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Hoped-for global public investment boom may offer road to nowhere

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On the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the motorway from Honbetsu to Ashoro is engineered to the highest standards: fully separated intersections, a hard shoulder and stretches of dual carriageway for overtaking. All it lacks is vehicles.

Intended as the first stage of a highway reaching almost to the Sea of Okhotsk, the 13.2km stretch is used by about 1,300 vehicles a day, similar to a main road in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

The motorway marks the apex of Japan’s massive programme of public works in the 1990s and early 2000s — and as pressure mounts on other countries around the world to embark on major spending drives to combat the economic impact of coronavirus, it also offers a lesson in what can go wrong.

Last month the IMF urged advanced economies to spend big and quick on simple capital projects to boost demand and jobs, and then plan longer-term digital and green technology infrastructure to increase the future scope for growth. And governments should worry less about rising public debt, it said; higher growth would make it more sustainable.

It appears the message is being heard: US president-elect Joe Biden has pledged to “build, back, better” and the EU has promised “the largest stimulus package ever” with its planned €1.8tn budget and recovery fund.

But the lesson they should draw from Japan’s public spending is nuanced.

In the decade after the bursting of its financial bubble in 1990, Japan wrestled with sluggish demand and declining interest rates and fought back with public works.

Those projects left a legacy of concrete and easily-financed public debt — but they revived neither growth nor inflation.

“People thought there was a temporary fall in demand because of the bursting of the bubble and through economic stimulus they’d be able to get back to 5 per cent growth,” said Toshihiro Ihori, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, and an expert on Japanese fiscal policy.

“There were short-term results but it didn’t produce a lasting revival.”

The Doto Expressway in Honbetsu Town, Hokkaido. The underused motorway marks the apex of Japan’s massive programme of public works in the 1990s and early 2000s. © Yasu/Wikimedia

Veterans of the era point to a number of reasons for the failure. The spending packages were intermittent and seldom matched their headline size. Pork-barrel politics sent cash to the least productive projects in rural areas. Meanwhile the bad debt crisis in Japan’s banks festered, and the underlying pace of population and productivity growth continued to slow.

The question for any country now tempted to launch its own spending campaign is whether Japan made errors that can be learned from, or whether efforts at fiscal stimulus in a democratic system inevitably get channelled into less productive uses.

The broad academic consensus is that spending did stimulate the economy, said Prof Ihori. “Most of the applied work finds that the multiplier was a bit greater than one,” he said. The fiscal multiplier measures how much a unit of fiscal stimulus increases output. “With public works the multiplier is one almost by definition.”

FT Series: Lessons From Japan

As developed economies struggle to recover from the pandemic, what lessons can be learnt from Japan, which has been battling low growth and interest rates for decades?

November 23: Fearing prolonged stagnation, governments are looking to Tokyo’s experience

November 24: Adam Posen: ‘When Japanese policy turned round, so did the economy

November 25: Can a Japan-style public investment boom save the global economy?

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November 26: What ‘Mrs Watanabe’ can tell investors about how to cope with low returns

November 27: Living with stagnation — the experience of Japanese youth

But it did not spur a notable recovery in the private economy. Consumption rose a little but private investment went down and politicians periodically became alarmed about the budget deficit.

Meanwhile the efficiency of Japan’s public works packages declined — some of the new infrastructure was sparsely used and struggled to pay for itself with user charges, leading to complaints about “bridges to nowhere” and gratuitous concreting of the countryside.

Some of the money that went into construction may have been better spent on education or support for families, which might have relieved Japan’s declining birth rate.

Line chart of Government expenditure on investment (gross fixed capital formation), as a % of GDP showing Japan turned to public investment to stimulate the economy

What is important, said Randall Kroszner, former Federal Reserve governor and now deputy dean of the University of Chicago’s business school, is “getting the most bang for your buck” in terms of raising productivity. It is a mistake to assume that building infrastructure will ensure future growth, he said: “Japan illustrates that doesn’t work.”

On the face of it the EU, which has its own bridges and airports to nowhere, has heeded the lesson. It wants member states to use its new €750bn recovery fund to promote energy efficiency, low-carbon technologies and digital skills.

Line chart of General government net lending/borrowing as % of GDP showing Japn's fiscal balance generally lower than peers since the 1990s

Infrastructure needs vary widely across the bloc; Germany and Italy, which ran tight budgets for a decade, need to invest in transport and broadband connections. By contrast Spain, the European economy hardest hit by the pandemic, has among the best high-speed rail, broadband and road networks on the continent.

But, said Alicia García Herrero, economist at Natixis and senior fellow at think-tank Bruegel, spending to raise productivity requires long-term planning which runs counter to the need for speed. She feared that European governments would turn to infrastructure investment because it is what they know well after decades of EU cohesion programmes.

A Spanish high-speed train heads towards Madrid. Spain’s strong transport network means its economy would not benefit as much from fresh infrastructure spending. © Getty Images

Instead, governments should focus on supporting incomes and small businesses, she said: “This is a demand shock. No bridges are being destroyed. This is not a war. You don’t need to build more.”

The main lesson from Japan’s public works drive is that, eventually, Japan abandoned it.

But the lure of grand projects continued to be almost irresistible to politicians. In recent years under then-prime minister Shinzo Abe public works made a comeback, including the $85bn plan to build a maglev train from Tokyo to Osaka.

Across Europe and the US, this history shows how difficult it is for politics to stay focused on government investment that has the best return — rather than concrete, which is rapidly visible to the electorate. 



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Analysis

Investors look to Sunak for clarity on new UK infrastructure bank

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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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H&M experiments as it refashions stores after the pandemic

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The Hennes & Mauritz flagship store on Stockholm’s main square is trying to break the mould. A woman sewing a patch on to trousers, party dresses for hire, a beauty salon and a personal shopping service is not standard fare for most fast-fashion outlets.

But it could be a taste of things to come as H&M, the world’s second-largest clothes retailer, works out what to do with its vast network of 5,000 stores after a pandemic that has increasingly pushed shoppers online. The Swedish chain is not just looking at services such as renting and repairing clothes, but on whether its shops can play a role in the logistics of online selling.

For Helena Helmersson, appointed last year as the first H&M chief executive outside the company’s founding Persson family, it is all about boosting relationships and engagement with customers.

“The physical store network that we have is one of our strengths. It’s the different roles the stores can play, the different formats. What kind of experiences are there in a store? Could they be part of an online supply chain? There are so many things to explore . . . it’s almost thrilling,” she told the Financial Times.

Helmersson, 47, has had a tough first year as chief executive. At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, four-fifths of H&M’s physical stores were closed and a big push online was unable to offset the hit. Sales fell a fifth in H&M’s financial year until the end of November to SKr187bn ($22.6bn), while pre-tax profits plunged 88 per cent to SKr1.2bn, interrupting a nascent recovery after years of decline.

Line chart of Ebit margins (%) showing H&M has lagged behind Inditex's profitability

Sales plunged in March and April, before rebounding strongly in the summer, and then getting hit again around Christmas.

But as the pandemic has forced H&M into speedier decision-making and increased flexibility and with Helmersson forecasting a wave of pent-up demand when Covid-19 comes under control, the chief executive is emboldened to say: “Overall, we will come out of the pandemic stronger.”

Boarded up H&M store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, in April 2020
With four-fifths of H&M’s stores closed at the height of the first wave, pre-tax profits plunged 88 per cent © Ariana Lindquist/Bloomberg

Anne Critchlow, analyst at Société Générale, said that relatively small increases in sales at H&M could lead to bigger rises in profits. “Potential recovery is part of the attraction of H&M to investors at the moment: it’s very highly operationally geared. H&M should be the fastest to recover,” she added.

But she argued that Inditex, the Spanish owner of Zara that overtook H&M as the world’s biggest fashion retailer by sales a decade ago, was a “better quality company”, and that the Swedish group may be a “bit slower” at returning to its pre-pandemic profit levels as some customers steer clear of its stores.

H&M’s shares fell consistently from 2015 to 2018, before largely treading water since then, although they have climbed 50 per cent since their Covid-19 low in March last year.

Helmersson, a H&M lifer who joined the retailer in 1997 as an economist, said she started to see “light at the end of the tunnel” after a “very demanding” period. “I have super-high expectations on myself. Adding a crisis on top of that, it’s been a really tough year.”

Now, however, her focus is moving to a critical question for H&M: “Where do we need to move faster?”

Line chart of Total sales growth (%) showing H&M's sales have kept pace with Inditex

Despite being in fast fashion, critics said H&M had become slow, outpaced by nimbler Inditex and online retailers such as Zalando and Asos. Inditex could get new clothes to Zara stores in weeks from nearby manufacturing sites in Europe while H&M, with more sourcing in Asia, took longer. Opening new stores gave the Swedish group an easy path to sales growth but did not help its profit margins, which have been declining consistently for the past decade.

Helmersson said H&M took “really, really fast decisions” at the start of the pandemic on how it bought garments, worked with its supply chain, and moved to selling more online. She pointed to how technology allowed designers, suppliers and the production office to work together at the same time to produce new clothes, rather than waiting for one to send a garment to another.

H&M’s rental service at a store in Stockholm, Sweden
It is ‘difficult to gauge how big’ trials such as clothes rental could become, said the H&M chief © DAVID THUNANDER

“It sounds really basic but if you do that in many processes you can be much faster. You also have data to give you more customer insight, which means you can act much quicker,” she said, adding that accessories can now go from conception to store in a few weeks, T-shirts in six weeks, and trousers in eight.

H&M is also trying to increase its speed on sustainability, bringing in a target of using 30 per cent recycled materials by 2025. Critchlow said that the group was leading the industry in its attempts to become circular, although many voice concerns over how much fast-fashion groups encourage excess consumption. Strong investor demand this month led to H&M reducing the interest rate for its maiden sustainability-linked bond, which was 7.6 times oversubscribed

Line chart of Share prices rebased showing Inditex has outperformed its rival over the past decade

Helmersson, a former head of sustainability at H&M, said that the hardest task for the retailer was decoupling its growth from its use of natural resources. She added that the trials in repairing and renting clothes as well as selling second-hand garments through the website Sellpy, in which H&M is the majority owner, were important but difficult to gauge how big they could become. “We have such a size that we can to some extent influence customer behaviour. But we will also see how willing they are,” she added.

Critchlow said H&M deserved “full credit” for the trials but that they were unlikely to lead to soaring profit margins. She added that the crucial questions were how fast H&M returned to pre-pandemic sales and profit levels and whether it could go further. “It requires H&M to manage the costs of the stores,” she said, adding that renegotiated leases during the pandemic had only helped a little.

There is also a debate about how much increasing online sales — expected to rise from 28 per cent of H&M’s total last year to about 43 per cent in 2025, according to Critchlow — help given that they come with additional costs such as delivery and returns as well as in logistics.

Helmersson is unbowed, arguing that H&M will offer multiple ways for customers to engage with the retailer through various store formats offering different services, online, and its own club. “The customer journey is constantly evolving,” she said. “We will follow, and influence. Before, it was about transactions, now it’s about relationships with customers.”



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How vaccine laggard CureVac hopes to come out on top

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Fifteen years ago, after an hour-long meeting in the basement of a Paris hotel, Bill Gates agreed to back a German entrepreneur who claimed a new class of drug would revolutionise the fight against infectious diseases.

When Covid-19 shook the world last year, CureVac — the company built by Ingmar Hoerr with the help of the Microsoft founder’s money — seemed perfectly positioned to make good on that investment and produce a “best-in-class” vaccine.

It could be ready “by the autumn”, predicted European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

But while local rival BioNTech and US competitor Moderna brought to market vaccines using similar messenger RNA technology in less than a year, CureVac’s product is lagging up to six months behind.

Ingmar Hoerr, founder of CureVac © Imago images/ULMER Pressebildage

This is the story of how one of the most promising vaccine makers is trying to get back on track after development delays, the brain haemorrhage of its founder and a bizarre — possibly fictional — attempt by the White House to steal the company away from Germany.

‘America first’ again?

Following a meeting with pharma executives at the White House in early March, German media reported that the Trump administration had sought to lure the company, which also has a Boston base, to the US and secure its vaccine exclusively for Americans.

The news led to an uproar in Berlin, especially after billionaire Dietmar Hopp, CureVac’s lead investor, seemed to verify the reports in a magazine interview. 

Days later, CureVac’s American chief executive Daniel Menichella abruptly left the company, even though the biotech denied an official approach by the US government had ever taken place. The Trump administration also rubbished the reports — in one of the few public rebuttals by the former president’s staff against a reported “America first” policy stance.

Dietmar Hopp, lead investor of CureVac © Getty Images

Amid the turmoil, Hoerr, the company’s founder who had just taken over from Menichella as chief executive, suffered a brain haemorrhage in a hotel room, and relinquished the role again.

Venture capitalist Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, who sits on CureVac’s board, told the Financial Times that the Trump tale was probably “made up” by people leaping to conclusions about the presence of a German company at a US government event. 

But the reports were enough to spook European leaders. On March 16, von der Leyen spoke to CureVac’s management via video conference, and then publicly offered the 20-year-old company an €80m loan “to quickly scale up development and production of a vaccine”. 

By mid-June the German government had chosen to invest €300m in CureVac, for a 23 per cent stake, ahead of its flotation on the Nasdaq in August. Economy minister Peter Altmaier left little doubt as to Berlin’s motives: “Germany is not for sale, we don’t sell our silverware,” he told reporters.

Former US vice-president Mike Pence, centre, meets drugmakers last March © Eric Baradat/ Getty Images

Suggestions that CureVac’s investors may have spread the Trump tale to engineer a response from Angela Merkel’s government were strongly denied by people close to the company.

“It was not the plan to get German public money,” said von Bohlen, who first invested in the nascent company in 2004, and whose holding company, Dievini Hopp, created with Hopp, still owns half of CureVac. 

In any case, the company was unlikely to up sticks. When Hopp, a co-founder of tech group SAP, first agreed to invest roughly €2m in CureVac in 2005, he wanted to “make sure that we build infrastructure and new jobs here in Germany”, von Bohlen recalled.

Waiting for data

There was some rationale behind the German government’s investment, however. CureVac, which was developing a rabies vaccine when the Covid-19 crisis began, had more experience with infectious diseases than BioNTech. 

Some scientists also believed that CureVac, which unlike its rival does not chemically modify its mRNA, could end up prompting a stronger immune response.

But an initial readout from phase 1 trials in November damped the high expectations. The data showed that the level of antibodies produced by the vaccine was higher than the average in the blood samples of recovered Covid-19 patients, but appeared to be lower than those produced by the BioNTech and Moderna’s candidates.

However, as each company’s results were measured using different assays and against a different group of convalescent patients, they were not directly comparable, according to Suzanne van Voorthuizen, an analyst at Kempen. “You are always comparing apples with oranges,” she said.

The inconclusive data did not deter the European Commission, which signed a contract to secure 405m doses soon thereafter. Manufacturing deals with Germany’s Wacker Chemie and Rentschler followed in the next few weeks, as well as with France’s Fareva.

CureVac also raised $517m via a share offering and its shares trade more than six times last August’s IPO price. Twice in the last few weeks the company’s market value has surpassed that of Deutsche Bank and now stands at about €16bn.

Line chart of Rebased to Aug 2020 showing Vaccine makers' share prices

“In two years from now, nobody will care any more [about the delay],” said von Bohlen. “Capacity, quality and price — that is what everyone will care about,” he added, predicting that regular vaccinations would be required to protect against virus mutations and that CureVac’s mRNA technology would be ideally suited to that challenge.

An initial readout from large-scale phase 3 trials is expected in March, and although CureVac has given up on pursuing US authorisation, citing market saturation, approvals from the EU regulators will probably come halfway through 2021.

Competitive advantages

Being behind in the race to produce an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine could also end up being a blessing in disguise for CureVac, according to founder Hoerr, 52, who is recovering from his health crisis. He claims time spent perfecting the formulation of its candidate has given its product several competitive advantages.

Unlike vaccines by BioNTech and Pfizer, which currently have to be kept at an ultra-cold -70C while being shipped, and Moderna’s product, which must be kept at -20C, CureVac’s candidate is able to survive in standard fridge temperatures for at least three months, making it much easier to deliver to the developing world. “That’s not a miracle,” said Hoerr. “That is technology. You have to work on that.”

Additionally, at 12 micrograms per dose, it requires the smallest amount of active ingredient among the mRNA vaccines, enabling more efficient distribution.

Bar chart of Covid-19 shots under contract (doses bn) showing Vaccine makers race to supply the world

CureVac, which claims to be able to produce 300m doses this year and a further 1bn in 2022, spent extra time scaling up its manufacturing network.

The positive assessment is shared by pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, which bought a 9 per cent stake in CureVac in July and earlier this month pledged a total of €150m to develop so-called “next-generation” Covid-19 vaccines with the company to tackle new variants.

The UK government has also agreed to provide CureVac with access to its genomic sequencing expertise. In exchange, the UK will receive 50m doses of the biotech’s jab and permission to use contract manufacturers to produce it in Britain.

“The UK is one of the most advanced countries in understanding mutations and sequencing them,” said Wassili Papas, a portfolio manager at German institutional investor Union, which has a small stake in CureVac. “So for them to choose CureVac, there must be something to it.”

CureVac’s ambitions were given its biggest boost to date in early January, when German pharma group Bayer agreed to help with the production and approval of the Covid-19 candidate — the first foray into vaccine development in the company’s 158-year history.

Bayer told the FT that the agreement was a “one-off” and that the company “just wanted to help”, denying suggestions that Merkel’s administration had pushed for the partnership.

Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach
Venture capitalist Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach sits on CureVac’s board © Andreas Riedel

The German government told the FT that it “explicitly does not exert any influence on the operating business of the company via its shareholding”, while von Bohlen said Berlin was first informed by the companies of the agreement after the deal was closed.

Nonetheless, in a government press conference last month, Armin Laschet, the newly elected head of Merkel’s party and the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to Bayer, was clear about the deal’s significance.

“We need to recognise how important it is at this moment not to be completely reliant on the global market,” he said, “but also to be able to independently produce in Germany.”

Two weeks ago, CureVac began submitting approval data to the European regulator, and with the first batch of doses secured by the EU, the vaccine could also offer the bloc a chance to repair some of the political damage caused by the much-criticised procurement of the BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs.

If successful, the company built by Hoerr, who has reportedly been nominated for a Nobel Prize, could even eclipse Bayer’s €64bn market value, said von Bohlen, and along with BioNTech, reshape the entire sector.

“MRNA has the potential to become, by orders of magnitude, the broadest therapeutic class in medicine,” he said. “It’s a bit of a revival of the German strength in the pharmaceutical industry.”

The bar chart in this article has been amended since original publication to correct a rounding error



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