Australian Pension Funds Scale Back Trump Infrastructure Ambitions

(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s pension funds are scaling back their expectations for U.S. infrastructure investments as the White House and Congress remain deadlocked over how to pay for President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion plan to upgrade bridges and roads.

Australian Pension Funds Scale Back Trump Infrastructure Ambitions

IFM Investors Pty, which manages $90 billion, has spent two years trying to convince U.S. lawmakers to sell assets ranging from airports to toll roads and use the proceeds to build new projects. But with political opposition to asset sales in the U.S. hardening, IFM is shifting its focus to smaller projects that it hopes will demonstrate the benefit of the model, known as asset-recycling, Chief Executive Officer Brett Himbury said.

“There is genuine bipartisan support for infrastructure,” Himbury said in an interview in Melbourne. “Whilst it may not be $2 trillion, there is enough support and capacity for smaller-scale projects or prototype infrastructure projects to get off the ground.”

Trump’s goal to renew the nation’s crumbling infrastructure has been stymied by the question of how to pay for it. A proposal to increase a gasoline tax for the first time since 1993 was criticized by administration officials because of concern it would hurt rural and working-class voters — key Trump constituencies — just as the 2020 presidential election campaign heats up.

Trump effectively dashed expectations that a deal on infrastructure could be reached ahead of the election when he stormed out of a meeting with congressional Democrats last month. He said he won’t support any agreement unless Congress ends oversight investigations and approves a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Asset Privatization

Australia has been lobbying U.S. federal and state lawmakers since 2017 to convince them that pension money can be used to improve American roads and airports provided all stake holders are given the right incentives to sell assets. The so-called asset-recycling model has been widely used in Australia to unlock billions of dollars by selling utilities and ports to free up funds for cash-strapped states.

U.S. Democrats have all but rejected the idea because they say it amounts to the privatization of national assets. They scuppered Trump’s infrastructure proposal last year because it provided only $200 billion in federal funds over 10 years, mostly in incentives to encourage spending by non-federal entities.

IFM, which is owned by 27 Australian pension funds, has conceded it will need to buy smaller-scale projects that are included in Trump’s proposed self-help bills, now stalled in Congress, to prove that the model works. It has for Indiana state, after IFM bought the 157-mile (253-kilometer) Indiana Toll Road from ITR Concession Co. in 2015, Himbury said.

“The task is so big over there they’re going to have to continue to use the muni-bond market, they’re going to have to have federal support, state support, they’re going to have to partner with the private sector,” Himbury said. “The task is so huge we hope to be just part of the solution, but a reasonable part.”

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