Abigail Field: Privatization Is Driven By Private Greed and Public Cowardice (and Public Greed, Too)

Link to Original Article

Posted on May 12, 2014 by Lambert Strether

Lambert here: Apparently, IBGYBG (“I’ll Be Gone, You’ll Be Gone”) applies in government as well as Finance. How cozy.

By Abigail Caplovitz Field, an attorney and a freelance writer. She writes news for Benzinga.com and others, and posts a new blog every Sunday morning at Reality Check.

“Privatization” and “public-private-partnerships” for infrastructure and other public assets are scams driven by private greed and public cowardice. Americans have been burned by these scams. Last month the Atlantic ran a nice piece on the growing privatization backlash.

Unfortunately, as governments at the city, state and federal level continue to lack the political will to raise taxes or cut spending, as our infrastructure continues to deteriorate, and as political leaders such as President Obama and Congress peddle the idea, the pressure to privatize public goods will continue to rise. Indeed, it’s no longer companies like Deloitte offering to do deals; we’ve reached the point where the Motley Fool is pitching retail investors.

The New Jersey Toll Road Privatization Push

It’s a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to, because in my role as Legislative Advocate for NJPIRG, I played a meaningful role in defeating then-New Jersey Governor, nee Goldman Sachs Jon Corzine’s push to privatize New Jersey’s ‘three big roads’–the Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and the Atlantic City Expressway.

The policy arguments we made then (2007)–and which USPIRG and others continue to make today–remain true, and provide a good, accessible framework for judging any privatization deal that may affect you.

As you read the NJ story and our cheat sheet for judging proposed deals, consider what’s at stake– the level of traffic congestion and air pollution, the safety and quality of roads, and even the availability of high-quality affordable mass transit alternatives.

When Governor Corzine came into office, there was a political consensus among a sufficiently large and diverse coalition of interests that the best way to fund New Jersey’s transportation needs was to raise its very low gas tax. But rather than gather and lead this political will to pass the tax hike–something that would have taken courage, but not heroism–Governor Corzine pushed the privatization idea. I don’t know if ducked the tax hike because he was a coward, or greedy, or driven by his deep saturation in Wall Street’s greed ethos.

Regardless, Corzine (and his Democratic legislative allies, most notably State Senator Raymond Lesniak) suggested that New Jersey should fix its chronic budget crisis by leasing the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway to a private operator for 75 years. The private operator would be guaranteed annual toll hikes, given management of the ‘three big roads‘ and would pay the state some $20 billion.

Six Principles For Judging PPP Deals

I published an Op-Ed in the Trenton Times on May 18, 2007 that explained how to judge a deal that we (I worked closely with USPIRG’s Phineas Baxandall) later fully developed in this white paper:

1. Public Control: public policy, not protecting private profit, had to control key management decisions that would not only affect the leased roads, but also the communities all along the roads. Because of the roads at stake in New Jersey, the issue was really statewide transportation policy.

What were we talking about? As the white paper explains:

“…toll levels, maintenance and safety standards, and congestion on the Turnpike and Parkway have a substantial impact on the number of cars using alternative routes, including local roads and mass transit. …

In the wake of the last Turnpike toll hike, for instance, many communities felt the impact of trucks diverted onto local roads…. Public control of key toll roads is necessary to ensure a coherent statewide transportation planning and policy making.

… Three examples illustrate these potential dangers:

● Non-Compete Clauses—Deals in California, Colorado, and to a lesser extent, Indiana, limited the state’s ability to improve or expand “competing” roads. In New Jersey…virtually all major roads compete for cars with the Turnpike and the Parkway.

● Private Toll Decisions = Broad Private Control of Traffic Management—If the rules for increasing toll rates under Chicago toll road deal had applied to the Holland Tunnel since its inception, that roadway could presently charge a one-way toll of more than $180. As a practical matter, an operator would be unlikely to charge that price because drivers would instead take alternate routes. The point is that the Chicago toll-increase schedule effectively allows the private operator to charge whatever maximizes its profits. The toll operator can also offer discounts to particular types of motorists or encourage traffic between certain exits, as will maximize profits. Together these powers enable the operator to control toll policy, and thus dictate who drives on the toll roads, and when…

[Note: although Senator Lesniak said he would require annual toll hikes but limited them to the rate of inflation, even that doesn’t solve the issue; New Jersey would have given up its ability to set toll rates, and thus all its consequences, for 75 years. It’s not just about how high tolls go; it’s about controlling the policy–congestion pricing, HOV discounts, Lexus Lanes, etc.]

● Creates “Tax” on Normal Policy Making—The Indiana deal also requires the state to pay investors compensation for reduced toll revenue when the state performs construction such as when it might add an exit, build a mass transit line down the median, or bring the road up to state-of-the-art safety standards. This compensation would add significant costs, and potentially the state could not afford to do the work it would otherwise perform. As added complication, the exact level of these future payments might be subject to dispute and lawsuits.

2. Fair Value: deals pay the state far less money than its assets were worth, as the Atlantic article notes. In New Jersey, the best public advocate on this point was Peter Humphreys, then head of securization practice at the then 13th largest American law firm (McDermott, Will & Emery).

He testified before the Assembly Transportation Committee and explained the state could itself securitize the existing annual toll revenue of $700 million for a 15-year period and get an upfront payment of about $8.4 billion. Senator Lesniak’s approach imagined getting $20 billion from a 75 year deal. Thus serial securitizations–without changing the existing toll rates–for the same 75-year time frame would produce a nominal $42 billion.

Sure, that serial securization doesn’t account for the time value of money; but it also doesn’t consider the future toll hikes guaranteed to the private lessee. If the hikes contemplated in the Lesniak deal were enacted and also securitized, the serial figure would be much higher. $20 billion was way too little.

And it’s not just New Jersey; as the white paper recaps:

A financial analysis of the Indiana and Chicago deals by NW Financial, a New Jersey investment bank that represents the Turnpike Authority (among others), found that the private investors in those deals would likely recoup their investment in less than 20 years. That analysis is confirmed in at least Indiana’s case by the company that won the bid. Macquarie sent investors a presentation asserting an “Anticipated 15 year payback to equity.” Given that Indiana’s deal is 75 years long, and Chicago’s is 99 years, the analysis suggests that governments in these states received far less for their assets than they are worth.

3. Deals capped at 30 years. As I noted in the Trenton Times Op-Ed:

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) has introduced a bill authorizing a 75-
year deal here, in the ballpark of Chicago’s 99 years and Indiana’s 75.
Some perspective: Henry Ford introduced the Model T 99 years ago, and the George Washington Bridge opened 76 years ago. The first section of the New Jersey Turnpike didn’t open until a mere 56 years ago.

Population also shifts dramatically on these timelines. In 1930, New
Jersey’s population was 4 million; 70 years later, it more than doubled
to 8.4 million.

From these markers, it’s clear that massive, unforeseeable changes will likely take place for transportation technology, networks and
demographics over the 75-year time frame being considered here. In the face of such uncertainty, New Jersey cannot predict its future
transportation needs, nor the revenue potential of its toll roads, well
enough to negotiate a deal that fairly allocates risks, dictates policy
or sets a fair price.

To minimize this problem, New Jersey must not enter a deal longer than 30 years.

4. State-of-the-art maintenance and safety standards. As we put it in the white paper:

The New Jersey Turnpike has been innovative throughout its history. Many of its design and safety choices have been replicated throughout the country and world. It is also recognized as having traffic management and danger warning systems that are among the best in the world. Similarly, the Garden State Parkway is consistently one of America’s safest roads.

…Indiana’s deal, for example, would not guarantee this performance. … the state of Indiana can require the operator to meet generally applicable safety standards, but must pay a hefty premium to implement higher quality…. In addition to the cost of construction or performing the maintenance, Indiana would be required to pay compensation to the private operator for any loss of revenues caused by the construction or imposition of new standards.

No deal for the Turnpike and Parkway should be approved that did not guarantee that state-of-the-art innovations would continue to be introduced.

5. Complete Transparency and Accountability. Again from the white paper:

…That requires full disclosure of the deal’s terms, and any related contracts and subcontracts, at least six months before a deal is done, plus public hearings. This commitment to transparency is doubly important given New Jersey’s past struggles with corruption and pay-to-play contracts. The public must have full confidence in the process for considering a potential deal.

Likewise, New Jerseyans need to be able to hold their representatives accountable for their decision to approve (or not approve) a deal. The Legislature must vote on the final terms of any potential deal. True accountability requires that both the Legislative and Executive Branches answer to New Jerseyans

6. No Budget Gimmicks. This one is self-explanatory, but also crucial, as Legislatures typically blow the wad of cash they get from these deals without fixing anything. The Atlantic piece mentions some of that, as does the white paper.

In response to our campaign based on the principles–we demanded the Governor sign a pledge to honor them–he came out with some nice sounding principles that didn’t go nearly far enough, as I discussed in this Op-Ed in the Newark Star Ledger July 10, 2007.

Ultimately the plan cratered. The Assembly Transportation Committee, led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (also a Democrat) was a major reason why.

While NJPIRGs position always was: privatization is fine if done right–and the principles defined “right”–realize that Wall Street will never do a deal that lives up to the six principles. It’s just not profitable enough for them, and would put too much risk on them.

Extracting “Latent Income” (NOT!)

I began by claiming cowardice and greed are the reason these deals are done. Of course, that’s not the official line. The NJ framing of the advantage of privatization–which was branded as “monetizing” the turnpike, parkway and expressway–was reported in this April 12, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer article this way:

““Monetizing” assets means squeezing latent income from them by selling or leasing them.”

As I pointed out in this letter to the editor about that article:

The article stated that “‘monetizing’ assets means squeezing latent income from them by selling or leasing them.” The Inquirer’s readers may imagine that this process harnesses additional value or productivity from the roads themselves. That is not the case.

“Monetization” simply means to borrow against a future source of revenue. Instead of receiving toll money at a later date, the government would receive cash up front today. Thus, monetization only “extracts latent income” the way individuals do when they take out a payday loan or a second mortgage.

To be fair, I should have said “in this case Monetization simply means” as monetizing doesn’t have to involve borrowing. But that doesn’t change my point then or now. The myth of privatization is that private companies can magically make things more valuable than government can, without articulating a coherent, stands up to scrutiny reason why it can.

Given that $20 billion was much less than the 75 year toll revenue was worth, where was the latent value extraction in the Lesniak deal?

Cowardice And Greed

Public policy involves tough choices. Privatization deals offer legislatures and governors an easy sounding way out; let stuff happen long after they’re out of office (and hope that’s when the bad consequences hit), and get in return a big wad of cash to blow now. No need to raise taxes or cut services.

Thus often privatization advocates on the government side are simply cowards–they don’t want to raise taxes, and they don’t want to cut spending.

The greed happens on both sides. On the private side, it’s the extraordinary profit potential. On the public side, greed can also shape decisions whether through quid pro quo type corruption or revolving door corruption.

And of course, greed and cowardice are not mutually exclusive motives.

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