Are We Selling the Future Too Cheap?

Public concern and even occasional outrage over potholes, broken water mains, sewage spills, and closed bridges have been appearing with some regularity in the U.S. news media and blogosphere. Unemployment has been persistently high, particularly in construction. Interest rates have been at historic lows for several years. So why have we not seen an explosion of infrastructure investment?

Yes, we did have the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), meant to be a down payment on government action to modernize the nation’s infrastructure, enhance energy independence, and put people to work in the process.  The sudden spending sent government agencies scurrying for “shovel-ready” projects, but the law’s requirements that money be spent quickly precluded any real investment.

Before that, the sale to the private sector of long-term leases on the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway allowed the government sellers to redeploy some of the proceeds into new facilities, but no new resources were mobilized.

These instances notwithstanding, for the most part we have avoided what Adam Smith described as one of three duties of government, “the erection and maintenance of the public works which facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours” and the like. (The Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Ch. 1, Part 3)

Public works infrastructure, like a home, represents a commitment to the future.  We use  resources we have now to create something that we imagine will bring us benefits tomorrow.  For infrastructure, as for homes, we expect “tomorrow” to extend for decades.

An easily understood and accepted but nevertheless fundamental principle for making such investments is that we should get more benefits out of the infrastructure than the resources we have to put in for construction and and operation.  Putting the principle into practice, however, deciding exactly what resources we should invest and how, is not such a simple matter.  The future is uncertain.  People’s priorities change.  Our money, time, land, and other resources are limited.  We have many competing demands for using those resources.

So  it is not obvious if future benefits will be greater than the costs of a particular infrastructure investment. We need tools to help us decide.

One of the most widely used tools is “discounted cash flow” (DCF) analysis.  DCF is a way to compare costs incurred and benefits received over some defined time period to judge whether the total benefits exceed the total costs.

Essential to DCF analysis is the idea of a “time value of money,”  that everyone would prefer to have a dollar in hand today rather than waiting until next year for the same amount. We might be willing to wait if we were going to receive a larger amount, say $1.15. The idea is that funds to be received in the future are worth less than funds in hand today.

The measure of money’s time value is the “discount rate,” conventionally the percentage reduction in value per year of waiting.  In the example above, the discount rate is 15%.

Discount rates look a lot like interest rates, the rate to be paid for a home mortgage, for instance, the rate that what banks charge for credit-card loans, or what bondholders receive for lending their money to a corporation. In fact, there is not much difference, except that interest  rates really apply to money only.

Discounting is applied to many benefits and costs to which we assign monetary values. For example, we discount the value of time commuters will save over the next 15 years to a supposedly equivalent present amount to justify building the extra highway lanes that we expect will speed travel.

When the discount rate is larger, investments not likely to yield returns until many years after resources are invested look less attractive.  When the rate is smaller, future returns look more valuable in the present.  Most of the time, the very long time periods over which we expect to realize the benefits of physical infrastructure–three to five decades and longer–do not count for much in the economic analysis because the discounted present values are low. Given a choice between a short-lived but high-benefit investment (attracting a major sports event, for example) and a steady but lower annual return over many years (a new rail transit line, perhaps), high discount rates favor the former.

Very low interest or discount rates should then encourage investment in infrastructure.  For a variety of reasons, U. S. interest rates have been at historic lows for several years. In addition, expressions of public concern and even occasional outrage over potholes, broken water mains, sewage spills, and closed bridges appear with some regularity in the news media and blogosphere.

So, once again, why are we not seeing an explosion of infrastructure investment?

People are thinking about infrastructure as if there will be no tomorrow.  Interest rates may be low, but the discount rates people are using–subliminally–to assess their investment opportunities, are a lot higher.

People who study such matters suggest that rates have three components.  The first component is in fact a financial market interest rate representing the payments that presumably very reliable borrowers—governments and their central banks, for example—must make for the privilege of using other people’s money.  The second component represents a premium presumed to compensate for a possibly less reliable borrower and what risks the lender potentially faces related to the conditions of lending, such as the length of time until the loan is to be repaid and whether the lender has offered any security—the house in the case of a mortgage loan, for example.  The third component is meant to account for the uncertainty of future events and the risk that events will make it  impossible for the lender to recover fully the amount lent.

So if the public loses confidence that people responsible for infrastructure are not likely to be reliable stewards over the coming decades, they will insist on higher rates of return, discount rates. If they feel that the future is less certain to be like the conditions of the past, they will look for a higher discount rate. Sea levels rising, financial crises, political gridlock: higher discount rates demanded.

But we do not have to be paralyzed by such uncertainties. The creators of Iran’s qanats that still supply municipal and agricultural water after nearly 3 millennia, China’s Great Wall, Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, and even such recent works as the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge would not have persisted without a vision that they were building for a long-term future.  We should not discount so deeply our own future.

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