Whose Canada Infrastructure Bank?

Joyce Nelson

See part 1 of this series: Bank of Canada Lawsuit

In mid-April, Bank of Canada (BOC) governor Stephen Poloz surprised many Canadians when he stated that the Federal Finance Minister “is not my boss,” while insisting that the Bank of Canada “is a fully independent policymaker.”

In reporting this, the Financial Post (April 13) also quoted a UK-based economist who said, “Technically, the bank is a Crown corporation and the shares are owned by the Minister of Finance. So as the main shareholder, it could force some decision…But in real life, central banks have fought for their independence, which is widely recognized as sound policy and means that the finance minister does not interfere in the bank’s affairs and allows the bank to be independent.” [1]

But according to members of the Toronto-based Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform (COMER), the Bank of Canada Act is clear about just who is Poloz’s “boss.” Article 14:2 of the Bank of Canada Act states that in any difference of opinion between the Governor and the Finance Minister regarding monetary policy, the Minister may “give to the Governor a written directive…and the Bank shall comply with that directive,” which would then have to be published in the Canada Gazette and presented to Parliament.

Who’s the Boss?

COMER Chair Ann Emmett told me by phone that Poloz’s statement is apparently based in the belief or theory that there should be an arms-length relationship between the BOC and the federal government, but “that doesn’t mean the Bank of Canada is ‘fully independent’.” Moreover, the BOC “isn’t like other central banks” because the Bank of Canada is “still a publicly-owned bank,” and the sole shareholder is actually the people of Canada.

COMER is proceeding with its 2011 lawsuit to return the Bank of Canada to its pre-1974 mandate and practice of lending money at near-zero interest to federal, provincial, and (potentially) municipal governments for infrastructure and healthcare spending.

Since 1974, when the governing Pierre Trudeau Liberals quietly bowed to the wishes of the private Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, Canadian governments have instead been borrowing from private and foreign lenders at market interest rates – resulting in hugely escalating deficits and debts.

Just paying off the accumulated compound interest – called “servicing the debt” – is a significant part of every provincial and federal annual budget, amounting to some $60 billion per year. Renowned constitutional lawyer Rocco Galati has taken on the case for COMER and is prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

In what appears to be a way to side-step the COMER lawsuit and the Bank of Canada, (and the Bank of Canada Act?), the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is moving forward with its plan – vaguely mentioned during the 2015 election campaign – for a new Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) to finance $120 billion in infrastructure spending over the next ten years. The CIB would apparently be the middleman between private investors and local governments (municipal and provincial) looking to fund infrastructure.

While the Trudeau government hasn’t said whether the new CIB would be a Crown corporation or how exactly it would function, some important details have recently emerged.

The Advisors

Just before the March release of the Federal Budget (which didn’t directly mention the CIB), the Ottawa Citizen’s Jason Fekete reported: “Ottawa has already taken steps to move the CIB project forward. It has recruited a Canadian investment banker working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the U.S. to help design the CIB and advise Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi on the project.” [2]

Working voluntarily out of Sohi’s office until late September, this Bank of America Merrill Lynch banker “will also work with large pension funds in Canada as part of the Liberal government’s efforts to persuade them to invest in Canadian infrastructure such as transit projects.”

Fekete added that “the government has also created a new, executive group position of Chief, Infrastructure at Finance Canada to advise Finance Minister Bill Morneau on the development of the Infrastructure Bank, the plans and priorities of the Infrastructure minister, and the Finance Department’s relationship with PPP Canada, a Crown corporation that delivers public infrastructure through public-private partnerships (P3s).”

As far as I can determine, by the end of April the names of these advisors have not been published in the press or on government websites – raising the question of why the secrecy?

Merrill Lynch and the Bank of America (which merged in 2008) were both involved in the massive Wall Street mishandling of asset-backed securities and investments that led to the 2008 Great Recession and the bank bailouts – which shook the world’s financial stability, with repercussions that have continued ever since.

It’s been reported that “backdoor bailouts” for Merrill Lynch and Bank of America reached “a combined $11.5 billion” in taxpayer monies. [3]

So why would the Trudeau government choose someone from Bank of America Merrill Lynch to advise them on setting up a CIB?

One possible answer comes if we look at the single biggest shareholder in Bank of America – a little-known company called BlackRock. [4]

World’s Biggest Investor

According to The Economist (Dec. 7, 2013), this company (that nobody’s heard of) turns out to be the world’s biggest investor, with more than $4 trillion in assets under management, and another $15 trillion that it manages (under something called the Aladdin risk-management platform) for investors worldwide. [5]

So influential is BlackRock that, according to The Economist, the company advised governments in the U.S., Greece and Britain on what to do with toxic assets from crashing banks, with co-founder, Chair and CEO Larry Fink becoming a Washington insider. [6]

These governments sought Fink’s advice, despite the fact that (as Fortune reported in 2008) BlackRock’s Larry Fink “was an early and vigorous promoter” of “the same mortgage-backed securities” responsible for the crisis. “Now his firm is making millions cleaning up these toxic assets,” Fortune noted.  [7]

Besides being Bank of America’s biggest shareholder, BlackRock owns part of Merrill Lynch and in 2009 BlackRock snapped up Barclays’ asset-management business, thereby boosting the assets under its control well into the trillions.

The current Board of Directors for BlackRock (blackrock.com) has some interesting people and corporate connections, including one Canadian – Gordon Nixon, the former President and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada who retired in 2014 and was appointed to the BlackRock Board in July 2015. [8]

In its extensive 2013 coverage on BlackRock, The Economist focused on the company’s risk-management platform called Aladdin – a massive data centre that “single-handedly manages almost as much money as all the world’s private equity and hedge funds,” while advising thousands of investors worldwide on where and how to invest. [9]

Calling Aladdin’s “prognostications” somewhat “discomfiting,” The Economist noted:  “Buyers, sellers and regulators may all be relying on the same assumptions, simply because they are all consulting Aladdin. In a panic, this could increase the risk of all of them wanting to jump the same way, making things worse.” [10]

With BlackRock advising on $15 trillion worth of investments globally, it wasn’t just The Economist that was worried. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research issued a 2013 report which “concluded that asset-management firms [like BlackRock] and the funds they run were ‘vulnerable to shocks’ and may engage in ‘herding’ behaviour that could amplify a shock to the financial system.” [11]

But BlackRock lobbied hard against such a view, and in April 2016 avoided greater oversight from regulators in the U.S. [12]

“Herding” Behaviour

Regardless of just who has been doing the “herding,” it’s obvious that, over the past two decades and increasingly since 2008, big investors like Bank of America, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley have been buying up and gaining control over what’s known as “the real economy” – the already-built airports, toll roads, sea ports, electricity production and transmission systems, water and wastewater systems, etc., across much of the developed world. These investments provide them with long-term, steady profits from tolls and rents increasing shareholder value that previously went to the public owners of the infrastructure.

As Web of Debt author Ellen Brown warned in 2013, such a trend represents “a return to a feudal landlord economy of unearned profits from rent-seeking.” [13]

The Toronto Star recently explained that such investments are “low-risk” and “with a predictable, long-term return” for the investor, which is why the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) – the investment arm of the CPP – in 2015 bought “a one-third stake in Associated British Ports, which owns 21 ports in the U.K., for $2.4 billion,” and a 25% stake ($500 million) in one road in Sydney, Australia. [14]

Mark Wiseman, the CEO of the CPPIB (with $283 billion in assets), recently told Bloomberg News that the CPPIB is looking for “projects of scale” – airports, toll roads, ports, etc. “Canada Pension, like many other large global investors, would rather acquire mature infrastructure assets than finance new projects because they’re safer, Wiseman said. He encouraged the [Canadian] federal government to look to places like Australia or the U.K. as examples of how Ottawa could utilize the capital of these global funds to meet its own infrastructure needs.” [15] 

The Australian Model

In 2013, the right-wing Australian government established its “Asset Recycling Initiative” – a program by which states and territorial governments decide which infrastructure assets to sell to the private sector, while the federal government grants 15 per cent of the sale price to the states/territories. The federal funds and proceeds from the sales are then used to fund new infrastructure projects. [16]

Australian critics of “asset recycling” say it is basically “selling a hospital to build a road,” with the federal government bribing local governments with incentive payments in order to sell off public assets. [17]

Canada’s CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) calls “asset recycling” basically “a new way to privatize all or part of a public asset such as a hydro utility or a government building” by selling or borrowing against physical assets to generate money for new investment. The Ontario government of Kathleen Wynne is engaging in “asset recycling” by selling off a majority stake in Hydro One (an electricity distribution system) in order to finance public transit – selling off transmission lines in order to pay for transit lines – thereby “sacrificing billions of dollars in future revenues from the crown corporation for a one-time payment.” [18]

The Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Nova Scotia acted as underwriters in Hydro One’s initial sell-off of 81.1 million shares in November 2015, with both banks holding an “option to purchase an additional 8.15 million shares.” [19]

The C.D. Howe Institute is recommending that other local governments in Canada imitate what Ontario is doing.

In its January 2016 brief about infrastructure financing, the right-wing think tank stated, “Canadian cities should first look to emulate Ontario’s provincial policy of selling underutilized assets – such as electricity distribution companies – to generate funding for infrastructure that governments necessarily must own.” [20]

(Not everyone considers electricity distribution systems to be an “underutilized asset.” In 2014, Warren Buffett snapped up AltaLink in Alberta for a mere $3.2 billion, after taxpayers had poured $16 billion into building the electricity transmission infrastructure serving four-fifths of the province.) [21]

Although the Trudeau Liberals’ March 2016 budget did not mention an infrastructure bank, it did refer to “asset recycling” in one sentence: “Where it is in the public interest, engage public pension plans and other innovative sources of funding – such as demand management initiatives and asset recycling – to increase the long-term affordability and sustainability of infrastructure in Canada.”

As first reported by the Canadian Press’s Andy Blatchford, “The federal government has identified a potential source of cash to help pay for Canada’s mounting infrastructure costs – and it could involve leasing or selling stakes in major public assets such as highways, rail lines, and ports. A line [mentioning asset recycling] tucked into last month’s federal budget reveals the Liberals are considering making public assets available to non-government investors, like public pension funds…Asset recycling is gaining an increasing amount of international attention and one of the best-known, large-scale examples is found in Australia.” [22]

Blatchford further reported: “Australia’s asset recycling model has been praised by influential Canadians such as Mark Wiseman, president and CEO of the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. ‘With growing infrastructure deficits worldwide…we often reference this model with our own government and others as one to follow to incent and attract long-term capital,’ Wiseman said in prepared remarks of a September speech [entitled “Building the Case for a Long-Term Perspective”] in Sydney to the Canadian Australian Chamber of Commerce.” [23]

Tangled Web

In her series about the CPP and the CPPIB published by the Huffington Post in January 2013, Amy MacPherson revealed the “dramatic changes” made to the CPP by the Harper government when first elected.

MacPherson wrote: “In 2007, new legislation altered CPP practices through measures contained in Bill C-36. By April 2007, all CPP assets were transferred to control of the investment board…and in 2012 they changed from passive management to active management techniques. Aggressive trading requires a team of involved experts, and staff at the CPP ballooned from 70 to 811 in the same short period. They’ve opened offices in Hong Kong and London, took on riskier markets, decreased Canadian equities in favour of foreign projects, hedged currency and shifted public holdings to private interests.” [24]

Overseeing the CPPIB’s “active management techniques” is a high-powered board of directors that includes Heather Munroe-Blum (director of the C. D. Howe Institute and the Royal Bank of Canada, and a member of the Trilateral Commission); Douglas W. Mahaffy (former Managing Director and Head of Investment Banking Ontario of Merrill Lynch Canada Inc.); and Kathleen Taylor (Chair of the Royal Bank of Canada).

With two Royal Bank of Canada directors on the CPPIB, this brings us back to Gordon Nixon, the former head of the Royal Bank of Canada and now a board member of Larry Fink’s BlackRock – the top shareholder in Bank of America Merrill Lynch and also the world’s largest investment company, which may have been “herding” investors in worrying ways.

As it turns out, BlackRock’s Larry Fink is also involved with CPPIB’s Mark Wiseman in a venture called Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), apparently a think-tank with both men on the Advisory Board. The mission statement (fclt.org) reads: “In 2013, CPPIB and McKinsey & Company co-founded Focusing Capital on the Long Term to develop practical structures, metrics, and approaches for longer-term behaviours in the investment and business worlds.”

In addition to the 10 Advisory Members in FCLT, there are 12 Members  – most of them  people who oversee pension funds, including Michael Sabia, President and CEO of the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, and Wayne Kozun of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

So the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan are directly involved with Larry Fink, co-founder and CEO of BlackRock, the biggest shareholder in Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

This may seem to be a tangled web, but arguably now we know better why the Canadian federal government has asked a Bank of America Merrill Lynch banker to advise on the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank.

PR Firms’ Involvement

In the globalized economy, giant investors expect to be able to pry open and seize the public assets of any country, including those in the developed world. Moreover, “asset recycling” sounds so much nicer than “structural adjustment program.”

According to speaking notes, CPPIB’s Mark Wiseman told the Canadian Australian Chamber of Commerce last September, “We have almost A$7 billion invested here in Australia, or about A$1.5 billion more than the last time I spoke here” in 2013. [25]

The “asset recycling” concept has first been applied in Australia, and it looks like the same team is hoping to apply it across Canada next.

As well, a major PR firm appears to be involved in the effort. One of the Members of the FCLT think-tank is Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman – one of the world’s largest PR firms, with 67 offices worldwide. (This is the same PR firm that was let go by TransCanada Corporation in 2014 after leaked documents revealed shady tactics for dealing with opposition to the Energy East tar sands pipeline.) [26] An Edelman office is the media-contact for inquiries about FCLT.

In addition, CPPIB director Michael Goldberg is also a director of BC-based Resource Works, which (according to its website) promotes “fact-based dialogue on responsible resource development in British Columbia.” Critics say Resource Works is a collection of PR flacks working especially for the oil and gas industry. [27]

Resource Works is currently promoting the export of Site C dam-generated electricity (scheduled to be online as of 2024) to power tar sands development in Alberta, enabling (as their website puts it) the “expansion of the oil sands powered by clean energy to avoid climate change.” The B.C. Christy Clark government (which has ties to Resource Works) is lobbying for federal “green infrastructure” cash to build this grid to Alberta, while the two provinces are discussing the possibility of a pipeline-for-electricity swap, in which Alberta would agree to buy B.C. electricity in exchange for B.C.’s permission for a tar sands export pipeline – Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain expansion and/or Enbridge’s Northern Gateway – to the West Coast. [28]

As reported in 2013, BlackRock is the biggest shareholder in ExxonMobil (owner of Imperial Oil) and Shell Oil [29], two of the tar sands producers pushing for pipeline access to tidewater on Canada’s coasts.

Struggling Local Governments

Provinces and municipalities across Canada are struggling financially, as neoliberal federal governments since the mid-1990s have cut transfer payments and further downloaded costs onto local governments (which have the least ability to raise revenues, basically through property taxes and user fees).

Many governments have tried P3s, often with disastrous results. In December 2014, Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk blasted the Ontario Liberals’ use of private money to finance new hospitals and transit, revealing that Infrastructure Ontario’s use of P3s had cost $8 billion more taxpayer dollars than traditional public financing would have. [30]

Lysyk also criticized a “high-risk” $224 million government loan to keep afloat the biotech MaRS office tower in Toronto, at the time mostly vacant. As the Toronto Star reported, “Four years ago [2010], the Liberals approved a rule change allowing the MaRS loan to go ahead after a U.S. developer partnering on the project failed to fill the building [with tenants]…Gord Nixon, chair of the MaRS board, said the non-profit organization is in ‘advanced negotiations’ that could lift the white elephant to 95 per cent occupancy. ‘I’m confident that we will be able to lease up the building and get this project back on track,’ said Nixon, the former chair of the Royal Bank of Canada.” [31]

Many Ontarians certainly remember the Auditor General’s remarks about $8 billion in P3 cost overruns.

More recently, Lysyk revealed Ontario’s mismanagement of the electricity system through vastly overpaying IPPs (independent power producers). The Auditor General determined that because of the terms for this partial privatization of electricity production, between 2008 and 2014 Ontarians overpaid for electricity by as much as $37 billion. [32]

So with P3s and partial privatizations now considered somewhat “toxic” by much of the taxpaying public, it appears that a new euphemism of “asset recycling” has been created, along with a new strategy of selling off assets in order to build new ones. Conveniently enough, all this is happening at the same time that rates for borrowing from private lenders are low.

The growing hype about “asset recycling” might well appeal to politicians, unless the public catches on and understands what’s happening.

Pension managers team up with private investors to take stakes in big assets, such as Australia’s Port of Melbourne – the country’s largest container terminal and the so-called “jewel in the crown” – which the government is hoping will sell/lease for $6 billion in order to finance other works. [33]

Needlessly starved for capital, governments are doing everything but take back their own monetary powers.

Hidden History

For decades (1938 to 1974), the publicly owned Bank of Canada funded a wide range of public infrastructure projects – the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, airports, hospitals, universities, etc. – by providing near-zero interest loans to provincial governments. None of these infrastructure projects caused inflationary problems in the economy, and none caused our governments to become indebted to private and foreign lenders. [34] That hidden history is now emerging, thanks to the efforts of many.

By contrast, the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank looks like a Trojan Horse that could usher in more indebtedness to private lenders and more corporate control – as neofeudal landlords – over necessary infrastructure such as water and wastewater systems, electricity systems, etc.

The founding members of COMER have long questioned neoliberalism’s economic model based on exponential growth, with escalating private profits considered supreme.

As COMER Vice-chair Herb Wiseman told me by email, “P3s are not really about government financing because of scarce money, but another con job by corporations to expand their operations in order to enhance shareholder value. It is made to look like governments are asking for this form of help when in fact it serves the corporate interests for never-ending growth on a finite planet.”

Globe & Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski has urged “sober second thought” about infrastructure spending, citing examples in Spain, Greece and Japan (seduced by low borrowing rates from private lenders) where massive spending has created “money pit” infrastructure that nobody uses. [35]

Yakabuski noted, “If government spending on superlatively smooth highways, sleek subways and far-stretching fast trains was the ticket to success, Japan, Spain and Greece would lead the global economy. Instead, infrastructure spending has been a major source of their debt-induced woes.” [36] Yakabuski refers to “our infrastructure envy,” suggesting that Canada is being herded down a path that other governments have already followed into further massive debt to private lenders.

Renowned economist Michael Hudson (author of Killing the Host) bluntly warns that this path is “the road to debt serfdom,” with a rising financial oligarchy “impoverishing the 99%.” [37]

The Trudeau government’s appointment of a banker from Bank of America Merrill Lynch to advise on creating a new infrastructure bank is the most politicized appointment possible, aside from appointing BlackRock’s Larry Fink himself.

We’ll know more about what this proposed Trojan Horse looks like when (and if) the advisor’s report is released in the next few months.

(Postscript: On May 18 the Financial Post reported that Mark Wiseman, the chief executive of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, is leaving that post in June and will take “a senior leadership role” at BlackRock in September). [38] 

***

Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books. This article was originally published in the current issue of Economic Reform, the Journal of the Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform, dated March-April 2016.

 

Footnotes

[1] Gordon Isfeld, “Stephen Poloz defends the central bank’s independence from Finance Department,” Financial Post, April 13, 2016.

[2] Jason Fekete, “Stakes are huge as Liberal government moves forward on Canada Infrastructure Bank,” Ottawa Citizen, March 18, 2016.

[3] Pam Martens and Russ Martens, “One Forgotten Document Casts Embarrassing Light on Krugman’s ‘Sanders Over the Edge’ Column,” Wallstreetonparade.com, April 12, 2016.

[4] “The Rise of BlackRock,” The Economist, December 7, 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The Monolith and the Markets,” The Economist, December 7, 2013.

[7] Katrina Brooker, “Can This Man Save Wall Street?” Fortune, November 10, 2008.

[8] Business Wire, “BlackRock Announces Appointment of Gordon M. Nix to Board of Directors,” July 30, 2015.  

[9] “The Monolith and the Markets,” The Economist, December 7, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ryan Tracy and Sarah Krouse, “One Firm Getting What It Wants in Washington: BlackRock,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ellen Brown, “Our Banks Own Airports, Control Power Plants and Much More – How Can We Stop Them from Controlling the Lifelines of the Economy?” AlterNet, August 26, 2013.

[14] Adam Mayers, “Why the CPP is snapping up ports and dorms: Mayers,” Toronto Star, March 7, 2016.

[15] Scott Deveau (Bloomberg), “Canadian pension funds urge Trudeau to think big on infrastructure:  ‘We’re looking for projects of scale’,” Financial Post, March 16, 2016.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Daniel Hurst and Paul Farrell, “Senate blocks government’s ‘asset recycling’ model,” The Guardian, July 18, 2014.

[18] CUPE, “Ours to keep:  municipal public services and assets,” cupe.ca, May 28, 2015.

[19] Canadian Press, “Hydro One Debuts On TSX In Canada’s Largest IPO In 15 Years,” November 5, 2015.

[20] Benjamin Dachis, “Getting More Buildings for our Bucks: Canadian Infrastructure Policy in 2016,” The C.D. Howe Institute, January 13, 2016.

[21] Joyce Nelson, “The Rockefeller Files, Part 3: Ontario election and privatization,” Rabble.ca, June 6, 2014.

[22] Andy Blatchford (Canadian Press), “Liberals consider non-government investors to help pay for infrastructure,” Toronto Star, April 24, 2015.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Amy MacPherson, “Where Your CPP Money Really Goes: Parts 1 & 2,” Huffington Post, January 17 and 22, 2013.

[25] Mark Wiseman, “Building the Case for a Long-Term Perspective,” CPP Investment Board, September 16, 2015.

[26] The Canadian Press, “TransCanada cuts ties with U.S. public relations firm Edelman,” CBC News, November 26, 2014.

[27] Rafe Mair, “A PR Flack’s Guide to LNG: Dream Team tries to repair industry’s image,” Thecommonsensecanadian.ca, March 15, 2015.

[28] Gary Mason, “Alberta, B.C. discuss deal to swap pipeline for electricity,” The Globe & Mail, April 20, 2016.

[29] “The Rise of BlackRock,” The Economist, December 7, 2013.

[30]  Rob Ferguson, “Auditor general blasts Liberals’ public-private funding and ‘high-risk’ MaRS loan,” Toronto Star, December 9, 2014.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Coming soon: Ontario’s green energy fiasco, the sequel,” The Globe & Mail, April 29, 2016. [Note: this article is no longer available on www.theglobeandmail.com so we have linked to it on greenenergyinvesting.net]

[33] Lucille Keen, “Asset recycling not beyond the new Labor,” afr.com, April 13, 2016.

[34] Joyce Nelson, “Bank of Canada Lawsuit,” Watershed Sentinel, January 11, 2016.

[35] Konrad Yakabuski, “Infrastructure spending is no miracle cure,” The Globe & Mail, April 23, 2015.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Michael Hudson and Gordon Long, “Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and Is Draining It,” Counterpunch.org, May 2, 2016.

[38] Barbara Shecter, “CPPIB’s Mark Machin to take over as CEO Mark Wiseman departs for job at BlackRock,” Financial Post, May 18, 2016.

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