While the World Bank’s resources for low-income countries have never been greater, they still pale in comparison with these countries’ needs. Governments always need to make hard choices between infrastructure needs, social programs, and fiscal discipline. One country was recently able to strike the right balance with the support of World Bank guarantees: Benin.
A strange irony persists in today’s infrastructure investment market: private capital waiting to be deployed into the sector is at an all-time high, yet investors seem reluctant to commit. Even in developed countries, few investors are willing to partake in transactions with merchant or construction risks without taking a higher risk premium.
This can make the financing of infrastructure projects more costly—a challenge particularly acute in emerging markets where further investment risks abound.
Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) in transport infrastructure can offer significant efficiency gains compared to public procurement options—in the right circumstances. The gains accrue from allocating to the private sector those risks they are better able to handle than the public sector, such as those associated with construction costs.
Data backs this up: findings in Construction Risk in Infrastructure Project Finance from EDHEC show that for a large number of transport infrastructure PPP projects, (including roads), construction overruns are significantly lower at 3.3 percent on average compared to public procurement projects, with a 26.7 percent overrun average.
Photo: HAC/Croatian Motorways
The state of Croatia’s road sector poses a unique challenge compared with more typical World Bank projects where road assets either need to be developed or require significant rehabilitation. If you've ever had the chance to experience Croatian roads you'll quickly realize the country has a well-developed motorway and state road network, in relatively good condition. This begs the question: how can the World Bank help improve a sector with already high-quality assets in a middle-income country like Croatia?
Photo: David Lawrence / World Bank Group
One September afternoon, my boss, Pankaj Gupta, popped his head into my office. He had some ideas about how the novel use of guarantees might help solve a type of problem we had not faced before. The Energy and Extractives Global Practice had received a request from Ukraine. The problem was the country was heading into the 2014/15 winter with a large gas shortfall.
These were not easy times for Ukraine, which was in the throes of armed conflict on its Eastern border. With an economy in turmoil, the credit rating agency, Standard & Poor's, had dropped Ukraine's credit rating two notches in the last year. The rating now languished at CCC, or very speculative and non-investment grade. This made finance, the life-blood of service delivery, difficult to access and expensive.
Photo: Raymond Ward | Flickr Creative Commons
Sector reform is a familiar concept for anyone working in the energy sector, particularly in developing countries. Typically, reforms involve measures such as building an institutional framework that allows for an independent regulator, improving the operational efficiency of utilities (for example, by unbundling vertically-integrated utilities), creating an environment for private sector participation, and last but not least, introducing tariffs that reflect costs. All these measures are designed with one goal in mind: to put the sector on a sustainable path and improve the quality of service for end-users.
While acknowledging the many benefits that sector reforms can bring, one issue we continue to face is the poor financial state of key power utilities. In other words, a lack of creditworthiness. Often, their lack of financial creditworthiness is the most critical obstacle to implementing investment programs. This makes utilities even more dependent on continuous government subsidies.
Photo: Scaling Solar project in Zambia
What is a common thread between Argentina, Maldives, and Zambia? In each of these countries, the World Bank provided guarantees to support transparent auctions for renewable energy. Through these, I have seen how the Bank’s involvement helped increase private investors’ confidence, attract world-class developers, and ultimately reduce tariffs.
Drawing on 10 years of diverse experience in the power sector in both public and private organizations, my role is to help bridge the divide between public and private parties and help each side better understand the other. The World Bank is ideally positioned for this. Both sides understand the World Bank carries out a detailed due diligence and ensures the auction meets international standards. Both sides appreciate the World Bank will be an honest broker if issues arise. Because of its long term and continuous involvement in our client countries, the World Bank can help identify and solve issues early on. As such, no World Bank project-based guarantee has ever been called.
Photo: Debbie Hildreth Pisarcik | Flickr Creative Commons
Several years ago, after almost two decades at various investment banks, I joined the World Bank’s Financial Solutions team. I had always thought of the World Bank as the leading concessional lender to governments, the financial muscle behind large infrastructure projects, and the coveted supranational client of investment banks. I have since discovered the power of World Bank guarantees and how they can help borrowers maximize their World Bank country envelopes. Since joining, I have helped various clients raise over $2 billion in commercial finance. And all this with a fraction of World Bank exposure.
It’s not always easy to convince the private sector to participate in public infrastructure projects—especially in developing countries and emerging economies. Why is this a problem? Because there simply is not enough public money to meet the growing demand for infrastructure, which is a key element of development and poverty alleviation. The need is great, numbering in the trillions of dollars.
But there is good news—the market has both the trillions and the expertise to use it, if the conditions are right. And the World Bank Group has a number of instruments that can help create an environment that meets the needs of the private sector in financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable ways. Guarantees are one of those instruments, a tool that is highly effective in leveraging limited resources for mobilizing commercial financing for critical infrastructure projects.