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Risk and Capital Requirements for Infrastructure Investment in Emerging Market and Developing Economies

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Mobilizing private investment in infrastructure will be key to increase growth and resilience in developing countries. Well-planned infrastructure can raise potential output growth and help reduce the carbon footprint of progress. Directing excess savings from advanced economies towards emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) helps address the low investment returns of institutional investors in developed economies while supporting achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Infrastructure is a natural match for insurers’ long-term liabilities. Long-term fixed income instruments fit well with the long-dated liabilities of insurance companies, especially for those offering life insurance and annuity products. Infrastructure projects tend to yield long-term, predictable cash flows, with low correlation to other assets and relatively high recovery value in case of repayment arrears. This match is so significant that some regulators provide special treatment for insurers that hold them to maturity. The recent update of Europe’s Solvency II Directive, for instance, provides for a “matching adjustment” that allows insurers to discount their liabilities by the rate of return of infrastructure-linked instruments, which tends to be higher than the market-implied discount rates, thus reducing the present value of these liabilities and the business cost for insurers.

However, insurance companies still allocate less than 2.5 percent of assets under management to infrastructure investment, in part because of insufficient understanding of the risk profile of this asset class. There are many reasons for the low participation of infrastructure, including the limited supply of fully operational infrastructure projects issuing debt. There is also an informational hurdle, with investors’ perception of infrastructure being risky, despite the long tradition of regulated utilities of yielding low-risk cash flows. This perception is also reflected in some regulatory frameworks, which require insurers to allocate sizeable amounts of capital to support investments in long-term debt, especially for unrated transactions, thus reducing the internal rate of return and the profitability of holding these instruments.

More recently, European regulators have acknowledged the particular risk properties of infrastructure, reducing the capital charge on this type of finance. Following the advice of the European Insurance and Occupational Pension Authority (EIOPA), which performed a comprehensive analysis of historical data of infrastructure risks in advanced economies, the European Commission in September 2016 revised down the standard formula for capital charges on qualifying infrastructure debt (and equity) investments under the Solvency II Directive. This calibration resulted in a significant relief of infrastructure debt relative to equivalent corporate bonds and loans. However, this more favorable regulatory treatment remains restricted to investments in countries that are members of either the European Economic Area (EEA) or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). So, infrastructure projects in many EMDEs do not benefit from it.

New empirical analysis of infrastructure debt in EMDEs offers an opportunity to widen the perimeter of a more favorable regulatory treatment. Recently, Moody’s Investor Service published a detailed analysis of the historical credit performance of project finance bank loans, which account for 80 percent of the funding of project finance transactions originated globally since January 1, 1983. The study reviewed data of more than 6,000 projects from a consortium of leading sector lenders (Moody’s Project Loan Data Consortium), of which more than 1,000 are projects in EMDEs.

The study shows that credit performance of project loans in EMDE debt is not substantially different from that of comparable debt in advanced economies. As in advanced economies, the risk profile of project bank loans in EMDEs improves over time. Specifically, the marginal default rate–i.e., the likelihood that an infrastructure loan performing at the start of a specific year will default within that year–exceeds the level for non-investment grade corporate exposures by the time of the financial closing of the project, but it steadily declines as the loans mature, when projects reach “brownfield stage”. Cumulative default rates of infrastructure become flat like those of investment grade instruments, while rates for originally equivalent corporate debt continue to rise throughout their lives (Figure 1).  After five years, the marginal default rate of project loans is consistent with that of “AA/Aa”-rated corporates and, actually, on average lower in EMDEs than in advanced economies. For PPPs, the cumulative rate of return over the first 10 years of project loans in EMDEs is virtually the same as those in advanced economies, at less than 6 percent. Also, recovery rates for EMDE project loans average about 80 percent, and, thus, are like those for senior secured corporate bank loans.

Figure 1: Cumulative Default Probability of Unrated Project Loans in Advanced and Developing Economies

Sources: Moody’s Investors Service (2017) and Jobst (forthcoming). Note: based on the shortened study period between 1995 and 2015; the sub-samples “EEA or OECD,” “EMDE-A” and “EMDE-B” correspond to the samples selected in the Moody’s report and cover EEA and OECD member countries, all non-high income countries, and all non-high income countries without EEA or OECD members (i.e., Bulgaria, Croatia, Mexico, Romania, and Turkey).

Applying the relevant data from the recent Moody’s report to two important solvency regimes for insurers shows sufficient scope for reducing the capital charge for investments in infrastructure debt. World Bank staff in the finance area have recovered the credit risk parameters from the published  data on project loans and applied them to the relevant elements of the Solvency II Directive and the International Capital Standard (ICS) for internationally active insurers, which will be implemented by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS). We apply these data to these solvency regimes, differentiating the properties of infrastructure loans from the standard corporate exposures without adjustments to current regulatory methodologies. Only the intrinsic risk profile of infrastructure debt vis-à-vis the standard risk assumptions on long-term debt was considered. When doing so, we find that the capital charges would decline significantly when these differences in risk are considered. Specifically, for a 10-year risk horizon, the annual expected loss of project finance loans (1.6 percent) is half of the expected losses implied by “Ba/BB”-rated non-financial corporates, and the implied capital charges would decline from 23.5 to 13.3 percent under Solvency II (Table 1). Under ICS, it would drop from 12.7 to 10.7 percent, consistent with the estimated economic capital within the range of 10.5 to 13.8 percent (based on the 99.5 percent conditional tail expectation).  Additional analysis of rated EMDE infrastructure debt securities, using data from another Moody’s Investors Service report published earlier in 2017, indicates some flexibility to lower capital charges on these instruments under Solvency II. For instance, the charge for “Baa/BBB”-rated securities, would come down from 20 percent to about 16 percent.

Table 1: Credit Risk and Estimated Capital Charges for Unrated Project Loans (using standard risk parameters and differentiated infrastructure risk profile) *

Sources: BCBS (2017), European Commission (2015 and 2017), IAIS (2017), Moody’s Investors Service (2017) and Jobst (forthcoming). Note: recovery rate refers to ultimate recovery rate; */calculated over 10-year horizon with recovery rate consistent with unsecured senior claims; **/ reduced capital charge if qualifying infrastructure exposure in EEA or OECD country; 1/ fixed risk factors of the Solvency II SCR Standard Formula — Spread Risk Sub-Module for fixed income investment, as amended by Regulation (EU) 2015/35 (October 10, 2014) and EU Regulation 2017/1542 (June 8, 2017); 2/ credit risk factor under the proposed International Capital Standard (ICS) is assumed to follow the advanced internal ratings-based (A-IRB) approach for specialized lending (project finance) using the cumulative PD with/without a floor for PD and LGD and full application of the maturity adjustment; 3/ based on credit risk (PD and LGD) of global non-financial corporate debt issuers; 4/ based on 99.5% conditional tail expectation (CTE).

Even a modest reduction in capital requirements for long-term infrastructure investments can significantly boost return-on-equity (RoE) under a prudent but differentiated regulatory treatment. For instance, considering a stylizing illustration for a European regulated insurer holding a 10-year infrastructure loan yielding 4.6 percent annually (less the insurer’s borrowing cost of 1.0 percent and an income tax rate of 35 percent), reducing the capital charge of 23.5 percent (under the current standard formula approach applied to corporate exposures) to about 14 percent (under a differentiated approach) would raise the RoE of investing in such an instrument from 10 percent to more than 17 percent. The latter figure is more than 50 percent above the average RoE of European life insurers in 2016.

Figure 2.  Return on Equity of Infrastructure Debt Investment as a Function of Regulatory Capital Charges

Sources: Bloomberg L.P., Moody’s Investors Service (2017) and Jobst (forthcoming). Note: The calculation is based on the annual yield (less the risk-free rate of 1.0 percent) after tax (35 percent); 10-year U.S. government debt yield at 2.31 percent as of end-Sept. 2017 and median RoE of European life insurers as of mid-2016 (EIOPA, 2017); 1/ average infrastructure loan rate in the U.K. (4.3 percent) according to Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (2015) at end-2014 and scaled to EMDE consistent with infrastructure bonds (4.6 percent); 2/ based on the Solvency II Spread Risk Sub-Module (European Commission, 2015, 2016 and 2017), assuming unrated exposure is treated like corporate exposure (loans/bonds) with credit quality step (CQS) of 5 (‘B’) and assumed maturity of 10 years (OECD, 2015).

Lower capital charges can help maximize finance for development, unlocking an important source of long-term capital for global growth. Although regulatory disincentives for infrastructure investment in EMDEs may be just one of the impediments to growing exposure to this asset class, the evolution of these regulations can be an important step forward.  By helping to increase the rate of return of holding infrastructure-linked instruments potentially by up to 50 percent, it may help insurers and other institutional investors to accelerate the rebalancing of their assets in ways that will help crowd-in resources in quality climate-smart infrastructure projects in EMDEs.  These projects are an important part of strategies to increase the resilience of these economies while helping eliminate extreme poverty and produce shared prosperity.

First published in World Bank

Note: The capital charges computed here were reached by using the implied transition probabilities for infrastructure loans and  (i) mapping the current reduction factors for qualifying (unrated) infrastructure investment for EEA/OECD countries under the Solvency II SCR Standard Formula — Spread Risk Sub-Module to the expected loss of project loans in EMDEs and (ii) calibrating expected loss to the credit risk stress factor for ICS (IAIS, 2017) following the advanced internal ratings-based approach according to the finalized Basel III framework. For details, refer to Jobst, Andreas A., forthcoming, “Credit Risk Dynamics of Infrastructure Investment—Considerations for Insurance Regulation,” Working Paper (Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group).

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.

Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.

The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.

Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.

Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.

Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.

The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.

How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?

Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.

First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.

Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.

Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.

Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.

Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.

None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.

Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.

I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.

First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank

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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*

Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.

While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.

Large volume but low price

The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.

Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.

Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.

For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.

Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.

For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.

Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.

The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.

The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.

As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.

In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.

Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.

So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.

(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)

(first published on China Daily via World Bank)

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