Report: China could profit rebuilding US

Updated: 2013-10-24 08:16

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily USA)

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The US's aging and ailing infrastructure needs help and a new report says the crumbling bridges and highways offer China the opportunity to help pay for them to be rebuilt while earning a profit.

A report by the United States Chamber of Commerce says Chinese investors are "well-positioned" to profit from an $8 trillion US infrastructure boom. China, with its large, growing pool of available capital, can benefit from "substantial new opportunities" created by the US's pressing need for its largest infrastructure expansion since the 1950s, according to the report released Wednesday.

"Chinese participation in US infrastructure would enable the US to leverage Chinese capital, industrial capacity and infrastructure experiences, while allowing China to help support and capitalize on the coming wave of US infrastructure redevelopment," Chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement included with the report. "Such cooperation would strengthen the relationship between the two nations and enhance global stability and prosperity," Donohue wrote.

The Chamber report, released after the wrap-up of the annual meeting of the US-China CEO and Former Senior Officials' Dialogue, put the "minimum" cost of replacing or upgrading the nation's transportation, energy, waste water and drinking water facilities through 2030 at $455 billion a year. Energy infrastructure would account for 57 percent of the total investment, followed by transport (36 percent) and water (7 percent), according to the report.

President Barack Obama made private-sector infrastructure investment a key part of the economic agenda he rolled out in his State of the Union address in February. The American Society of Civil Engineers has said that if investments in surface transportation aren't made, businesses will pay more and produce less, and the US will lose ground in the global economy.

But economic constraints on US federal, state and local budgets have raised the need for "substantial private capital" to finance new infrastructure investments. Amid a "dramatically changed" global economy, China is "the most important" of the "new players in global trade and investment", the report said.

Produced for the Chamber by economic research firm Rhodium Group, strategic advisory firm Sphere Consulting and law firm Covington & Burling LLP, the report explores two-way infrastructure investment as a way to "further integrate the world's two largest economies and drive substantial benefits for the United States and China", Donohue wrote.

Chinese investment in US infrastructure was discussed at the US-China CEO and Former Senior Officials' Dialogue. The Washington meeting – the fifth in three years – was co-chaired by Donohue and Zeng Peiyan, the former Chinese vice premier and chairman of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, and included the participation of US Vice President Joe Biden.

In a posting on its website, Rhodium said the US infrastructure market would be a "good match for Chinese interests and capabilities", given "the growing capabilities of Chinese firms in infrastructure-related activities".

For Chinese investors, the research firm said, "financial investments in infrastructure projects in advanced economies offer relatively safe returns and a longer-term investment horizon".

Chinese institutional and individual investors typically keep their investments in China's economy, the report said. US infrastructure investment would allow them to put their money into "a stable political and legal environment" with "robust capital markets for refinancing" and "proven infrastructure needs", according to the report.

China's recent economic slowdown – hurting investors with domestically concentrated holdings – underscores the benefits of maintaining a globally diversified portfolio, the report said.

The report said Chinese infrastructure goods and services providers also would be in line for a windfall by participating in the US infrastructure expansion.

It said China's dramatic infrastructure expansion over the past three decades has endowed many Chinese firms with "significant economies of scale", and increased their size, capability and engineering experience. Combined with low labor costs, these Chinese infrastructure goods and services companies can "offer construction materials at globally competitive prices", the report said.

The study, in Donohue's words, found that "although the opportunities are significant, achieving them will likely be complex."

It advised Chinese firms planning to enter the US infrastructure market to "develop strategies" to deal with challenges tied to national security concerns and adverse reactions to foreign ownership, as well as issues related to quality control, product safety, legal matters, and after-sale service.

Rhodium said Chinese firms eyeing the US infrastructure business "need to expand their US presence through foreign direct investment and build local operations with US workers and ties with local economies". It also said China "needs to converge with international legal norms and practices to alleviate concerns and meet certain regulatory requirements for the provision of goods or services by foreign parties to public work projects."

The report cautioned both Chinese and US companies engaged in US infrastructure projects to prepare to deal with the Chinese outbound investment approvals process and State conditions on outbound investment. For instance, the report said, it is not uncommon in China for State-owned investors or banks to condition investments or loans on other State-owned firms obtaining service or supply contracts.

The last big US infrastructure push occurred after World War II and was done to meet the needs of its rapidly growing, industrializing economy. Among other projects, the US government spent $425 billion (in today's dollars) to build 41,000 miles of roadway over the 35 years following President Eisenhower's 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act.

Foreign parties historically have played a prominent role in US infrastructure investment. European groups helped finance US railway construction in the 19th century, and Canadian and Mexican companies were maintaining rail lines over the US border by the early 20th century. UK-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell had acquired significant stakes in US crude oil extraction operations through foreign direct investment by the 1920s.

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