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Putting private money to work to boost infrastructure investment

One trillion US dollars – if not more – is the estimated shortfall in global infrastructure investment per year. That means not enough money for building roads, railways, bridges or power utilities.

The issue has long been on world leaders' minds and appears high up on their agendas, such as at this year's Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) or at recent G20 summits.

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Why? Because infrastructure is one of the engines of the world's productivity and economic growth. But although new initiatives seek to involve the private sector to help meet the enormous funding gap, so far, progress has lacked.

Incorporating the private sector would kill two birds with one stone: it would ease squeezed state budgets and open up infrastructure investments to institutional investors as an alternative investment opportunity – an important point as they grapple with historically low interest rates.

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Getting the framework right

First, a stable and reliable framework is needed to improve the integration of capital market solutions in infrastructure project financing. European Union (EU) Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker summed it up when he announce his 315 billion euro investment plan: "destinations for the fresh investment drive should be attractive, free of regulatory burdens and linked to economic reality, not political expedience."

Institutional investors frequently cite these issues as obstacles to additional investment.

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Creating a global asset class

Second, infrastructure investments should be recognised as an asset class. Liquid and tradable assets with standardised disclosure and documentation together with recognised dispute practices would increase the attractiveness of infrastructure investment for long-term investors such as insurance companies and pension funds.

They are already on the lookout for alternatives to government bonds. Some institutional investors are also engaging with the issue by contributing to policy debate and participating in various projects like the "Build America Investment Initiative" and the World Bank Global Infrastructure Facility. But in order to be heard – and for the required policy and market changes to happen – they must be even more actively involved.

Yes, the hurdles to creating an independent asset class are multi-faceted: regulatory factors including the high capital holding requirements of regimes such as Solvency II for insurers must be considered. A separate asset class would require the already mentioned standardisation of documentation for very project-specific allocated credits.

Here, the onus is on the private sector to promote standardisation through "best practices" for bond documentation, reporting and arbitration. The G-20 could then get things moving by accepting and adopting such "best practices".

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Those on both sides of the fence – governments and the private sector – are well-informed of the positive correlation between infrastructure investment and macroeconomic growth.

Faced with a financial market environment where central banks both play the music and set the tone in their role as primary buyers in many market segments, it is time again to shore up conditions for long-term investors.

It is the only way to get everyone in the orchestra to play their part in ensuring that global growth regains momentum. And it is now the time to act.

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Walter Kielholz is the Chairman of Swiss Re