Economic reform in Australia has been a triumphant success. From the mid-1980s on, it pulled our relative economic fortunes out of their decades-long decline and propelled us through the Asian crisis. Reform was built on simple and compelling principles, including some that affronted the common-sense beliefs of many ordinary Australians. Surely tariffs create jobs? Well, they don’t — and so we cut them.
But having made such progress, we’ve gone backwards in one area, and all in the name of a kind of faux economic rationalism. Enter fiscal populism. Rather than simply getting budgets into operating surplus — mostly a very good thing — Australian governments have embraced the notion that all debt is bad. But most of the time debt is only bad if it’s used to fund recurrent expenditure — see Charles Dickens on the difference between small, sustained operating profits and sustained losses; it’s the difference between happiness and misery. But debt can also help us fund investment.
By focusing on the costs of debt but not its potential benefits, we find ourselves where we could have expected to be. Australian government debt has been lowered to zero with a mix of asset sales and a string of Commonwealth surpluses made up of that portion of surging revenues from the mining boom that wasn’t refunded to taxpayers as tax cuts. State governments, which carry much of the capital investment burden of the Australian public sector, have also borne down on debt.
But the glories of unburdened balance sheets have been purchased at the cost of growing deficits in precisely the thing that higher government debt might have funded — infrastructure. Partly filling the gap has been private investment in some kinds of infrastructure, funded by tolls on roads and/or rent payments by government to investors. While superficially attractive, and almost certainly better than no investment at all, most of these public-private partnerships, or PPPs- – in all manner of infrastructure assets, from roads and railway stations to hospitals and desalination plants — have been built at a higher cost to the public than would have been the case if they had been built the way they used to be, as government-owned assets built with debt finance.
There are many small reasons why PPPs generate bad value, and one big reason. The small reasons all relate to the artifice required to involve private investors in some specific piece of capital, like a road, a hospital or a desalination plant. They need reassurance from governments that some future government investment — say a competing road or hospital — won’t “strand” their asset. As a consequence, the transfer of risk to the private investor is always uncertain, and where it can be brought about it’s usually at the cost of the government’s binding its own plans for infrastructure well into the future. This can involve huge and uncertain costs.
The big reason is straightforward. Given that infrastructure assets are typically highly capital intensive, and even allowing for some reasonable loading for the risk of specific infrastructure projects, governments face much lower costs to mobilise the necessary capital to build them.
Just as arbitrary debt restrictions imposed upon a household or a firm would be a recipe for long-term impoverishment (at least relative to what it might otherwise have achieved), so too for the public sector — and obviously so. Indeed, as Australian households have borrowed more and more, there is a particular perversity in arbitrarily constraining the borrowing of the entity that enjoys the lowest borrowing cost — the government — especially at a time when our largest cities groan under the weight of a widely recognised infrastructure crisis.
If it means anything, fiscal conservatism should mean prudently building the net worth of the public sector and doing so in a measured way — that is, at an acceptable risk. In an environment in which some infrastructure assets typically enjoy a rate of commercial return well above the cost of borrowing (not to mention additional returns to society and improved environmental amenity), borrowing should be encouraged up to the point at which further borrowing would constitute an unacceptable risk. This is how public companies and many households are run.
Had the NSW government chosen to fund the toll roads that now encircle Sydney, the state would have acquired ownership of a stream of revenue with a net present value of about $12.8 billion (in 2009–10 dollars), at the cost of increasing its borrowing by $7 billion, according to indicative modelling in a recent study my colleagues and I at Lateral Economics carried out for the councils of Western Sydney. In other words, by taking on a little more risk, the state would have set itself up to increase its net worth by about $5.8 billion. Factoring in the additional risk the government was taking on, we calculate that its net worth could have increased by $4.6 billion. By today more than 60% of the original borrowing would have been paid off, leaving a cash flow to the budget of $379 million each year after interest payments and even after provisioning for further principal repayments. In the unlikely event that New South Wales suffered a credit downgrade as a result of funding these projects, then the investment — even taking into account the additional interest costs associated with such a downgrade — would still have been very worthwhile.
*This was originally published in Inside Story, read the rest here.