Global Infrastructure: Potential, Perils, and a Framework for Distinction
69 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 6, 2019
This paper evaluates the literature that claims poor countries have an infrastructure investment gap of roughly 1 trillion dollars per year and therefore possess widespread opportunities for productive spending on infrastructure. The evaluation introduces and employs a simple framework that concludes this claim is invalid. The framework compares a poor country’s social rate of return on infrastructure investment with: (a) the poor country’s return on private capital, and (b) the average rich country’s return on private capital. The dual comparison reveals that additional investment in a poor country’s infrastructure is: (1) efficient only if the return on poor-country infrastructure exceeds the return on poor-country private capital; and (2) financeable through private rich-country savings only if the return on poor-country infrastructure exceeds the return on rich-country private capital. This dual-hurdle rate framework suggests a two-by-two classification that sorts countries into quadrants according to their potential for efficient investment in infrastructure. The paper then applies the classification to the only existing, comprehensive cross-country estimates of the social rate of return on infrastructure (electricity and paved roads). The conventional wisdom is that there are ubiquitous opportunities for infrastructure investment that meet the two criteria. In fact, only 7 of 53 developing countries clear the dual-hurdle rate in both electricity and paved roads. Where it is efficient to invest, however, the potential for excess returns on infrastructure is quite large—five times larger, in fact, than the excess returns that existed, but have long since been arbitraged away, in emerging-market stocks when foreigners were first permitted to own shares. The framework thus implies a new definition of the infrastructure gap as the amount of investment required to close the difference between the return on infrastructure in poor countries and the return on private capital elsewhere. More importantly, the framework moves the discussion away from alarmism and exaggeration toward the clarity that economics can and should bring to any policy discussion.
Keywords: Growth, Infrastructure
JEL Classification: E, F, G
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation