Investment analysts in New York and Australia charge that Macquarie, the Australian conglomerate leasing U.S. toll roads, is a “house of cards” that has made billions by spinning off the highway assets into over-valuated investment trusts controlled by the bank.
Macquarie has been an active participant in the “public-private partnerships” sponsored by Mary Peters when she was head of the Federal Highway Administration.
In both projects, Macquarie has partnered with Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, S.A., the Spanish investment consortium also involved in financing and leasing the Trans-Texas Corridor.
The criticism of Macquarie can be traced to a paper published last year by John L. Goldberg, an honorary associate at the School of Architecture, Design Science, and Planning at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Titled “The Fatal Flaw in the Financing of Private Road Infrastructure in Australia,” the paper argued equity investors in Macquarie investment trusts are likely to suffer heavy losses by excessive valuations Macquarie makes of financed toll roads that are packaged together to be sold to pension funds and other institutional investors.
Goldberg also argued that government guarantees on Macquarie projects are often buried in the confidential part of toll road “comprehensive development agreements,” such that the public taxpayer liability only comes to light when a toll road project fails.
Jim Chanos, a founding principal in the New York investment firm Kynikos Associates, has been equally critical of Macquarie.
Kynikos, founded in 1985, specializes in short-selling the stock of companies the firm believes are overvalued by the financial markets and likely to fall in price. Chanos distinguished himself as one of the most active critics of Enron prior to the company’s fall.
In a May 30 radio interview with Australian talk-show host Mark Colvin, Chanos charged that the “Macquarie model” was seriously flawed.
“The bank scours the world buying assets,” Chanos told the radio audience, “buying assets, everything from toll roads to bowling alleys and selling them into separate trusts that the bank controls. This generates triple fees for Macquarie Bank: one for the up-front purchase; a second for selling the assets into the trust; then ongoing management and performance fees from the funds.”
Chanos charged that the loser in the scheme was the investor.
“If you look at the financial accounts of the trusts,” Chanos explained to the Australian talk show, “you’ll see that in almost all the cases the companies are using Australian re-valuation accounting which is legal under [Generally Accepted Accounting Practices] in your country to write up the value of the asset annually and put that through operating income and into equity.”
Chanos argued that the practice only works in a financial environment in which cheap credit is readily available and valuations for infrastructure projects are generally rising.
“You need a credit environment that looks the other way, or you need a credit environment where the people lending are just lending on reputation or not numbers,” Chanos said.
Eventually, he contended, the self-dealing between Macquarie and the Macquarie-controlled funds into which the infrastructure assets are sold is likely to crash.
“All I would tell your listeners,” Chanos said in the radio interview, “is simply just go to the trusts, the financial statements, and simply extract out the asset re-valuation number, which is basically management’s guess as to how much, what the asset’s worth and just see what the cash flow looks like. In many cases, the cash flows are diminished or actually go negative. That’s the simple litmus test to the Macquarie model.”
Still, Chanos argued that despite the problem in the underlying cash flows, Macquarie makes hefty profits.
“Capital gains alone in the fiscal year 2007, just for flipping these types of assets into the trusts, accounted for half of the pre-tax income of Macquarie Bank,” Chanos asserted.
Macquarie Bank has hit back strongly against both critics.
According to newspaper reports in Australia, Macquarie Bank executive Warwick Smith complained to University of Sidney Vice Chancellor Gavin Brown, demanding that the university dissociate itself from Goldberg over his critical research.
In response, Brown issued a statement clarifying that Goldberg is not an employee of the University of Sydney, though he has been given the title of honorary associate by the Faculty of Architecture. In his statement, Brown claimed Goldberg “speaks as an individual and the university accepts no responsibility for his comments which it does not endorse.”
In the subsequent controversy that erupted in Australia, Goldberg was featured as a case study in “Silencing Dissent,” a book critical of the administration of Prime Minister John Howard, published in Australia by Clive Hamilton, the executive director of a prominent Australian think-tank, and his co-editor Sarah Maddison.
In the book, Hamilton and Maddison charged that the Howard government used strong-arm tactics to challenge the tax status of non-government organizations and ruin the reputations of academics who were critical of governmental policies, including the sale of highway infrastructure leasing rights to private investment concerns in Australia.
Macquarie used a similar personal attack to discredit Chanos following the interview on Australian radio.
In a May 31 statement posted on the Macquarie website, the investment group charged that Chanos, “a hedge fund short-seller of equities,” had an economic self-interest in advancing “incorrect claims” that could cause the stock price of Macquarie to fall.
When contacted for comment, Macquarie’s New York representative referred WND to the company’s online statement, in which Macquarie asserts that all assets acquired by funds controlled by Macquarie are valued directly from the market and subject to the approval of independent directors of the funds.
The published Macquarie response to Chanos also cited a May 25 Bloomberg report which quoted Chanos as saying Kynikos maintains a short position on Macquarie.
Short-selling is a Wall Street practice in which an investor borrows and sells stock the investor does not own, anticipating the stock will go down in value. The short-seller profits by buying shares at a lower price to replace the shares that originally were borrowed and sold at the higher price.
Short-sellers lose money if the price of the stock increases and the cost to purchase shares to replace those borrowed is greater than the price for which the borrowed shares were sold.
The website of Macquarie Infrastructure Group bills the company as “one of the largest private developers of toll roads in the world.”