07/01/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Rio 2016: Innovative Tools to Finance Urban Infrastructure

Together with the World Cup in 2014, the 2016 Olympic Games will serve as yet another indicator of Brazil's irrefutable dynamism and increased importance on the world stage. As the recent protests in the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and through over 80 other Brazilian cities have demonstrated, such glamorous, large-scale mega events come hand-in-hand with a slew of international investment. The upcoming events will play an instrumental role in advancing Brazil's domestic development goals. In fact, if Brazil overcomes current uncertainties, the Olympics could be the key to a fundamental transformation in Brazil's development patterns, signaling a new era for urban development in Brazil and around the world. Rio de Janeiro's innovative circumvention of federal limitations on municipal finance may serve as a model for burgeoning cities in the global south looking to secure infrastructure investment despite restrictive fiscal policies.

A History of Finance Obstacles for Brazilian Cities

In its attempt to centralize the national economy, the 1988 Constitution required that each request for domestic borrowing by a municipal or state entity be subject to Senate approval. Even with this safeguard, fiscal imprudence by Brazilian cities forced two successive federal bailouts of the largest cities, followed by a debt restructuring. The debacle ended in the comprehensive prohibition of municipal bonds for any purpose other than debt refinancing. A law passed in the year 2000 sought to further curb credit abuses by sub-national government through even stricter fiscal responsibility measures.

These financial regulations have dramatically influenced the economic profiles of Brazilian cities, and reduced the feasibility of urban infrastructure investment. Principally, the lack of developed municipal debt issuance vehicles forces cities in emerging markets to borrow more expensively in foreign currencies, as evinced by the experience of Rio de Janeiro. The city has relied on multilateral agencies such as the World Bank for capital investment funds due to the dearth of other borrowing mechanisms. These agencies, meanwhile, can rely on Brazil's federal government to underwrite the debt. Though BNDES, Brazil's development bank, also frequently contributes to municipal coffers, its efforts discourage private investment and long-term dependence on the bank as the sole lender is not sustainable. Thus, despite the fact that Rio's per capita GDP is 25% higher than the rest of Brazil, the city's exorbitant public debt continues to grow, negatively impacting its credit rating and drawing additional scrutiny from the private sector. Furthermore, restrictions on the economic independence of municipalities encourage less directed investment; cities take advantage of federal underwriting on the externally influenced projects they manage to obtain rather than assuming responsibility for funding a more comprehensive infrastructure investment plan.

Globally, these funding dynamics are somewhat unusual. They contrast sharply with Chinese intergovernmental transfers, which critics claim mask indebtedness while spurring overzealous infrastructure projects. Nor do they find precedent in the mixed model of municipal bond issuance and federal funding on which much of America's infrastructure was built. For the second-largest Latin American economy, Mexico, the investment environment is also quite distinct; proximity to the U.S. and carefully monitored relationships with private investors have been the key to infrastructure development there. The internationally dependent nature of Brazilian municipal finance illustrates the extent to which cities have been forced to innovate around restrictive economic policies.

Unfortunately, this innovation remains only moderately successful, at the expense of Brazilian urban residents. Recent research has demonstrated that investments as simple as street paving, not to mention mega-projects, can generate economic returns for low-income residents that more than justify projects' costs. Brazil, at this turning point in its economic history, needs these types of investments more than ever.

Infrastructure and Development

Brazil's economy continues to receive widespread criticism, largely due to social indicators that contrast with its level of industrialization. The halving of poverty rates over the last two decades notwithstanding, the country ranks a mere 100th in GDP per capita, and more than a quarter of the population remains below the poverty line. The state of infrastructure throughout the country parallels the socio-economic imbalance; even if it were to increase its infrastructure investment eightfold, Brazil would still lag twenty years behind South Korea. A meager fourteen percent of the nation's roads are paved and the lamentable state of housing in even its wealthiest cities is well-documented. The inability of local and regional governments around the nation to improve quality of life through infrastructure and service upgrades stems, in part, from the restrictive municipal borrowing environment.

The Olympics: A Trojan Horse for Infrastructure Investment

Having created a special governmental authority to coordinate Olympic planning and implementation efforts among the various levels of government, as well as with the private sector, Rio de Janeiro can now benefit from accelerated investment mechanisms. While federal investments would not have supported meaningful improvements prior to Olympic planning, the Municipal Olympic Company has sourced funding for city-wide bus rapid transit systems, the construction of over 300,000 homes, and sustainable waste management centers . The scale of investment has attracted competitive private sector bids, successfully leveraging secured federal funds for increased results. With the goal of representing Brazil in a positive light and executing a successful Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has orchestrated the financing of social programs and citywide infrastructural upgrades.

Without the World Cup and Olympics to provide the appropriate political backdrop, it is unlikely that Rio would have been able to draw as much infrastructural investment as the city now expects to see by 2016. Increased state and federal funding, as well as the necessary contributions of private investors attracted by projects of substantial scale, will all have aided in the execution of a comprehensive development plan. Rio de Janeiro is setting an important example. Through international bond markets, mega-events, or entirely new strategies, burgeoning cities in the global south will increasingly need to build innovative pathways around restrictions on infrastructure investment.