Is it a good idea to bail out privately financed infrastructure projects?

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When I first heard about public private partnerships (PPPs), most of the emphasis was on PPPs being privately financed with private money at stake. But now, I hear the news about needing to bail out PPP projects with taxpayer money and I wonder: Is this a good idea?

To answer this, we first have to look at whether the reasons for the failure of the PPP are due to (1) mismanagement of the project by the private partner, or (2) macroeconomic impact, which could not have reasonably been foreseen by the public or private partner. If it’s the latter, then I’d argue there’s a very good rationale for a public sector bailout. How then to find the best solution for the project to survive and deliver the hoped-for results?

The UK, which has the largest PPP market so far, has decided to establish a Treasury Infrastructure Finance Unit (TIFU) to lend to PFI/PPP projects to "ensure that infrastructure projects go forward as planned despite financial markets conditions and thereby support jobs and economy." This is generally a good idea, but at first it seemed that it would not be necessary. For a while, banks managed to form a club, or the European Investment Bank supported the project. However, margins continued to climb and banks could only deliver short-term financing in the form of mini-perms.

For the time being, the bond market and credit risk insurance are dead, so finally TIFU found its first project to bail out in April 2009: "TIFU completed its first loan facility on 8 April 2009, providing a £120 million loan for the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority’s PFI project alongside the European Investment Bank and a syndicate of commercial banks." This project was bailed out in the sense that the project could not secure financing without TIFU support, but it is a new development project so it's difficult to judge whether it meets the criteria I set out above.

The second project to be bailed out was considered in May for the Wakefield waste treatment project. Finally, two years after the selection of a proffered bidder, the financing of £700 million was secured on a preliminary basis in June without TIFU assistance and is expected to close within several weeks. Bailing out PPPs might be controversial for taxpayers, but it remains the only practical option for the public sector. Hopefully, the financial crisis will subside soon and financial markets will come back to their traditionally aggressive and long term lending to PPPs.

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