Private Finance Initiative (PFI): Benefits, Drawbacks, Examples

What Is a Private Finance Initiative (PFI)?

A private finance initiative (PFI) is a way of financing public-sector projects through the private sector. PFIs alleviate the government and taxpayers of the immediate burden of coming up with the capital for these projects.

Under a private finance initiative, a private company handles the up-front costs instead of the government. In return, the government authority makes payments to the private company over the long term.

The term “private finance initiative” is used primarily in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the United States, PFIs are typically called public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Key Takeaways

  • A private finance initiative (PFI) is a way for the public sector to finance big public-works projects through the private sector.
  • PFIs take the burden off governments and taxpayers in terms of raising capital for the projects.
  • Governments repay private firms over the long term.

Private Finance Initiatives & Public-Private Partnerships

How Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) Work

Private finance initiatives are used to fund major public works. Many are infrastructure projects that benefit the public sector. These include highways and roadways, and transport projects such as railroads, airports, bridges, and tunnels. Private-sector firms may also be contracted to construct water and wastewater facilities, prisons, public schools, arenas, and sports facilities.

Instead of funding these projects up front from taxpayers, private firms are hired to finance, manage, and complete the projects. The private firms typically make their money back through long-term repayments from the government or revenue generated from the project—for example, highway tolls. Under this arrangement, the government does not have to lay out a large sum of money at once to fund a major project.

Depending on the type of project, PFI contracts typically last 20 to 30 years. They can run longer or shorter depending on the project.

The public-sector partner is responsible for clearly defining the objectives of the project and making sure that the private-sector partner complies with the terms of the partnership.

Real-World Example of a Private Finance Initiative

In 2020, the U.S. government engaged in public-private partnerships in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It partnered with private vaccine developers such as Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna. The end result was launching effective vaccines in less than a year.

Public-private partnerships were also responsible for innovations in COVID-19 testing, treatment options, and vaccine distribution throughout the country.

Advantages of Private Finance Initiatives

Governments have traditionally had to raise money on their own to fund public infrastructure projects. If they aren’t able to find the money, governments may also borrow from the bond market, then hire and pay contractors to complete the job. This can often be very cumbersome, which is where the PFI comes in.

PFIs are intended to improve on-time project completion and transfer some of the risks associated with constructing and maintaining these projects from the public sector to the private sector.

PFIs also improve the relationship between the public and private sectors, while providing both with long-term advantages. Through this relationship, both sectors can share knowledge and resources.

Financial advisors, such as investment banks, help manage the bidding, negotiating, and financing of a PFI.

Disadvantages of Private Finance Initiatives

A key drawback of private finance initiatives is that since the repayment terms typically include payments plus interest, the burden may end up being transferred to future taxpayers. In addition, the arrangements sometimes include not only construction but also ongoing maintenance once the projects are complete, which further increases a project’s future cost and tax burden.

There is also a risk that private-sector firms may not comply with relevant safety or quality standards when managing a project.

In addition, terminating a PFI contract before it ends can be highly complex, as most projects are not able to secure private financing without assurances that the financing of the project will be repaid in the case of termination. In most termination cases, the public sector is required to repay the debt and take ownership of the project. In practice, termination is considered only as a last resort.

Criticism of PFIs in the U.K.

Private finance initiatives were first implemented in the United Kingdom in 1992 and became more popular after 1997. In the 2000s, controversy surrounding PFIs revealed that the government was spending significantly more on these projects than they were worth to the benefit of the private firms running them and to the taxpayers’ detriment. In addition, PFIs have been criticized by some as an accounting gimmick to reduce the appearance of public-sector borrowing.

What are examples of private finance initiative (PFI) projects?

Private finance initiatives (PFIs) typically include major government projects such as highways, public transport, airports, bridges, and tunnels. Other examples of private finance initiatives include hospitals, arenas, prisons, and public schools.

What are the benefits of private finance initiatives?

One of the main benefits of private finance initiatives is alleviating the immediate financial burden on a government and taxpayers to finance major public-sector projects. PFIs can also transfer some of the risks associated with a project from the public sector to the private sector.

How long do private finance initiative projects last?

Private finance initiative projects usually take decades to complete. Contracts typically last 20 to 30 years.

The Bottom Line

Private finance initiatives (PFIs) allow governments and the private sector to join forces to finance and implement projects that benefit the public sector. While PFIs have some potential downsides, governments around the world have used them for decades to finance a wide variety of projects, ranging from highways to hospitals. Referred to as public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the United States, such partnerships were instrumental in developing COVID-19 vaccines.

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  1. The World Bank, Public-Private Partnership Legal Resource Center. “Public-Private Partnerships Reference Guide: What Is a PPP: Defining ‘Public-Private Partnership’,” Pages 5–10 (Pages 18–23 of PDF).

  2. The World Bank, Public-Private Partnership Legal Resource Center. “PPP Reference Guide,” Pages 2–3 of PDF.

  3. International Road Federation. “Public Private Partnerships in Highway Construction.”

  4. Nasdaq. “Public-Private Partnerships Are Key to Improving America’s Pandemic Response Now and in the Future.”

  5. National Institutes of Health. “NIH to Launch Public-Private Partnership to Speed COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Options.”

  6. The World Bank, Public-Private Partnership Legal Resource Center. “Government Objectives: Benefits and Risks of PPPs.”

  7. The World Bank, Public-Private Partnership Legal Resource Center. “Termination Provisions.”

  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information. “The Politics of the Private Finance Initiative and the New NHS.”

  9. BBC News. “MPs Say Hospitals Face Disruption as PFI Contracts End.”