Canadian Manufacturing

Liberal’s infrastructure bank will bear significant risk to ensure private sector profit, say documents

A Feb. 20 briefing document says the bank could take on debt that allows other debtors to be paid first in order to provide a "loss buffer" to the private sector, or invest on an equal footing "at concessionary terms," such as ceding control of completed projects



OTTAWA—The man advising Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on building a new infrastructure financing agency was told the body could take on a “significant” amount of risk to help projects come to fruition.

The agency would “help bear a significant portion of the risk” in a project if the government took on an equity stake to make a project more attractive to private investors, says a confidential briefing package prepared for special adviser Jim Leech.

The Feb. 20 briefing document says the bank could take on debt that allows other debtors to be paid first in order to provide a “loss buffer” to the private sector, or invest on an equal footing “at concessionary terms.”

That latter reference could mean giving a private partner exclusive rights to use and receive revenue from a piece of infrastructure, like a rail line—such as the arrangement between the U.K., France and the private companies involved in the Channel Tunnel.

The briefing note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says agency officials would look to structure deals that “most effectively crowd-in private sector investment, as well as the expected return on investment” to the government.

The Liberals were pressed about the risk taxpayers are being asked to carry through the bank, adding to the government’s troubles with the idea as the agency inches closer to the parliamentary approval necessary to open its doors.

The legislation to create the bank is contained within the government’s budget implementation bill, which is nearing Commons approval despite opposition concerns that there hasn’t been enough time to scrutinize the plan.

On June 5, NDP MP Daniel Blaikie called the bank a “slush fund” for the Liberals’ “international corporate buddies.” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on Trudeau to put the brakes on his government’s plans and listen to “serious concerns about this $35 billion boondoggle waiting to happen.”

Trudeau said the government remained committed to getting Canadians the infrastructure they need.

“We know that drawing in private capital from around the world will get more things built for Canadians, will grow our economy and create a better future for our kids,” Trudeau said during the daily question period.

The plan for the next 11 years is to infuse the agency with $15 billion in cash and $20 billion in financing like loans, which officials say wouldn’t hurt the government’s bottom line because the money would be paid back. The bank will not borrow money; rather, its funding will come from the government on a per-project basis.

The hope is that the funding lures three or four times that amount from the private sector to build bridges, roads, and energy transmission networks that cross city, provincial and even national borders and are in the public interest. The Liberals say they will avoid projects that are too risky.

The focus of any funding would be to minimize the amount of public funding required to make the project financially viable, shifting revenue risks to the private sector. The rate of return to private investors will be tied to their share of the risk—the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff—and negotiated on a project-by-project basis.

The departments overseeing the creation of the bank say funding agreements will include provisions about how revenues that exceed expectations are shared among all involved, and how the pain is spread around if revenues fall short of expectations.

During a technical briefing Monday, officials said any losses must be balanced among other factors, such as whether the piece of infrastructure would have been built regardless, or would have required much more taxpayer funding to do so.

“In addition, by moving forward projects via the (bank) and leveraging private capital, we free up more public funding for important investments in affordable housing, disaster mitigation, and shelters for women fleeing domestic violence,” said Brook Simpson, a spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Cities and provinces can pitch projects directly to the bank. In other cases, the bank chooses from project lists submitted by provinces through traditional funding programs; still others may be unsolicited, non-government proposals.

There is also a section in the document about federal projects for the agency, but officials have redacted the details, citing it as advice too sensitive to release publicly.

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