What is Bankability?

infrastructure

I’m hoping to embark on a series of writing that will help the university students and young graduates appreciate the infrastructure industry better. I know this is likely the beginning but I’m not sure when it will end or how frequently I’ll be writing. For now, I thought I just want to get started and eventually when there is critical mass, I’ll be putting it up on a separate website.

For consumers, when we apply for credit cards, the bank taking in the application wants to know our income, our employer, age, and will probably scrub our current track records for payment on our other cards, as well as any outstanding debt we have. For businesses, the process involved in loan applications is somewhat similar. Banks look at the years it has been established, the revenue/sales track records, the profitability of the firm and or sometimes they are financing based on the invoices – payments that the firm will be receiving from its customer for goods sold.

And then there’s infrastructure projects; they are not yet built, there’s no cashflow or payments made to the infrastructure, sometimes the land is not even acquired yet (there’s no one providing funds to acquire the land!). The willingness of a well-established financial institution to lend money to the project at reasonable interest rates (ie. ‘bankability’) will depend a lot on factors that surround the projects which gives good indication of the ability of the project to repay its debt. Like consumer credit, the more data the banks have, about both projects of the type in general, and also specific data about the project to be financed, would help give them a better sense to assess if they should lend to the project.

So what kind of data? I’ll distinguish between the availability of data, and the outcome of the assessment on the data available. The banks need data on the reliability of the sponsors/developers (essentially the equity owners of the project), the engineering-procurement-construction (EPC) firms involved, the government or customer of the project (ie. the one who will be paying for the services the infrastructure provides), as well as the underlying project involved. For each of the entities involved:

  • Previous payment/financial performance – in the form of financial statements, records, etc.
  • For government, often some kind of sovereign rating
  • Track records in project execution (especially in terms of the construction in the case of EPC firms, and operating experience for the developer or whoever they might be appointing to operate the project)

Then for the underlying project, the sources of data that will allow the banks to make the assessment would be:

  • All the contracts involved in the project
  • Feasibility studies involving site survey results, data – independent studies verifying that the proposal is feasible, technical solutions can deliver expected results, etc.
  • Any documentary evidence of support by governments or other development financial institutions towards the project.

In essence, these things are basically like the payslip or appointment letter from your employer which you submit for your credit card application. They give proof that the project is able to be put together and generate the kind of cashflow worthy of the loan that it will be taking out. There will also be sophisticated financial models that are shared across the developers and the banks in order to work out transparently what is the cashflow expected from the project across its lifetime and how these cashflows will be divided amongst the various stakeholders.

Through the information, the bank determines how stable the cashflow is, the level of comfort they have with the creditworthiness of the various parties, and then work out the pricing (ie. interest rates) on the loan, which helps to update the financial models, and provide more clarity to all the parties involved on how the returns from the project are shared. The assessment of risks by the bank (which impacts on pricing and whether they would be interested to finance the project at all) will be based upon their internal due diligence on the various parties involved in the project, as well as the feasibility study, and the set of contracts underlying the project. It often depend critically on the government involvement in the project and how they are involved. Major project finance deals are often achieved with government providing a guarantee on the income stream of the project conditional on the performance of the project based on pre-agreed indicators. Once the bank is satisfied that the operators and developer is able to perform in accordance to the contract, they shift their attention towards the creditworthiness of the government who have promised to pay.

As a result of these complexities, infrastructure transactions themselves are not only big in terms of the investment but they do require big teams to put the transactions together whether it is on the developer side, the financial institutions or the consultancy teams. These teams are all combining various disciplines including accounting, finance, engineering, general management, project management, legal, etc. To that extent, we do think that the industry is a good generator of job opportunities. The challenge is that these projects are typically have activities in starts and stops (extreme busyness in one camp or another in different points of time). The skills required across the sector is quite wide-ranging though the topic tend to be more narrow and focused.

This article is part of a series I’m working on to make topics in infrastructure a little more accessible to students and people from outside the industry who might want to get involved.

Costs of Innovation

I was updating some of the contents of this personal website and ended up re-reading the paper I wrote during my wonderful course in US Business and Economic History at Stern Business school in the Summer of 2014, taught by Prof Richard Sylla. I realised that in the table of comparison on the intellectual property systems of UK and US, I failed to illustrate the magnitude of difference in costs of filing patents under each system!

In 1624 up till 1852, it could have costs 100 pounds sterling in order to file in England. To file across jurisdiction of Great Britain to include Ireland and Scotland would have set an inventor back by up to 380 pounds sterling! In contrast, the US system was set up in 1790, charging only 4-5 US dollars per patent, increasing up to 35 US dollars in 1836.

Now the comparison was completely moot without including the exchange rates at that point of time! Perhaps my way of describing the system kind of glossed over it without it being a problem for Prof Sylla but today, almost 6 years after writing that paper, I want to set that straight.

So as usual, FRED saves the day with its wonderful datasets – they actually had a monthly exchange rate dataset that went as far back as 1791! For full disclosure, I would like to point out that they constructed it from Bank of England’s data on Three Centuries of Macroeconomic Data – incredible undertaking by those folks I must say.

In any case, we could safely consider the exchange rates to be around 5 US dollar to 1 pounds sterling, save for the slight fall in value of pounds during the Napoleonic wars and the huge fall in value of US dollars starting 1861 when the American Civil War started.

With that exchange rate in mind, we now see that in 1791, we now know it would have cost 100 times more to file a patent covering England compared to one that covers Federal United States (then only 13 colonies, and bits of other territories one must recognise). And of course, this gap went down to around 16 times by 1836 but still, it was a huge difference! No wonder Charles Babbage who invented the Difference Engine was quoted by Dutton (1984, p.70) describing the system in this manner: ‘the most exalted officers of the State in the position of a legalized banditto’.

That aside however, today, companies’ management systems that puts managers and bosses as the supreme single ‘buyer’ of ideas (monopsony for ideas as Gary Hamel of London Business School pointed out in The Future of Management) is costing innovation more. Unlike the British patent system, which was repeatedly boycotted by inventors such as Charles Babbage, the traditional systems of management often could ‘hide away’ innovations and good ideas simply fail to get the resources or actions it needs to prove themselves or even be realised!

In my paper, I argued that the merits of the American system of intellectual property as it had evolved, was not so much the price for a patent, or the fact it operated by statutes rather than case laws (and therefore is effective even when it is not yet challenged in courts), it was the power by which it incentivised inventors and innovators to share and spread their ideas around. This allowed for the society to build more ideas upon them and even combine various ideas together to form new ones – each layers protected by the IP rights and allowing the system of agreements to form for the various inventors to share in the benefits of the resulting composite ideas. The corporation, in stifling ideas with its system of management, imposes huge costs on innovation and suffers for it. Often, it is not just good ideas which are lost but also idea-generators and good employees who leaves in frustration.

Monetary Policy

As I mentioned about the difficulties of governing Economies and Greenspan’s disclosure on his workings on a paper in defence of his policies, The Economist recently wrote in their column about Greenspan’s recent defence of himself. Those interested might want to access his paper here.

In general, The Economist adopts a rather sarcastic tone when discussing Alan Greenspan’s role in the build up to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in 2007. They are arguing that central bankers are around to ensure macroeconomic stability and therefore are expected to ‘play safe’ and manage the economy. That is, if reducing short-term interests rates could rein in the housing boom, that should have been applied. Even if Greenspan couldn’t have identified the bubble, and that the house prices are not related to the interest rates that central bankers could influence, the leverage growth in securitised markets might be worth managing:

By looking only at the effect of monetary policy on house prices, Messrs Bernanke and Greenspan also take too narrow a view of the potential effect of low policy rates. Several economists have argued convincingly, for instance, that low policy rates fuelled broader leverage growth in securitised markets.

Of course, having just read Dot.con and Lord of Finance, I do realise that central bankers’ attempts at interfering with specific market booms have often been ineffective or with rather disastrous results and thus choose to focus only on economic fundamentals like price inflation. Greenspan does have a point when he suggests that the central bankers are unable to deal with a global force that are changing the conditions of the economy. Very often, these efforts may create further imbalances that merely postpones a crisis.

Like I say, no one claims monetary policy is easy to conduct – it’s too often more of an art than a science.

Lord of Finance

Lord of Finance
Walking towards Depression

After leaving it on my bookshelf for a while I eventually took out Lord of Finance to resume reading books on my journeys. Written by Liaquat Ahamed, I bought it at one of Harris’ 20% storewide sales during a period when I was thinking about reading up more about Finance after the recent crisis. I thought it was good to beef up my knowledge of American finance since Age of Turbulence was the closest I got to reading about the financial sector of America.

The book turns out to be more than what I was expecting. Written in the style that feels very similar to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Lord of Finance traces the little stories that demonstrated the personalities of the four most important central bankers prior to 1929. They had exerted huge influence on the economies of Europe and United States, and unintentionally engineered in the Great Depression with their policies and beliefs. It was interesting to get a peek at a world still obsessed with the almost divine quality of gold as a storekeeper of value and with poor understanding of monetary economics.

Even more intriguing is that monetary policies and innovations are being created by these people who has a nuanced view of monetary economics and poor understanding of the workings of the economy. The stories and opinions of civil servants, politicians and aristocrats in those years demonstrates the experimentation humans had gone through in order to figure out how this gigantic machinery works. Of course, this study and experimentation carries on today.

Liaquat Ahamed got really good reviews (here and here) from New York Times for this book, especially for the fact that the contents of the book chillingly echos the stories of Wall Street in the past couple of years, involving banking heros and monetary policies, speculative bubbles and a huge crash. The description of the mania and the built up to the eventual crash sounds rather familiar to me given that I just finished John Cassidy’s Dot.con a while back. Men’s penchant for not learning from History seems particularly pronounced in bouts of ‘Irrational Exuberance’.

For that, Liquat gives a brilliant analogy for the role of Central Bankers or the policies makers trying to stabilize the economy and also pushing for growth. He sees them much like Sisyphus in the Myth of Sisyphus, condemned the work hard to create the conditions fertile for economic growth only to have speculation and irrational exuberance extinguish the fruits of their labour – much like Sisyphus who have to push a boulder up a mountain knowing that when the deed is done, it’ll roll back to its original position for him to do it again. Perhaps Albert Camus is right, for the struggle probably do fill the central bankers’ hearts and the belief of their heroism keeps them happy.

Lord of Finance simply surprises me with the rich collection of anecdotes about the main characters of the story Liquat tries to tell and the manner it imparts knowledge on finance and the workings of money in the economy to the readers – subtly and not too overwhelmingly technical. As a result the book caters to a wide range of audience; students interested in economics, history, finance and perhaps just stories about great men’s mistakes.

Those interested in getting a preview before making a purchase of the book or going on a trip to the library to borrow it might like to check out New York Times.

Coercion of Free Markets

Inequality is a market failure. We do pick this up in A Levels but then there’s little discourse on that. Not only do we dwell little on the solutions – which ranges from progressive taxation to welfare handouts – we ultimately ignore how inequality undermines the ultimate roles of markets, which is the efficient allocation of resources. I’ve always grasp the idea rather intuitively but then fail to deliver it in a philosophical and economics framework. I’ve pointed out the lack of philosophical musings in today’s study of Economics when I introduced Michael Sandel’s lecture on Markets and Morals.

I’ve always pose the question to my Economics student, if a person earns $1000 a month and another who earns $1 a month both needs a glass of water. The rich guy is willing to pay $10 for the water while the poor one is willing to pay $1. The market thus allocates the water to the rich man. We all know that this allocation is problematic and it doesn’t seem efficient; how is it that, in terms of willingness to pay, a person who is only willing to part with 1% of his monthly income gets the good when another is willing to part with 100% of his monthly income for it? So what exactly is the problem of inequality?

Once again, Michael Sandel points this out in the second lecture presented in this video. You don’t exactly have to watch the lecture in order to grasp the point but the idea is that when inequality (in terms of unequal distribution of income) exists, effective demand cannot properly reflect the ideal sort of demand signal transmission that would allow the market to allocate resources efficiently. In extreme cases, free markets becomes not entirely free. In other words, people are not transacting out of their free will but coerced by their own economic circumstances. We see this very often in the case of poor people in developing countries who are forced to sell organs, resort to prostitution, act as surrogate mothers, become a runner for crack.

Gary Becker is not wrong about the rationality of these people. They’re making rational choices but it is often that their choices is very much limited. That unfeeling market processes coerce us into certain decisions is something close to the hearts of all of us. Often, however, we can’t quite work out what is so unjust about that because we believe that to a large extent, we determine our riches. Somehow, deep in our hearts we know that some other decisions that we made caused us to be in the state we are in such that we are coerced into making that next decision. The fact that this argument comes back to us shows how each and every decision made in the marketplace by us are not independent. This makes for a determinism argument in a market setting where free will is supposed to reign.

There are much wider implications of all these arguments and I shall explore them if I get the chance.

Governing Economics

Many have attributed the housing bubble that eventually resulted in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis to the previous, one of the longest serving Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. We are pretty familiar with Greenspan, who have written Age of Turbulence. In his book, he highlighted his general argument against anyone who would finger-point him as allowing a bubble to inflate. He pronounce that it is impossible for anyone, whether the regulatory body or not, to accurately identify a bubble.

As for the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, politicians in the United States still blames it somewhat on Alan Greenspan and now that everything is cooling down, Greenspan offers his own defence. Although Greenspan was nicknamed ‘the Maestro’, he subtly attributes the period of great prosperity and low inflation to the globalization forces and technological advancement more than his skills at handling the monetary policy of US. In any case, he outlines his job at the Federal Reserve as an observer trying his best to keep to fundamentals of the economy and the crisis therefore comes as a surprise both because of how the economic agents have basically defied market assumptions namely on the issue of counter-party surveillance. Essentially the government cannot possibly provide the ‘self-interest’ that is supposed to drive the free market.

No one says that managing the economy is an easy job. Sound economics decisions by governments often turns out to be political disasters anyways so sometimes politicians stop heeding economists altogether. The recent issues that confront Tim Geithner is essentially similar; the economy is picking up thanks to his plans but people are unhappy with him. Figures on employment are not helping him anyways since the recovery is ‘jobless’ so to speak. Management of the economy is a huge balancing act for the government.

The idea of government has gone really far since the days of Locke’s conception of the social contract. The philosophy of governance in the modern world is just getting more complicated.

Morality of Markets

I’ve previously introduced Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice in Harvard. I haven’t finished the series despite great interest in it but I recently watched another of his lectures, one at Chautauqua where he talks about the Morality of Markets. In some sense, I was particularly interested in this issue and believe that all those trained in Economics should be made to study it. After all, Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher. The philosophical element of Economics is becoming lost in our study of it today.

Markets Corrupts?

That is what makes this particular Michael Sandel lecture extremely insightful. He starts with the idea that we’re now plagued by market triumphalism and he tries to question what is wrong with that. As often in his lectures, he poses a scenario either hypothetical or based on actual proposals in the real world and then solicits opinions from the audience. He eventually surfaces his points and ideas from the responses of the audience and does a brilliant summary of the issue.

He gives a good and important point in his conclusion of this lecture that explains why we should not allow markets to expand indefinitely in our lives. In other words, there are areas where markets can, indeed serve the best interests of the societies especially when we all can agree that the market system gives an accurate and fair valuation of the good or service involved. Unfortunately there are values out of the consideration of the market that we might cherish and therefore we should not allow particular goods or services to become commodities to be traded and transacted. The danger of the markets is that it leaves its mark on the commodities that are traded; the values that we cherish becomes diluted, corrupted by the market system.

The example of paying a child to read is important in illustrating this. We should cherish reading not because of the monetary gains but the intrinsic value derived from joy of reading and learning. Therefore when we start paying children to read, it sends out the wrong messages and distorts the valuation of reading. The trick then, perhaps is a solution around this limitation of the market, to be able to remove that mark that market leaves on the thing traded. Unfortunately there’s no easy solution and possibly none. This is a strong argument against markets and while it is applied to a small group of tricky issues, they are worth pondering over.

Michael Sandel makes Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy not only accessible to the public and ordinary, non-philosophy students but also makes extremely relevant connections between traditional Western Philosophy and the issues plaguing us in the modern world. It’s really fortunate that we are able to access his lectures even though we are not studying in Harvard or in America. There are other videos of his public lectures available on FORA.tv.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.

Stealth Marketing

I frequently go on to Apple Trailers to look out for interesting movies that are upcoming or that I’ve been missing out. They offer a good mix of films from Hollywood as well as some independent film makers. Recently, The Joneses caught my attention. Their own movie site is not exactly ready yet but here’s the synopsis from IMDb:

“The Joneses”, a social commentary on our consumerist society. Perfect couple Steve and Kate Jones, and their gorgeous teen-aged children Jenn and Mick, are the envy of their posh, suburban neighborhood filled with McMansions and all the trappings of the upper middle class. Kate is the ultimate trend setter – beautiful, sexy, dressed head-to-toe in designer labels. Steve is the admired successful businessman who has it all: a gorgeous wife, big house and an endless supply of high-tech toys. Jenn and Mick rule their new school as they embody all that is hip and trendy – cool clothes, fast cars and the latest gadgets. But as the neighbors try to keep up with the Joneses, none are prepared for the truth about this all- too perfect family.

The Joneses
The Joneses

Obviously, the title comes from the English catchphrase, Keeping up with the Joneses but the idea is interesting. The Joneses is a perfect family made up to market goods to the upscale gated community by a stealth marketing organization. I do suspect that big companies does this sort of things at times but probably more through viral marketing than to consciously employ people to befriend potential customers and introduce goods to them. Whether this is considered ethical, is perhaps what the movie is exploring.

In a sense, the movie calls for a reflection on how social forces are increasingly shaping our economic lives, and at the same time questioning the value of relationships.

Dot.con

Dot.con
Popped!

I’ve recently finished John Cassidy’s Dot.con I got from library many days back. John Cassidy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and I always liked his writings about Economics. I’ll probably find a chance to lay my hands on his latest book, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities soon.

Meanwhile, Dot.con have been an interesting read. It’s an old book, no doubt. I believe reading about the Internet Bubble now seem rather weird given that it has happened a while back and don’t appear to have any immediate relation with what I’ve been working on. Still, I think that events like this have lessons to offer that are often missed out and I was looking to read something a little further back given that I’ve been updating myself with The Economist all the time. John Cassidy didn’t fail me, starting his story from the time when the technology was developing for the rise of modern Internet, describing the roles that the US military and government played in its conception, research funding and even implementation. He combines the events leading up to year 2000 with interesting comparisons of speculative manias of the past and talks about retrospective telltale signs of irrationality.

He introduced me to Charles Mackay and his writing, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I subsequently realised I had the sections of Charles Mackay’s book in my 4-inch tome, The Real Price of Everything by Michael Lewis. Those pieces have just been added into my reading queue.

Cory Johnson reveals that John Cassidy was a rare skeptical voice with regards to the Internet Boom, but failed to live up to the promise of the title of the book:

Indeed, he is unable to dismiss the most fundamental notion (a mantra among the true believers) that the Internet changes everything. Despite the stock market meltdown, almost any reading of the evolving business practice wrought by the Internet suggests that more dramatic changes are yet to come.

In a sense, the Internet is not quite exactly an illusion so to speak. But I don’t think that was what John Cassidy was driving at. His idea is that business fundamentals have been abandoned during the period and it shouldn’t have been. The numbers he cites about businesses losing money even as stock prices climb is startling. He might have been against the arguments of the New Economy though, and he could have supported his argument with the fact that falling prices (with economic expansion) isn’t entirely an internal affair of US but a result of the external forces as well.

I’ve enjoyed the little stories told by Dot.con surrounding the whole boom and crash of the Internet, especially those about individuals trapped in those industries contributing and taking part of the boom. Besides that, Dot.con serves as a good look at human behaviours during a speculative mania.