In recent years, I have written many times of the tremendous public investment deficit facing this country. Our infrastructure is old, and it isn’t being replaced or maintained–we need a real commitment in order to grow a sustainable and green economy in the twenty-first century.
But resources are now harder than ever to come by, especially with the deficit hawks shrieking every time the Obama administration attempts to invest in an economic recovery.
It should come as no surprise then that poised to cash-in on our national crisis are the same private equity folks whose casino culture brought us our current economic collapse. In our public assets–our bridges, highways, airports, etc.–they see an opportunity to leverage debt all over again, throw in gobs of money, raise user fees, and gain exorbitant short-term returns at the expense of the rest of us.
"There is no way they can get those kinds of returns without hurting consumers," Andrew Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) told me. "What are the new twenty-first century alternative ways to solve American economic needs without continually enriching the same group of people whose only interest is not in our country but is in their company?"
Fortunately, there is at least one very smart alternative. Public pension funds.
"We’re at a moment where the country is both desperately in need of funds for infrastructure in the long run, and for jobs in the short and the mid-run, until the economy does hopefully produce jobs and not just a jobless recovery," said Stern. "We’re also at a crossroads as to whether the funding for infrastructure is going to put our public resources into private hands, or keep it in public hands. The good news is that these public pension funds are beginning to think about the fact that they actually are one of the places in America that really does have capital…. Here are people investing billions of dollars a year, and the only issue is where are they going to invest this money?"
In contrast to private equity firms, who usually charge a 2 percent management fee and take 20 percent of the profits, public pension funds are looking for a return of 7 or 8 percent annually over the long-term. That would make it much easier to manage a public asset in the public interest, rather than in the interest of Wall Street investors.
"All the worst instincts that got us into the financial crisis, we do not want those wrecking infrastructure," said Stephen Abrecht, Executive Director of Benefit Funds, SEIU Master Trust. "They wrecked the mortgage industry, we don’t want them wrecking the infrastructure industry with the same short-term, risk-taking kinds of strategies."
"One of the advantages of public pension funds is that it doesn’t need to make high rates of return on every investment," said Stern. "They can determine that this is a mid-range investment, try to [get] like 7or 8 percent annually, which will make a huge difference on how that money can be paid back as opposed to if you’re trying to make 30 to 35 percent a year."
Many public pension funds are now taking the lead on exploring this new avenue for investment. In August a consultant called Pension Consulting Alliance (PCA) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for infrastructure investment management services on behalf of its public pension fund clients. In response, PCA received over 60 proposals from infrastructure managers. Next steps include selecting the firms to work with, committing assets to a common fund, and then looking for projects to invest in.
SEIU has been stimulating discussions about this with financial professionals for the past two years and this progress is a good sign.
"We’ve gone from a lot of people saying this is a really good idea, to a group of funds taking leadership here, and actually going forward," said Stern. "It’s exciting to us, because if you could get something going, if you appreciate public pension funds have a trillion dollars in assets or so… if they put 5 percent of their assets into infrastructure through this process, you’re talking $50 billion which could be leveraged into hundred of billions of dollars… You could do something rather significant, to both improve job opportunities in this country, and at the same time keep assets in the public domain."
Stern said SEIU members are very supportive of this effort.
"When there is no money on the public side, then the only option is to go to Goldman Sachs and sell your soul. So they’d rather save their souls, than sell their souls and sell their bridges and roads," he said.
What is also key here is the opportunity to promote a dialogue about alternative ways to invest in our infrastructure and build a twenty-first century, sustainable economy.
"I do think there needs to be an American conversation about how we are going to find new ways that have public-private partnerships, that are not based upon attempts to gain extraordinary rates of return over what are really public assets," said Stern. "We just don’t need our governments who are in desperate needs of cash making quick fix deals that may produce temporary relief but create permanent harm to taxpayers in terms of polls and fees and things that are used to recoup the immediate investment."