Next week the chancellor will unveil his £50bn infrastructure plan, as the euro crisis causes construction scheme finance to retreat. Joey Gardiner looks at whether George Osborne can tempt new sources of private cash to fill the funding gap
In his description of the euro crisis last week, Bank of England governor Mervyn King said: “In the last three years, we have seen extraordinary events. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next month?” Amid reports that the Treasury is contingency planning for another credit crunch, it seems the market agrees.
As the euro crisis deepens, there is growing evidence that construction finance is not in a happy place. Lenders are leaving the market, the cost of borrowing money is rising quickly, and the availability of funding is diminishing fast. Obtaining the loans vital to get projects off the ground is like wading through treacle. So from this industry’s perspective at least, time at the Treasury preparing for another credit crunch looks to be well spent. James Stewart, chair of global infrastructure at KPMG, and former head of the government’s infrastructure unit, sums up the mood: “If the governor of the Bank of England doesn’t know what’s going to happen, then what’s the chance for us mere mortals?”
Nevertheless, this is the background against which chancellor George Osborne will next week lay out his £50bn growth plan. For the government, itself unlikely to find new money to pump in to the economy, the key will be attracting other sources of funding - pension funds, insurance funds and sovereign wealth funds - to fill the gap. The question is that persuasion will work, and what the government will have to promise the institutions in order to persuade them to ride to the rescue.
The fear factor
Bank funding for construction projects - both long-term infrastructure schemes, and shorter term construction work - has not been straightforward since the 2008 credit crunch. Chris Brown, chief executive of regeneration developer Igloo, has long experience of funding residential schemes. He says: “In 2008 the number of banks in the market willing to fund projects reduced massively. Since then some have started to come back, and things have started to ease. But now we’re seeing another wave of retrenchment, and it’s uncertainty in the euro that’s increasing the cost of money.”
Long-term infrastructure schemes - both social infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, and economic infrastructure such as transport and waste projects - are suffering from the same problem. Financiers measure the cost of debt financing by the interest rate premium funders add to the Bank of England base rate before agreeing a deal. Before 2008, PFI schemes were being funded for as little as 40 basis points (0.4%) above base rate. The credit crunch pushed this up to over 300 basis points (3%), but it has been falling since then. Until recently.
KPMG’s Stewart says: “We’re not quite in 2008 territory yet, but rates have jumped up. We were heading down towards 200 basis points. Now we look like we’re heading back up to 300.” Likewise Brown says the price of debt funding has spiked in recent weeks - with the required interest rate moving up a “ballpark figure” of 50 basis points, or 0.5%, to more than 250 points, making developments harder to get off the ground.
The reason the crisis in the euro has such a dramatic impact is that the threat of sovereign default on huge loan books increases the risks banks perceive in lending to each other. This means it costs them more to raise money. The best measure of this is in the price of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), financial instruments used to insure against loans defaulting. These are not traded on a publicly viewable index, but data compiled by the Royal Bank of Scotland and seen by Building suggests that the price of CDSs for major UK banks is now a good deal higher than it was when Lehman Brothers went bust, at more than 400 basis points for the most at risk.
In other words, fear is back. But it doesn’t just affect the price of funding projects, crucially it also affects the availability and conditions applied to get that funding. Lenders are leaving the market again, and many are demanding longer periods for the banks to recoup funds at the end of projects in case of any problems - called a “longer tail”. Stewart says “There are signs that the number of people playing in the market is reducing again, and the syndication market is looking weak. Terms are tightening, with banks requiring more equity.”
Rising costs, tougher deals
Trevor Butcher, partner at law firm DLA Piper, is involved in bringing big infrastructure deals together. He says: “So far we’re not seeing deals falling apart. But the supply of finance is getting smaller, we’re seeing a return to the pressure for shorter term debt and the terms are hardening . Now project sponsors are having to go to a wider pool of banks, because many banks want a smaller ticket, and some could well withdraw before the deal is signed.” All this means, inevitably, it’s taking longer for deals to be signed.
In the residential sector it also means that for some projects or firms, once again it’s simply impossible to get any funding at all. Igloo’s Brown says: “If you’re doing small scale speculative resi developments in central London there’s money available, and if you’re doing commercial developments underwritten by a tenant with a blue chip covenant then the banks will come in. But otherwise it’s very difficult.” For Jeffrey Adams, chief executive of residential developer United House, it’s the relationship with a bank that is key. “[For us] each deal takes an enormous amount of time to get through the credit committees. But if you’re a new guy on the block you don’t have a cat in hell’s chance.”
Infrastructure and PFI deals have, in addition, a specific problem: banks are increasingly refusing to offer long-term finance for the life of an infrastructure concession or 25-year PFI term. This can be either through simply saying no, or changing the terms of the loan after a certain point, making it vastly expensive without a refinancing - a deal dubbed a “mini perm.” The Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, is rumoured to have recently pulled all new funding for terms longer than seven years; Others stopped this funding in 2008 and have never come back into the market. This means that these long-term projects have to bear the risk of refinancing the deals half-way through - which either the private sponsor or the public sector has to agree to underwrite. Richard Threlfall, head of infrastructure at KPMG, says: “If someone says that in year seven there’s a chance you might be on the hook for £200m, then that’s quite a big risk. Sponsors are just saying it’s ‘over their dead bodies’ they’ll take that on. The question is whether the government should step in.”
Attracting pension funds
The government review of PFI, announced last week, looks set to take this on board, but there is no clarity over when it will report. For infrastructure schemes the potential solutions is for institutions to step in once the more risky construction phase is complete. All the signs are that the government is acutely aware of this need, and there is no doubt that there is interest from potential investors. “The key is getting pension funds locked in, and they’re up for it, because in the current environment they’re not getting the right returns from their traditional investments,” says Steve Beechey, group investment director at contractor Wates. Infrastructure as a class gives healthy returns, with very little history of defaults. The problem, however, is that pension funds still perceive it as too risky: they are used to investing in “A”-rated assets; typically infrastructure projects are “BBB”.
Therefore, something has to be done to package infrastructure projects in a way that reduces their risk. Stewart says: “The key is finding a route to market for pension funds, some kind of wrap that allows them to reduce risk.” Residential investment has similar problems, but also additional concerns that rental returns are relatively low compared with commercial property, despite the changes to stamp duty rules confirmed in this week’s housing strategy, and that investors will balk at the complexity of having hundreds of demanding individual tenants to satisfy. “I think they tend to have the view that life’s too short for them to deal with the complexity of residential renting. It takes a totally different approach to life - why would they go from having one tenant to having 600, with all the nightmares that brings?” says United House’s Adams.
Interest in the sector is demonstrated by the fact a number of funds have been launched, such as the Hadrian’s Wall venture backed by insurer Aviva, and the joint venture between developer Grainger and contractor Bouygues to create a residential fund to build up to 1,500 homes. But so far none of these has borne fruit. DLA Piper’s Butcher is sceptical about anything happening immediately. “No one is currently there with a product the market is grabbing with open arms. A lot of people are trying it but they’re not ready. There are a lot of good ideas, but they’re just ideas right now.”
The obvious answer is for the government to step in, and for many this is where next week’s Autumn Statement could prove pivotal. Wates’ Beechey says: “We want the public sector to share some of the risk. If, for example, the government can underwrite projects for the risky construction phase, then we can develop a clear package, then at a certain point the institutions can step in. Osborne needs to come off the fence.”
Igloo’s Brown says there is already institutional money chasing investment opportunities backed by government covenants, demonstrating how quickly a market could be formed with the right intervention. But he is gloomy about the likelihood of getting it together: “The Treasury is comfortable with spending cash, but it is really uncomfortable with risk. Unless there is real leadership from the chancellor not much will happen.”
Without that leadership, Beechey has a dismal forecast for the impact upon PFI schemes, activity on which he says has already fallen 30-40% in the last few years. Without a quick decision on the future of PFI and action on institutional investment, this could worsen dramatically. “By 2013 it could be 20% of what it was four years ago,” he says. For Osborne, desperately attempting to provoke economic growth, that kind of fall-off in activity simply isn’t on.
Five possible ways to get institutional money into construction
1. Offer to underwrite returns
to institutional investors in
2. Offer to underwrite risk on construction phase of public projects, ensuring less risky institutional investment in operational phase
3. Use the Green Investment Bank
to support or underwrite projects
in danger of failing to secure
4. Set up a specific
government-backed private fund designed to support projects
5. Extend the use of the Regulatory Asset Base model - where an industry regulator guarantees prices, such as in the ex-public utility sectors - to other sectors