By Chan Kung and Wei Hongxu*
In an effort to promote economic recovery, the central government, local governments, and enterprises have placed high expectations on the investment of new infrastructure, hoping it would promote the development of the digital economy, so as to enhance the internal driving force of economic development. Especially when the scale of local special bonds is expected to be increased and again issued ahead of schedule, many local governments hope to seize the opportunity of digital economy development and increase investment in new infrastructure areas to drive regional economic development.
Unlike the conventional economy and conventional infrastructure investment, the new infrastructure is not a simple way to boost investment, but rather to help the conventional industries realize digital and intelligent transformation as soon as possible, and to create new consumption, new manufacturing, and new services. While the new infrastructure investment brings a new economic model, it is different from the past in terms of content, mode, and financing channels. It requires local governments to make corresponding changes with market-oriented thinking.
New infrastructure investment is not only the demand side of local users, but also the supply side of technology investment. From the perspective of the scope of new infrastructure, new infrastructure projects include 5G base stations, ultra-high voltage (UHV) electricity, industrial Internet, intercity high-speed railway, intercity rail transit, new energy vehicle charging piles, artificial intelligence, and Big Data centers. At present, rail transit and new energy infrastructure are not much different from conventional infrastructure investment. The degree of local participation of UHV electricity is limited, while the investment in other aspects, such as 5G base stations and Big Data centers, is relatively mature in technology and has good market supply capacity.
In other aspects, it is more necessary to start from the aspects of technology research and industrial cultivation, and to invest in projects that encourage innovation and industrial park construction. Therefore, this requires not only clear investment objectives on the demand side, but also needs to expand the supply side such as technology research and application at the same time, which undoubtedly increases the complexity of new infrastructure investment.
At the same time, the sources and financing channels of new infrastructure investment still need to be explored. Recently, local governments in China have begun planning to finance new infrastructure projects through issuing special bonds, and many local governments have put new infrastructure projects on their agenda.
Some market analysts believe that at present, 5G is still mainly invested in base stations. Generally, telecommunications companies such as China Unicom and Mobile Communications can invest on their own without issuing special bonds, thereby the special bonds can be invested in projects related to data centers. However, such projects are only available in first-tier cities, and there are not many such projects in second-tier, third-tier, fourth-tier, and fifth-tier cities.
New infrastructure projects should be more market-driven and local governments should avoid excessive involvement via direct investment in industrial projects. Local governments also need to promote the public-private partnership (PPP) model and introduce more social capital to improve efficiency and broaden financing sources.
Even for new infrastructure projects funded by special bonds, attention should be paid to the financing capacity of the projects to avoid adding to the financial burden. There are two main ideas for the new infrastructure special bond declaration projects in many provinces. One is to build a digital information application platform at the county and district level based on the resources of the provincial and municipal cloud platforms.
The second is to promote the optimization and upgrading of conventional infrastructure projects with the theme of digital and wisdom. Some local finance people worry that many of these projects are packaged around the concept of “new infrastructure” and are mostly non-yielding or low-yielding projects that may require the government to cover future bond payments. Therefore, the special bond for new infrastructure construction should be invested in public welfare projects that can generate income, rather than public welfare projects that do not.
At the same time, there are new requirements for investment entities in new infrastructure investment. Some financial institutions said that after the issuance of new infrastructure special bonds, most of them will eventually be invested in local urban projects. However, local urban projects were good at conventional infrastructure construction, unfamiliar with new infrastructure construction, and lacks experience in new infrastructure project operation. If we speed up the construction of new infrastructure projects without considering the actual situation, it will easily lead to the mismatch between the capacity and the project requirements, and drag on the development of local governments and enterprises.
In particular, unlike conventional investment in forming fixed assets, a considerable part of new infrastructure investment in research, personnel training, and other forms of intangible assets will be formed. The conventional urban investment model does not have the ability to use and dispose of these assets.
At the same time, the large amount of hardware equipment invested in the new infrastructure is different from the conventional “iron and steel foundation”. Its wear and tear, operation, and upgrading all require continuous follow-up investment, which cannot be “invested all at once.”
These are also not available in some conventional urban investment enterprises. If the local government cultivates and supports relevant enterprises by means of industrial investment, it needs more consideration in terms of income distribution and asset management. Such investment cannot be simply measured by the unit of land and capital, but more in the form of equity investment such as industrial funds and venture capital. In this respect, the local government needs to have the investment entities and relevant personnel with the ability to invest in relevant industries.
Different from the past, local governments need to play their roles in market construction and maintenance, investment entities, and end-users in promoting new infrastructure investment and the development of the digital economy. In the cultivation of the digital market, market demand, and the maintenance of the market order, local governments should play the role as a supervisor, take the development of the market as the guide, and develop the local digital market.
In terms of investment, it is necessary to start with basic research and development and personnel training, promote market-oriented investment and technological innovation to enhance the competitiveness of the digital industry. In terms of end-users, it is necessary to integrate their own digital resources, establish a public digital space, and expand digital demand with the digital transformation of public services and government affairs as the direction. These three new roles are the basic problems to be solved in the process of promoting new infrastructure.
While much attention has been paid to new infrastructure, the reality is that, in terms of overall size, it needs to be recognized that infrastructure investment is still dominated by conventional infrastructure projects, with new infrastructure as defined by the market accounting for less than 15%. ANBOUND is not a proponent of separating infrastructure from the old and the new, so one cannot fully “bet” on new infrastructure to revive the post-pandemic economy.
From the perspective of economic development trends and current reality, the role of new infrastructure is to promote the coordinated and integrated development of digital technology to industry and regional economy. Therefore, local governments need to make good use of fiscal expansion policies and financing tools to build new infrastructure, rather than investing for investment’s sake, they need to pay attention to the trend of economic digitization and promote the market efficiency and the expansion of market space.
Final analysis conclusion:
Promoting economic recovery and the development of the digital economy with new infrastructure are the keys to current macro policies. In this regard, local governments need to pay attention to the differences between the new infrastructure and the conventional infrastructure model, and they need to make corresponding adjustments in the investment model and development thinking so as to give full play to the efficiency of the digital economy.
*Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
*Wei Hongxu, graduated from the School of Mathematics of Peking University with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Birmingham, UK in 2010 and is a researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound