As the Congressional Supercommittee announces its failure, one unexplored solution looms large: privatization of state-owned property.
From Amtrak to interstate highways, the U.S. government's balance sheet is bloated with assets lacking the funding to support them. According to Downsizing Government, the United States owns nearly $3 trillion in assets, many an ongoing liability and expense to taxpayers. Selling them would raise cash and, in the case of roads and other services, improve customers' experience as well.
The Constitution says nothing regarding Federal ownership of corporations or property, even as the Federal government owns approximately one quarter of the country's land. Yet, the United States, unlike many other countries, has not actively pursued divestitures.
Conrail, built by the government in the 1970s on the backs of bankrupt private railroad operators, was privatized in 1987 for $1.7 billion, the equivalent of $3.4 billion today. The Elk Hills Oil Field, which sat untouched by the Federal Government for decades, was sold to Occidental Petroleum (OXY)
In the United States, we might think about investing in airlines, but not in the airports themselves because most large scale infrastructure assets are still owned by government-related entities. LaGuardia Airport, for example, is owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In contrast, Auckland Airport, New Zealand's largest, is owned by a public company that's actively traded on the New Zealand Stock Exchange. Macquarie Atlas Roads, listed in Australia, is a publicly traded owner/operator of toll roads worldwide--including the aforementioned Chicago Skyway.
And while you can't invest in most U.S. assets--yet, three companies currently listed on the NYSE own or operate airports throughout Mexico, offering economic benefits to the government, consumer, as well as private investors.
Airports as Investments in Mexico
Grupo Aeroportuario Centro Norte, S.A. de C.V. (OMAB)
Grupo Aeroportuario Del Sureste SA de CV (ASR)
Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico S.A.B. de CV (PAC)
When pressed for cash and behind on bills, most rational individuals' response would be to lighten the load by selling assets, as many have done over the past three years. Given the $14 trillion debt and the failed Supercommittee's promise of substantial cuts, our government could learn a thing or two from most rational individuals.
The time for large scale privatization is now.—Jonathan Hoenig is managing member at Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC.