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Some of the biggest investment firms on Wall Street have started exploring ways they can make big bucks in the lucrative public infrastructure business.

Goldman Sachs led the charge by netting a tidy US$9-million fee for advising the City of Chicago on the $1.8-billion sale of a 99-year concession for a toll road. This gave the bankers the idea to invest in public infrastructure deals themselves. Goldman is now busy raising a $3-billion fund for that purpose. One Goldman division recently bid on a P3 to run the Dulles toll road outside Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the investment bank Crédit Suisse is investigating how it can leverage its expertise in buying real estate and advising on the sale of airports.

Wall Street’s model is an Australian investment bank named Macquarie – the same people that acquired that Chicago toll road concession and inspired Goldman Sachs.

In recent years, Macquarie has become the envy of Wall Street by buying the rights to operate infrastructure projects including ports, tunnels and airports, as well as toll roads, packaging them in funds and reselling the stock in those funds to the public, minting money at each stage along the way,” the New York Times recently noted.

Since the mid-1990s, Macquarie has been acquiring giant assets all over the world by borrowing other people’s money – mostly the retirement nest eggs of Australian workers. The bank makes most of its money off exorbitant fees. Macquarie has become so ubiquitous in some circles that its deals are known as “macquisitions.”

Macquarie rose to prominence by advising the Australian government on the sale of its public assets during a major denationalization and P3 drive in the early 1990s.

- With files from the New York Times