The American business community really wants a large federal infrastructure package. It wants to shore up transportation systems, generate business through government contracts, and create new opportunities for investors to make a return.
But not this infrastructure package.
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey unveiled their plan for a massive infrastructure program that would try to fight climate change and remedy inequality at the same time. The nation’s largest business lobby took all of two hours to bash it.
Under the “Green New Deal” proposal, the US Chamber of Commerce warned, “government asserts control over most of our economy, passing along the enormous costs and bureaucratic inefficiencies to everyday Americans.” It likened the plan to “failed socialist policies that have plagued many other countries over time.”
It’s still only a loose framework that calls for de-carbonizing every sector of the US economy without offering discrete legislative proposals. But the resolution does clearly envision a much larger role for government in projects like overhauling buildings to be more energy efficient, expanding high-speed rail to reduce air travel, and funding research on low-emissions manufacturing.
The federal government, it says, could generate better value for taxpayers by retaining ownership of those projects rather than leaving them up to the private sector.
“We’re not saying thaat there isn’t a role for private sector investments,” read an FAQ that accompanied the rollout. “We’re just saying that the level of investment required will need every actor to pitch in and that the government is best placed to be the prime driver of the investment program.”
Private sector investment in public infrastructure like railroads and airports has been declining since the Great Recession, for reasons that haven’t been entirely clear. Some analysts say that layers of permitting and regulation make it too unpredictable and time-consuming to put dollars into ambitious new projects that might never break ground. Others think the problem is that tax credit programs that make infrastructure financing more profitable — that is, more appealing — for investors aren’t big enough.
But here’s what Wall Street agrees on: Plenty of private capital exists to fund big new projects. And they’d rather invest their own funds than have the government pay for it by raising taxes — especially on the richest Americans, whom Ocasio-Cortez has suggested would be her first target.
“Why we would want to raise the national debt any higher, or get another trillion dollars through Congress, which is impossible, is beyond me,” says Mary Scott Nabers, a Texas-based consultant who advises investors on public-private partnerships with local governments. “There are plenty of companies already out there doing it. I don’t think it’s the federal government’s place to compete with them.”
Green New Dealers say that climate change is a national emergency that has to be dealt with via the government, rather than waiting for the private sector.
But another problem, from an investor’s perspective, is that meeting the aggressive goal of moving to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030 will require retiring a lot of existing infrastructure, such as natural gas power plants and polluting factories, before its lifespan runs out.
That creates a potential financial pothole, says Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which runs an “Executive Council on Infrastructure.” The council is composed of trade groups representing financial services and construction companies, utilities, manufacturers, and building trades unions.
“We have trillions of dollars of sunk costs in the current economy,” Grumet says. “You don’t accelerate the future by messing up the present.”
Stripping away regulations
For many investors, the most disappointing part of the Green New Deal is what it doesn’t include: A promise to strip away regulations, such as environmental reviews that can drag out approvals and throw unexpected obstacles in the path of new projects.
That’s what President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan focused on, along with various incentives for private financing, before it died a quiet death soon after debuting in February of last year. DJ Gribbin, who crafted that plan and has since joined an infrastructure finance firm, thinks the New Dealers could get more bang for their buck by picking up that piece of his approach.
“If they want to increase private participation, the key would be to streamline the permitting process and remove outdated federal rules governing procurement, revenue raising, operations, and tax treatment,” Gribbin says.
Growing green investment
Plenty of investors are already shifting their portfolios towards clean energy projects like wind and solar plants, spurred in part by states like California and New York, which have set ambitious renewable energy goals of their own.
“If you look at slow money long time horizon investments, this is definitely an interesting place to be,” says Mona Dajani, a renewable energy infrastructure attorney for the law firm Pillsbury.
And most investors aren’t panicking about the more ideological parts of the Green New Deal as articulated in Ocasio-Cortez’ resolution, like providing healthcare and housing for all.
At the moment, Wall Street doesn’t actually believe the enthusiasm among Democrats for the idea of a Green New Deal will result in a government takeover of existing assets, or set free enough public funding to displace private finance, given the political reality in Washington for at least the next two years.
“At the end of the day, I do believe that it will have a tangible impact on corporate America,” Dajani says. “But there’s no detail, it needs to be much more refined. If something like this does pass, it’s not going to look like what they’re proposing.”