A view through an infrastructure investor’s prism (Column: Behind Infra Lines)

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Perspectives on infrastructure assets vary widely: While investors focus on investment returns, policymakers analyse both financial and socio-economic benefits. It would be worthwhile for policymakers to view things through an investor’s investment prism because an understanding of the critical factors that shape investment decisions will help frame better policies to expedite Indian infrastructure creation.

The “raw value” of an infrastructure project is what a potential investor evaluates first. For example, in a renewable energy wind project, the wind potential of a site is what an investor evaluates. For a transportation project, the investor evaluates the potential passenger traffic. This so-called “raw value” is a huge determinant of the financial viability of a project.

Segregating infrastructure sectors and projects by such “raw value” can help government and industry alike to work towards directing infrastructure capital more optimally. Additionally, such analysis helps in framing policies for those sectors that deliver very substantial social and economic value but are not financially viable on their own.

A robust framework that helps determine “raw value” can aid all the stakeholders, especially the government, to work with investors and multilateral trade agencies to find financing solutions for such socially and economically relevant projects. Eventually, India needs to create an information repository of sorts that provides the global investor base information and access by asset type and investment potential.

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Once the “raw value” of a project is determined, an investor tries to gauge what is called its “scarcity value”. Take, for instance, transportation projects. If the transportation potential of connecting City “A” with City “B” is attractive, then is building an airport to connect the two cities the most optimal infrastructure asset? That is, in spite of the traffic potential, is an airport a “scarce” enough asset to deliver attractive returns?

The investor will gauge whether the airport is likely to face competition from a competing train network or a highway. Being cognizant of the long-dated nature of infrastructure assets is important. Hence investors will have to gauge the “scarcity value” of the asset to determine the attractiveness of the asset over the long investment horizon and, therefore, eventually decide on their willingness to invest in the asset.

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It is essential for the government to find a balance between allowing investors to make returns commensurate with the risk taken and allowing the public to have access to a well-priced and high-quality infrastructure asset. The twin objectives of consistency and transparency in policy are crucial in this regard.

The government’s ability to formulate and communicate the strategy effectively regarding not just sectors but individual assets is vital. To indeed expedite infrastructure creation, granular policy across industries will be needed, more so for much-needed greenfield infrastructure projects.

Apart from “raw value” and “scarcity value”, an investor considers a third factor: The quality of the underlying contracts signed for the asset. Investors look for high-quality counter-parties with whom to sign contracts. More importantly, the government’s ability to deliver a robust legal system for contract-enforcement, as also a more efficient system for conflict-resolution, will attract more significant investments.

Lowering the risk perception for Indian infrastructure assets is essential not merely to attract more investments but also to attract investments at lower financing costs. Reducing the cost of capital is going to be a significant driver of infrastructure projects through their improved financial viability.

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Another area that merits attention is the possibility of the government working even more closely with Export Credit Agencies of various countries to offer foreign exchange hedges, while “importing infrastructure investments”. Solutions that not only reduce the legal risk in investments but also partially eliminate the foreign exchange risk can help boost investments significantly.

Active policies to address the three issues revolving around the value, scarcity and contract enforcement that investors utilise to determine both investments and the required rate of return can help make policies useful.

Policy frameworks can potentially be refined using these three key factors that shape investment decisions. Most importantly, one does not need to improve concurrently on all three fronts for all infrastructure sectors; incremental improvement on one element can provide a significant fillip to infrastructure investments.

(Taponeel Mukherjee heads Development Tracks, an infrastructure advisory firm. Views expressed are personal. He can contacted at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]> or @Taponeel on Twitter)

–IANS

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