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Why the developing world needs a bigger pandemic response



In a crisis, it pays to be wealthy. The response of the developed world to the devastation of their economies by coronavirus has been to throw money at the problem. The IMF estimates that the combined fiscal and monetary stimulus delivered by advanced economies has been equal to 20 per cent of their gross domestic product.

Middle income countries in the developing world have been able to do less but they still put together a combined response equal to 6 or 7 per cent of GDP, according to the IMF.

For the poorest countries, however, the reaction has been much more modest. Together they injected spending equal to just 2 per cent of their much smaller national output in reaction to the pandemic. That has left their economies much more vulnerable to a prolonged slump, potentially pushing millions of people into poverty.

Right from the start of the crisis, the IMF and other international institutions have warned in stark terms about the threat that the pandemic presented to the world’s poorest countries.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF managing director, has said emerging market and developing countries will need ‘trillions of dollars’ in financing to deal with the pandemic © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

In April, Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF managing director, said the external financing needs of emerging market and developing countries would be in “the trillions of dollars”.

But the response from the international community so far has been more muted. The IMF itself has lent $100bn in emergency loans. The World Bank has set aside $160bn to lend over 15 months — while estimating that low and middle-income countries will need between $175bn and $700bn a year.

The only co-ordinated innovation has been a debt service suspension initiative unveiled in April by the G20 group of the world’s largest economies. The DSSI allowed 73 of the world’s poorest countries to postpone repayments.

“In this crisis, there has been no co-ordinated, messaged response,” says Douglas Rediker, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former US executive director on the board of the IMF. “The international architecture that was created in a different era is struggling to adapt.”

Covid-19 reverses the profile of systemic risk in emerging markets. Chart showing the number of emerging market economies at each level of risk of fiscal crisis

The situation is getting more urgent as the pain from the pandemic crisis starts to be felt. Zambia this week became the sixth developing country to default or restructure debts in 2020 and more are expected as the economic cost of the virus mounts — even amid the good news about potential vaccines.

Some observers think that even large developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, which are both in the G20 group of large nations, could face severe challenges in obtaining finance in the coming 12 to 24 months.

But there is also potential that the international institutions will begin to step up their response to the developing world. The first opportunity is a meeting this weekend of the G20, where leaders will be buoyed by the prospect of vaccines bringing their own crises to an end.

Pandemic pain: A masked woman in Zambia. The southern African country this week became the sixth developing country to default or restructure debts in 2020 © Emmanuel Mwiche/AP
Even large developing countries such as Brazil face severe challenges in obtaining financing over the next few years © Rebeca Figueiredo/Getty

They are expected to approve a “common framework” on debt treatment for poor countries, moving beyond immediate cash flow problems to address longer-term debt sustainability.

Mohammed al-Jadaan, finance minister of Saudi Arabia, which holds the G20 presidency this year, says the framework offers a “tool for structural reform” to help heavily indebted low-income countries break the cycle of unsustainable borrowing, as relief will be linked to IMF programmes.

The other factor is US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, which many observers believe will be more supportive of multilateralism than was the case under President Donald Trump.

One result could be a revival of a proposal for the IMF to issue special drawing rights — an international reserve asset. SDRs can be used to deliver cash injections that some officials and economists believe is the silver bullet that could limit the economic pain in the developing world.

“The SDRs idea will come back to life under Biden,” says Tim Adams, chief executive of the Institute of International Finance. “There will be a fresh set of eyes and a willingness to look at anything and everything that might work.”

Little sign of trickle-down

If so, it would mark a break with the recent past. In contrast with the co-ordinated action among the G20 during the global financial crisis a decade ago, much of the rich world has spent this crisis looking after its own.

Some of their spending has trickled down to poor countries. The US Federal Reserve and other advanced economy central banks have pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets, buoying up demand for risky assets. As a consequence, middle-income and some low-income countries were able to borrow $145bn by issuing dollar-denominated sovereign bonds between January and September, according to the IIF.

Ms Georgieva said such actions had “an incredibly high significance” in reducing uncertainty. “While there has been criticism that there hasn’t been the same level of pronouncements by heads of state as there was during the global financial crisis, the mechanism of co-operation of finance ministry and central bank authorities has proven to be durable and is paying back,” she said.

Nevertheless, many developing countries remain shut out of bond markets by high interest rates. No country in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has issued international bonds since the crisis began.

Other countries have used the available short-term liquidity to finance an immediate response, storing up potentially severe problems ahead. Brazil launched a generous income-transfer programme which it has had to rein in because of budget constraints, and borrowed heavily to fund it by issuing short-term domestic bonds that offer cheap finance but must be repaid quickly.

“Brazil and South Africa face the kind of problem that other emerging markets will slowly encounter — a big fiscal problem killing growth,” says Bhanu Baweja, chief strategist at investment bank UBS.

President-elect Joe Biden and US vice president-elect Kamala Harris meet virtually with business and labour leaders © Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

The G20’s flagship response to the crisis, the DSSI, only addresses a part of the problem. The initiative allowed 73 of the world’s poorest countries to postpone repayments due until December this year on official bilateral loans from G20 governments and their policy banks — though the debts must still be met in full, with repayments spread over four years. Last month, the DSSI was extended to June 2021, with repayments spread over six years.

Forty-six debtor countries took up the offer this year, deferring about $5bn in repayments. That is a quarter of the amount projected by the G20 when the initiative was announced in April and less than a tenth of the increase in the external borrowing needs of the eligible countries this year as a consequence of the pandemic, according to the IMF.

Last week, the G20 agreed to go further. Its proposed common framework, to be approved at this weekend’s summit, is an advance on the DSSI, which can offer short-term relief up to the amount of debt falling due during the period but does not take into account a country’s ability to pay.

The common framework aims to address this by assessing whether a country’s debts are sustainable, by signing it up to an IMF programme, and by involving both official bilateral creditors — governments and their policy banks — and commercial creditors — banks, bondholders, commodity traders and others.

If successful, it will solve a big shortcoming of the DSSI, widely criticised for failing to deliver relief from commercial lenders, which the scheme called on to participate on comparable terms with bilateral creditors if asked to do so by debtor countries.

Debtor countries have been reluctant to make that request. According to the IMF, just three countries had approached commercial lenders by the end of September, with no agreements reached. Not a single request for relief has been made to bondholders under the DSSI.

Covid-19 is expected to reverse progress in reducing poverty by at least three years. Chart showing Nowcast of the global poverty rate at the $1.90-a-day poverty line (%)

The reason is that many indebted countries have spent years enacting the kind of reforms mandated by the IMF and by investors, for which part of the reward is access to international bond markets. They are reluctant to give up that lifeline. Asking bondholders to delay payments would constitute a default and risk locking them out of bond markets for years.

Pakistan, the first country to ask for relief under the DSSI, said it would not ask for private sector involvement and that, if bilateral relief were made conditional on securing commercial relief, it would reconsider its request.

As a means of securing relief from the private sector, then, the DSSI was a non-starter. Critics say this reveals the lack of co-ordination among the parties involved, including the G20, the Paris Club group of creditor nations, the IMF and the World Bank.

“Part of the problem was not knowing who was in charge,” says one senior official involved in negotiations over the initiative that continued beyond its launch. “There were so many different entities trying to steer things and they were literally not talking to each other.”

A queue for free food during the coronavirus lockdown in Multan, Pakistan © Faisal Kareem/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Protective umbrella: Ecuador was one of the first countries to secure a post-Covid debt deal © Dolories Ochoa/AP

Sino-US tensions

The discussions over how to respond to the crisis have also been affected by the growing rivalry between the US and China.

China has emerged this century as the biggest bilateral lender to many developing countries, providing nearly $150bn to governments and state-owned companies in Africa, for example, as it sought to secure commodity supplies and win contracts for infrastructure projects.

Beijing has been criticised for a lack of transparency in its loans, made by a variety of state and quasi-state lenders on both concessionary and commercial terms, and for failing to participate fully in the DSSI.

Among its most vocal critics is David Malpass, president of the World Bank. He said last month that it was “frustrating” that China was not participating more fully, and that its lenders charged higher interest rates than others with “very little transparency” in their loan contracts.

China has rejected such criticism. Its foreign ministry said last month it was “actively committed to fully implementing” the DSSI.

David Malpass, president of the World Bank, has criticised China for not participating more fully in the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative © Bloomberg
Beijing has contributed $1.9bn out of $5.3bn of relief delivered by the DSSI this year according to an internal G20 document seen by the FT

In fact, China has contributed $1.9bn out of $5.3bn of relief delivered by the DSSI this year according to an internal G20 document seen by the FT, much more than any other country. Three of its lenders are understood to have renegotiated a further $6.7bn of repayments due from Angola.

Critics say the comments made by Mr Malpass — nominated by Mr Trump for the World Bank job and seen as a Trump loyalist — were designed for consumption in Washington and have been unhelpful at a time when China, by co-operating on debt at the G20, is edging towards greater multilateral engagement than has been its habit in the past. 

One senior European official says an aversion to multilateralism under Mr Trump meant the World Bank is co-operating less with other institutions. “It is quite hard to work with the World Bank at the moment,” the official says, expressing annoyance at Mr Malpass’s comments.

Enforcing measures

Even if there is frustration at the slow progress so far, some observers believe that the political support for more substantial measures is improving.

The G20 summit to be held online this weekend is one chance to build momentum. Mr Jadaan, the Saudi finance minister, says the common framework is a “historic step towards bringing the world together, to look at its less fortunate segments and help them in the medium and long term. It’s not only the debt, it’s the root cause you need to look at.”

Mr Rediker at the Brookings Institution agrees that the meeting marks a significant moment. “It is a big step to get China to sign up to a common framework, make no mistake,” he says.

But he has reservations about how effective it will be. “You still end up with the member countries and the private sector having to enforce it, and there will be costs in doing so,” he adds.

Vera Songwe, UN under-secretary general and head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, says sub-Saharan Africa alone will need $100bn a year for the next three years. ‘Otherwise, we are heading for debt default on a scale never seen.’ © Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Vera Songwe, UN under-secretary general and head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, says the last thing developing countries need is enforced private-sector involvement in debt relief.

“A common debt framework that confounds public concessional borrowing with commercial market access would undermine Africa’s recovery,” she says.

Instead, low- and middle-income countries need concessional lending and grants — sub-Saharan Africa alone will need $100bn a year for the next three years, she said. “Otherwise, we are heading for debt default on a scale never seen.”

Uneca is one of several organisations and individuals backing the call for a new issue of SDRs by the IMF. Others include the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the People’s Bank of China, European and African heads of state and a host of debt and poverty campaigners, along with the IMF itself.

The appeal of SDRs for developing countries is that they fill a gap in the toolkit available to advanced economies: money creation. While advanced economies have been able effectively to print money by buying their own bonds in a world of low or negative interest rates, most developing countries cannot do that without risking instability, inflation and worse.

SDRs, a form of virtual currency, promise an immediate cash injection with none of the conditionality attached to IMF programmes. The IMF has issued them in past crises and proponents say it should do so now. But the proposal was vetoed by the US in April on the basis that it would benefit rich countries more than poor ones, although critics suggest the US was motivated by an unwillingness to see funds going to rivals such as China and Iran.

For many, the issuance of SDRs is the biggest single test of global co-operation in the crisis. 

“SDRs mean giving unconditional liquidity to developing countries,” says Stephanie Blankenburg, head of debt and development finance at Unctad. “If advanced economies can’t agree on that, then the whole multilateral system is pretty much bankrupt.”

The hope in such quarters is that the incoming administration in the US will deliver on its promise of greater engagement in world affairs and that the issue of SDRs will be reopened for discussion. 

Even with increased support, however, the IIF’s Mr Adams warns against complacency.

“Even before Covid, the world was in the midst of a great wave of debt,” he says. “We are going to need sober, thoughtful leadership in how we manage those debts going forward. At the technical level there are a lot of enlightened people in position, but will we have the political leadership? I don’t know. I hope so.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England

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‘Their hair is on fire’: Trump fans await return to political stage




On his final day in the White House last month, Donald Trump told a small crowd of supporters at Joint Base Andrews, the military airport, that he had no intention of leaving the stage quietly.

“I will always fight for you, I will be watching,” the outgoing president said before boarding Air Force One for the last time. “We will be back in some form . . . we will see you soon.”

Now the 45th US president is set to make a splashy return to the fray on Sunday with a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of Republican politicians and media personalities that has become a kind of rock festival for rightwing activists, especially college students.

Ford O’Connell, a Trump supporter and former Republican congressional candidate, said attendees were “dying” to hear from Trump, whom he described as the “leader of the Republican party, even if he is not in office in the traditional sense”.

“These folks are unhappy about how the 2020 elections turned out, but their hair is on fire after a month-and-a-half of the Biden administration,” O’Connell said.

“What they want to hear from Trump is: how do you move forward in 2022 and 2024,” he added, referring to the midterm elections in two years and the next presidential contest.

Trump’s speech will end an unprecedented stretch of near silence for the former reality TV star, who built his political career on regular cable television appearances and constant tweeting. After leaving Washington, he took off for Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and has stayed there since, playing golf and shunning the spotlight.

Shorn of his ability to communicate with to his millions of supporters on Twitter and Facebook — which banned him for his role in the deadly January 6 siege on the US Capitol — Trump has made just two notable interventions: he called in to Fox News to eulogise the late rightwing radio host Rush Limbaugh, and released a blistering statement attacking Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate.

Advisers had encouraged Trump to keep a low profile during his impeachment trial, which ended this month with his acquittal.

Trump will be the final speaker at the four-day conference, which is being held in Orlando, Florida — a city that is just two-and-a-half hours drive from his home and that has looser Covid-19 restrictions than CPAC’s usual location of Washington, DC. The former president is expected to speak in person, although event organisers have not confirmed the details of his speech.

Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas © Getty Images
Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida © AP

The list of the other CPAC speakers reads like a who’s who of his fiercest defenders, including Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and Republican senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz — all of whom have been suggested as possible 2024 contenders that could carry Trump’s torch if he does not run again for president.

Trump has not ruled out another bid for the White House, despite mounting legal troubles, including criminal investigations in New York and Georgia.

His appearance at CPAC — an event dating back to a speech by Ronald Reagan in 1974 that has become increasing populist and Trump-centric in recent years — has also drawn attention to Republican party infighting.

Mike Pence, the former vice-president, who fell out of favour with Trump supporters after he certified Biden’s election win, is not attending the event. Nor is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who told Politico in an interview that ran earlier this month that Trump could not run for office again because “he’s fallen so far”.

The party’s divisions were laid bare in an awkward encounter on Capitol Hill this week, when reporters asked House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy whether Trump should be speaking at CPAC.

McCarthy replied, “Yes, he should,” before Liz Cheney, one of his deputies, interjected: “I’ve been clear in my views about President Trump . . . following January 6, I don’t believe he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”

After Cheney contradicted him, McCarthy abruptly ended the press conference, saying: “On that high note, thank you very much.”

Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who joined all House Democrats in voting to impeach Trump last month, and is among a handful of critics on Capitol Hill who have openly castigated the former president despite knowing they run the risk of losing the support of party voters.

While a few elected Republicans, like McConnell, have joined Cheney in rebuking the former president, CPAC will serve as a stark reminder of how popular he remains among party activists.

A Suffolk University poll out this week found 46 per cent of people who voted for Trump last November said they would abandon the GOP if the former president broke away and formed his party. Half of those polled said the Republican party should be “more loyal to Trump”, compared to one in five said the party should be less loyal.

Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that organises CPAC, told Fox News this week the Republican establishment should recognise that it must now cater to a much broader church; one made up by the old party faithful and the supporters that Trump brought into the fold with his “Make America Great Again” movement.

“It’s Republicans, it’s conservatives — who are this big, big minority in this country — and then it is these new MAGA supporters,” Schlapp said. “This is now a coalition.”

But more moderate Republicans warn that by sticking with Trump, the party will never be able to win back the centrist conservative and independent voters who abandoned the party at the ballot box in November.

“It is important to remember there is a whole other wing of the party, and virtually no one from that . . . wing is being represented at CPAC,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster. “It is a gathering of the most conservative and some of the most active members of the Republican party, but it represents only a portion of the party.”

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McKinsey partners sacrifice leader in ‘ritual cleansing’




The news this week that Kevin Sneader would be McKinsey’s first global managing partner since 1976 not to win a second three-year term stunned many of the consultancy’s partners and influential alumni. 

Few could point to any one mis-step that had felled the 54-year-old Scot. “It added up,” one veteran said simply of the litany of reputational crises he had tried to resolve. 

But nor did many think that Sven Smit or Bob Sternfels, who beat Sneader to the last round of voting, would represent a cleaner break with the past — or that whoever won the final vote in the next few weeks would face an easier task than he had. 

Within days of taking over in 2018, Sneader flew to South Africa to apologise for failures that had embroiled the firm in a corruption scandal. “We came across as arrogant or unaccountable,” he admitted in a speech that began with the word “sorry”.

That set the tone for a tenure defined by the need to make up for other crises that largely predated his promotion, from damaging headlines about McKinsey’s contracts in authoritarian countries to US states’ lawsuits over its work to boost sales of highly addictive opioids

Speaking to the Financial Times less than two weeks before senior partners voted him out, Sneader said he had focused on making the private firm more transparent, more selective about which clients it took on and better structured to avoid surprises in a global group whose rapid growth had made it more complicated. 

According to people who witnessed those efforts, though, pushing them through consumed much of the political capital Sneader needed to win re-election. For some, particularly younger staff, his reforms did not go far enough. For an older group more prominent among the 650 senior partners who vote on their leadership every three years, they went too far.

Kevin Sneader’s failure to win a second three-year term as McKinsey’s global managing partner has stunned many at the consultancy © Charlie Bibby/FT

Sneader’s downfall looked like a case of “the partners not wanting to take the medicine”, one former partner said. Another argued that Sneader’s push for more oversight over partners who prized their freedom had made the firm “too corporate”, while some Sneader allies saw the “protest vote” as a rejection of his reforms rather than a clear mandate for Smit or Sternfels. 

Sneader was not helped by the timing of this month’s $574m opioid settlement with 49 US states, added Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who said that consultants outside the US did not understand why he agreed to the payout.

Sneader might have been able to reassure them in person, but with McKinsey’s frequent-flyers grounded by a pandemic, “there are limits to what you can do with Zoom”.

‘In business, as in poker, there is uncertainty’

Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals, said one question now was whether the vote against Sneader was “a ritual sacrifice to appease the bad PR” or a sign that McKinsey’s partners were willing to take more radical action. 

The run-off between Sternfels and Smit may not resolve that issue, say people who know them both, who note that they are of a similar age to Sneader and members of the leadership council that signed off on his reforms. 

Sternfels, a California-born Rhodes scholar who joined McKinsey in 1994, was the runner-up to Sneader in 2018. As head of “client capabilities”, he has a role akin to that of a chief operating officer and is closely associated with the rapid expansion of the firm under Dominic Barton, Sneader’s predecessor. 

Based in San Francisco after six years in Johannesburg, the former college water polo player is known as an effective operator and, the second former partner says, “the guy who built the new business models”. 

But some of McKinsey’s newer activities have dragged him into controversies: last year, he was called to testify in litigation brought by the restructuring specialist Jay Alix — the founder of rival consultancy AlixPartners — over McKinsey’s disclosures while advising clients in bankruptcy. 

When a frustrated judge asked whether he was dealing with “a group of people who are so educated, so arrogant, that they just can’t admit that they’re wrong”, Sternfels apologised, insisting that “we try and not foster arrogance”. 

Smit, who joined in 1992 and is based in Amsterdam, is known inside McKinsey as a more cerebral figure. Now co-chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute, the consultancy’s research arm, “there’s not a university campus he couldn’t parachute into and be received as one of the smartest people in the room,” Sonnenfeld said. 

The Dutch mechanical engineer earlier ran McKinsey’s western European operations and may attract less support from US peers, but the first former partner describes him as “the conscience of the firm”, who will say no to ideas with which he disagrees. The second thinks he may “take the firm back to more of an old-school McKinsey”.

Smit’s writing on topics from urbanisation to the future of work made him popular with clients and provided a glimpse into his thinking on strategy, which he likened in one report to poker. “In business, as in poker, there is uncertainty, and strategy is about how to deal with it. Accordingly, your goal is to give yourself the best possible odds,” he wrote.

Discontent runs deep

Whether the cards fall for Smit or Sternfels, colleagues past and present question whether either will reverse the reforms that seem to have triggered unrest about Sneader. 

“I don’t think Kevin had any choice but to centralise,” said one Sneader ally.

One of the former partners added: “What were the alternatives? It’s a large firm to govern and you do need structures.”

What the election result has already revealed, however, is that discontent with the state McKinsey finds itself in runs deeper than had been obvious outside the firm. 

Whichever candidate triumphs, they will need to listen seriously to the concerns of alumni, clients and policymakers and make clear that he plans meaningful cultural reforms, Empson says.

Sneader’s successor will also have to defy the odds in professional services firms, she adds. “Often with partnerships, when something goes wrong, they appoint someone else in reaction to the problem and that isn’t the solution either and they cycle through another round of leaders quickly,” she says: “It’s almost as though they have to go through this ritual cleansing.” 

McKinsey, which does not disclose its financial performance, earned annual revenues of $10.5bn in 2019 by Forbes’ estimate. Sonnenfeld points to the irony that the firm, which charges a premium for its services, has stumbled in this way.

“It’s odd that McKinsey doesn’t create the kind of leadership that would thrive in a crisis,” he reflected. Before the succession process starts again in 2024, “they need to go into overdrive on leadership development”.

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Investors look to Sunak for clarity on new UK infrastructure bank




Ever since chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the setting up of a UK government infrastructure bank last autumn, investors have wondered what its role will be. Next week, in the Budget, they will get the answer.

The Treasury has only said it will focus on supporting new technologies that are too risky for private finance and would contribute to meeting the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. As examples, it gave carbon capture technology and the rollout of a nationwide network of electrical vehicle charging points. 

The selection process has just begun for a part-time chair, working two to three days a week, and it is scheduled to open on an interim basis on April 1.

The bank’s creation has prompted a debate about how infrastructure should be funded in the UK, at a time when the government’s finances are stretched and customers are likely to resist tax or bill increases, the means by which many sectors — such as ports, airports, energy, telecoms, water, and electricity — are funded. 

Many of these assets in England are owned by sovereign wealth, pension and private equity funds, and regulated by arm’s length bodies, under one of the most privatised infrastructure systems in the world.

The government’s finances have been stretched by the coronavirus pandemic, limiting funds for infrastructure projects such as rail © Niklas Halle’n/AFP

Dieter Helm, a utilities specialist at Oxford university, said the bank was “a good idea but it needs scale — a balance sheet and capital funding from the state, in which case you’ve essentially created a new arm of the Treasury”.

“The question is whether this is going to be the primary vehicle through which the government implements infrastructure,” he said. 

John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, a government advisory body, suggested it needed an initial £20bn over five years to make an impact and reach projects the market might be unwilling to support.

The institution, which Sunak has said will be based in the north of England as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, will partly replace the low-cost finance provided by the European Investment Bank, which is no longer available since Brexit. But it is unclear if it will be able to match the €118bn the EIB has lent to the UK since 1973.

Sunak has promised that the government, which spends much less than most European states on infrastructure, will spend £600bn over the next five years. But ministers hope that more than half their national infrastructure plan will be paid for by the private sector. However, private finance is generally more expensive than government borrowing and requires taxpayers to underwrite the construction and financial risks.

Infrastructure spending (as a % of total government expenditure) for Netherlands, UK and Germany. Also a band showing the min and max for all 31 European countries

“The government wants the public to believe that the country can have this wall of private sector investment without higher bills and taxes now but investors will only come if the government will guarantee they will receive a return and it acts as a backstop,” Helm said.

Dissatisfaction with UK infrastructure has been widespread for years: a CBI/Aecom survey in 2017 found that nearly three quarters of businesses were unhappy with facilities in their region.

The lockdowns have taken a heavy toll, for example forcing the renationalisation of rail services. At the same time the Eurostar train service, airports and airlines have called for taxpayer bailouts, while the government is also paying for some households’ broadband.

Although the prime minister has in the past year given the go-ahead to some rail and road schemes, including a tunnel under Stonehenge, other projects — including £1bn of rail improvements — have been axed. 

A road tunnel under Stonehenge is one of the infrastructure projects given the go-ahead © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Meanwhile, local authorities — which are responsible for urban roads and other key infrastructure — have been forced to shift their limited financial resources to care for the elderly and vulnerable during the pandemic and so want more central government help.

Despite this growing demand, some investors have questioned the need for the new bank, even though they are popular elsewhere — such as Canada, which established one in 2017. 

“Given there is at least $200bn of international capital looking for projects in which they can invest, the government has to be careful it doesn’t just crowd out existing finance,” said Lawrence Slade, chief executive of the Global infrastructure Investor Association, which represents private sector investors.

He argued the new bank, which will take over the government’s guarantee scheme, should only take on projects that are “too risky” for institutional investors, pointing out that the Canada Infrastructure Bank was mandated to lose up to C$15bn (£8.45bn) over 10 years. “It’s not yet clear what question the new infrastructure bank is trying to answer,” he said.

Ted Frith, chief operating officer of GLIL Infrastructure, a £2.3bn fund backed by UK pension funds, said the EIB loaned money at competitive rates to projects that also borrowed from capital markets. “This is a global market and there are plenty of alternative sources of finance to replace the EIB,” he said. However, he added that the infrastructure bank could play a role in addressing the shortage of available projects.

While investors will put equity into existing or smaller infrastructure projects — such as an airport extension or a wind farm — they are wary of new projects, according to Richard Abadie, head of infrastructure at consultancy PwC, because the latter carry long term construction risks and do not provide an income stream for several years.

“The NIB can play a role de-risking projects but the main challenge is how we can afford and manage the cost of energy transition, not whether finance is available to bridge the cost,” he said.

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