, as a major contributor to finance greenfield infrastructure investments in developing countries is doubtful. Developing countries will have to rely on domestic savings and predominantly government revenues to finance such investments. Blending or not, there are no innovations around this stark reality! Turning "billions into trillions" through private foreign capital will remain a dream.

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