Tonight’s the Night: Will the President Speak on Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Seal of the POTUSThe State of the Union speech marking the beginning of a Presidents second term has historically been a chance for the President to lay out big, hairy, audacious goals for the upcoming administration.  Reagan had tax reform, Clinton had education, and GW had Social Security reform.  Some were achieved while others failed.  So too tonight, Obama will lay out his agenda for the next four years.  Given the economic condition of the US right now, it is rightly expected that jobs will be a major theme of the speech, but some others for consideration:

  1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
  2. Deficit Reduction
  3. Economic Growth
  4. Immigration
  5. Gun Violence

Missing from this list is Climate Change.  Will the President even mention those words tonight?  With North Korea’s nuclear test last night, I expect the President to devote more time and attention to foreign policy issues rather than outlining climate initiatives.  Prove me wrong Mr. President.

Question for my readers:  Will Obama mention Climate Change or Renewable Energy in tonight’s State of the Union address?

World Energy Outlook 2012

The International Energy Agency released their 2012 version of World Energy Outlook today and it featured some interesting highlights.  Here are some of the points that peaked my interest:

  • In 2011, fossil fuel subsidies grew 30% to $523 billion while renewable energy received just $88 billion.

Fossil fuels according to the New Policies Scenario:

  • The US will become the largest oil producer by 2017, a net exporter of natural gas by 2020, and will be almost energy-self-sufficient (in net terms) by 2035.
  • Global oil demand increases by 7mb/d to 99mb/d in 2035 at which time price reach $125/ barrel (real terms) = (over $215/ barrel nominal terms).
  • The gas boom in North America will reverse the direction of the international oil trade, with almost 90% of Middle Eastern exports destined for Asia. 
  • Natural gas demand increase by 50% in 2035, with most of the production coming from the US, Australia, and China.
  • By 2035 we can achieve efficiency savings equivalent to 20% of global demand in 2010. 
  • By 2015 renewables become the world’s second-largest source of power generation, closing in on coal as the primary source by 2035. 

In the Efficient World Scenario, greater efforts are placed on energy efficiency measures that would cut the global demand by half.  Other benefits realized in this scenario include:

  • Global oil demand would peak by 2020 and be 13mb/d lower by 2035. 
  • “The accrued resources would facilitate a gradual reorientation of the global economy, boosting cumulative economic output to 2035 by $18 trillion, with the biggest gains in India, China, the United States and Europe.”

This is all well and good, but there are a few things to note about the conclusions:

  1. Energy sufficiency does not mean that we will be insulated from the price spikes on the global market.
  2. Approximately 55% of America’s energy self-sufficiency is from increased production – the remaining 45% is from increased energy efficiency measures such as better gas mileage in cars and trucks, more efficient buildings, and smarter appliances.
  3. Electricity prices in the US will be about half that of Europe as power plants switch to cheap natural gas.  This will be a huge boom for the economy as heavy industry repopulate parts of the mid-west.  However, in terms of climate change, increased use of natural gas will be offset by increased coal usage in the developing world.

Finally, and very sobering, the report concluded that the unless a global emissions agreement is implemented by 2017, the planet will not remain within the 2 degree Celsius range that most scientists agree is the upper safe limit on warming.

Believe in Competition

One of the key components to having renewable energy achieving price parity with fossil fuels is the growth in global demand. As more systems are manufactured, efficiencies attributable to the learning curve and to economies of scale will allow the cost of RE systems to come down. However, in order to reach the global markets, you need a reputable product that meets the customers needs. By investing in science, technology, engineering, and physics the USA can lead this developing market for renewable energy products. While our political leaders debate the existence of climate change, the rest of the world has gotten busy developing products to meet this challenge. In a globalized market, the spoils are going to go to the leader in any given industry. Each firm has a duty to make a product better, cheaper, or leave the marketplace if they can not do this. If not, a hungrier competitor will definitely step forward to take your place.

Subsidies to the Energy Industry

“I am a big fan of clean energy, but I am bigger fan of a robust economy.”

-Mr. Greenbacks, 2012

Subsidies to the energy industry are nothing new, they have been around for decades.  Generally speaking, subsidies fall into three main categories: Direct Spending, Tax Expenditures, and Loan Guarantees.   For most of the 20th century, fossil fuels have enjoyed a long run of subsidies such as tax breaks, tax credits, tax exemptions, and deferred depreciation, just to name a few.  This extended period government support firmly entrenched fossil fuels as the sole providers of energy by making renewable energy prohibitively expensive by comparison.  The roles reversed in 2009 with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that eliminated some subsidies for fossil fuels and expanded subsidies for renewables.  However, as you can see below, the level of support to fossil fuels is still 6x greater than renewables.

  • The IEA estimates that in 2010 worldwide fossil fuel subsidies totaled $409 billion.  That number is expected to rise to over $650 billion by 2020 unless changes are made.
  • By comparison, only $66 billion was spent to subsidize renewable energy.

Misguided Policy?
So what is the role of subsidies?  Subsidies should be used to level the financial barriers for new and emerging technologies in order to compete in the marketplace.  Once these technologies are mature enough to stand alone, the subsidy should be removed in order to let the market forces take over and determine a true price for the product.  The support should then go on to fund another technology that could possibly compete with the first one in order to advance a competitive marketplace.   By keeping the subsidy in place for too long, one can create artificial demand that encourages waste and can quickly drain government coffers.  This could apply to any industry, but right now we are focused on the energy industry.

So should we remove all subsidies to the energy industry?  No!  The renewable energy industry has seen more ups and downs than the Cyclone on Coney Island.  Most of these Boom and Bust cycles have been created through a rush of investment in good times (subsidy ON!) followed by a lack of capital (subsidy OFF!) when the music stops.  A clear and definite subsidy policy should be implemented in order to remove the uncertainty faced by investors of clean energy projects.

Subsidies to Renewable Energy
I am a big fan of clean energy, but I am bigger fan of a robust economy.  In today’s economic climate, governments must be extremely careful how they spend their resources.  The current policies offering subsidies to the renewable energy industry have done a wonderful job of creating widespread deployment of clean energy projects.  However, many of these projects are only profitable because of the subsidy.  Current policies should be revamped in order to drive innovation and cost reductions so that renewables such as wind and solar can compete with cheap natural gas WITHOUT the subsidy.

In order to maximize the value of taxpayer dollars the following objectives should be implemented:

  1. Remove subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in order to establish a true market value that takes into account the negative externalities of these resources.  A small fee can be added to fossil fuel transactions to help fund clean energy research.
  2. New subsidies should promote efficiency gains and cost reductions through the use of steadily improving, performance-based standards.
  3. These subsidies should target advanced technologies, decrease as the cost declines, and be temporary in order to deter ongoing support.
  4. The US must increase its investment in R&D as well as leverage talent from universities and the private sector in order to establish public-private partnerships and regional clusters of advanced research and manufacturing.
  5. Utilize the strength and size of the DOD to drive commercialization of technological advances made through ARPA-E.

Implementing these policies will go a long way toward maximizing public dollars, creating a competitive clean tech industry, and ending the addiction to fossil fuels.

Gas Prices (again)

Mrs. Greenbacks asked me an interesting question this morning, “Do you think the recent drop in gas prices has anything to do with the election this year?”  The short answer is – No.  It is probably a dream of every President to be able to control gas prices in an election year, but the simple truth is that they do not have that ability.  The oil market is a worldwide phenomena driven by consumption, much of it coming from emerging economies.  I explained some of the reasons in an earlier post – What goes up.  The only thing POTUS can do to ease pain at the pump is to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but even that wouldn’t make much difference.  As of 6/8/12 the SPR had approximately 695 million bbls in the quiver – about 36.5 days worth at current usage rates.  Even if President Obama ordered a full drawdown of the SPR we could only withdraw 4 mil bbls per day for up to 90 days when the rate would slow.  However, tapping into the SPR to ease high gas prices defeats the purpose of the reserve in the first place.  Energy efficient cars and smarter cities would have a much bigger impact on the price of gas.  However, as less consumption forces the price of oil to go down, we must not fall into the trap where we increase usage again.

Simpson-Bowles on Charlie Rose

Back in March, Charlie Rose had on Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform a/k/a the Deficit Reduction Committee.  Their view is that spending cuts and tax increases alone are not enough to get us out of our fiscal hole.  We must make difficult choices as a nation in order to pull through this.  However, those choices are not politically feasible and the plan was discarded.  Here is a clip from the 3/29/2012 interview where Mr. Bowles states why the Simpson-Bowles plan has not been adopted.  I can only urge you to watch the full interview at http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12265

Sideways Market

If there is one question that keeps coming up from within my loyal fan base, it is “Mr. Greenbacks, how far into the Great recession are we?”  Well, Grasshopper, that depends.  Right now things seemed to have stabilized at least in terms of the stock market and job losses.  I truly feel that the word “recovery” is a bit strong and premature for where we are right now.  Basically, I feel that we are about half way into this sideways market.  The theory of sideways markets has been put forth in a book by Vitaliy N. Katsenelson called The Little Book of Sideways Markets.  In his book, Mr. Katsenelson proposes that there are no real bear markets, except for the Great Depression.  All the subsequent downturns have been part of an extended “Sideways Market” where the market has ups and downs but remains flat until the next bull market kicks in.  A sideways market is characterized by P/E compression and generally lasts 20 years.  Historically, the P/E of the stock market has been about 16x earnings and we are currently around 20x.  During the height of the Great Recession in 2009, the P/E ratio dropped below 15x.Seeking Alpha Currenly, we are on the more expensive side of the chart as pictured below, but we are also experiencing record company profits due to the lean operations they are running.  Once businesses start hiring again, the margins will shrink and the P/E rations should come down as well.  One of the points that Katsenelson makes is that the only way to play a sideways market is to buy solid companies with strong brand recognition when they are undervalued, and get out as soon as they reach full valuation.  As a buy and hold investor, this goes against my principles, but I do agree on buying financially strong, dividend paying companies when they are beaten down.  In order to accomplish this, patience must be practiced.  If Mr. Katsenelson is correct, we are about half way through this sideways market (he argues that the current sideways market began in 2001) and can expect plenty of ups and downs in the near future before the next bull market takes over.  Until then, my suggestion is to make a list of desireable companies that you want to own, and strike on the dips.  Only time can tell whether we are in a sideways market or not, but buying strong companies when they are out of favor with Mr. Market is always a good idea.

Trade Wars

Forbidden City A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. no wait, that was Star Wars, what did I want to write about?  Oh yeah, Trade Wars!   Let’s try this again . . .Not so long ago, in a city just as dysfunctional as the late stages of the Galactic Republic, but centered in the US and called Washington D.C., a bill passed the Senate . . .

There is wide consensus that the Chinese yuan is considerably undervalued with some economists citing ranges between 20-40%.  While the renminbi is officially classified as a “managed floating exchange rate” whereby it is allowed to appreciate or depreciate within a narrow band against a basket of currencies, it sure feels like it is pegged to the dollar at a steep discount, dramatically lowering the cost of Chinese goods for export.  This also has the effect of a tax on US imports to China, making foreign goods seem more expensive on the Chinese market.  This has been a constant thorn in politicians’ sides over the past few years, especially those whose constituents reside in hard hit areas of the economy such as manufacturing that saw many jobs go overseas.  It is an old and familiar dance much like the hustle – politicians make noise about the undervalued currency, China reminds us that they want to get off the dollar as a reserve currency, a few months pass and just when it seems that the politicians want to implement protectionist policies, the value of the yuan magically increases and the calls for action fade.
Why this time is different
Unfortunately, this time seems different because just as the US is preparing for an election in 2012, China is ready for a political transition as well, and leaders on both sides of the Pacific want to look strong for their populace.  In this atmosphere, even minor disputes run the risk of being hyped-up.  Does anyone really want to see a trade war break out between the two largest economies in the world?  That spells doomsday for the global economy as a whole.
Mr. Greenbacks goes to Tiananmen SquareI had the pleasure of traveling to China earlier this year and one of the major lessons learned in dealing with Chinese is the concept of “face”.  I can hardly do this concept justice in just a few sentences, but hear me out.  “Face” is your reputation, but it is much more than that, it is your code of conduct in forming relationships – from new acquaintances to family elders.  I take it back, this is almost IMPOSSIBLE to explain in words.  Basically, it means not humiliating anyone in public – ever.  In the Chinese culture, it is acceptable to lie to a person in order to save face.  “No” is a very hurtful word and damaging to any relationship.  An example of this would be a street vendor selling souvenirs – while you might not want anything to do with this, you cannot simply say “No, get this crap out of my face” as we would here in New York.  In Beijing, you have to say, “It is very nice, but too expensive.”, or some form of lie to let the retailer “save face”.  This includes avoiding backing someone into a corner in an argument, you must always leave them a way out in order to preserve face.  Often the Chinese will lie directly to you, but their body language will tell you the real answer.  This is all done for the concept of “face” and to preserve the relationship.  It cannot be stressed how important this is in dealing with the Chinese culture.
Saber Rattling
So now the Senate passes this bill and calls China’s leaders out to the whole world, completely ignoring this concept of face.  Response – China lets the value of the yuan fall even further.  Now we have hard line politics being met with hard line resistance.  The problem with currency accusations is that they eventually morph into trade wars, add more fuel to the fire and trade wars become real wars.  As economist Frederic Bastiat once said, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”  History tells us that China has never been an imperialist country, but they have, over the past few years, developed a blue water navy and began to exert their influence over an expanding area, from coastal protection to patrolling international waters that the US maintains shipping routes through.  Could more serious confrontation lie ahead?
Yuan Appreciation
The problem with the bill in the Senate is that it was a very public spectacle over a problem that has been solving itself.  From 2009 to early 2011, the analysis found, the yuan appreciated by just 4% in nominal terms, but by 17% in real terms, after accounting for inflation.  Other studies put the yuan appreciation at 30% between 2005 and today.  It should come as no surprise to China that they need to rebalance their economy from exports to domestic consumption in order to keep growing.  A floating yuan would give the government more flexibility in their domestic policies such as battling inflation as well as prove to other nations that China is committed to a level playing field.  Due to rising labor costs in the Middle Kingdom, manufacturers are already coming back to the US or moving their shops to other low cost Asian nations such as Vietnam.
Is the Measure Warranted?
Most economists will tell you that capitalism combined with free trade is the single biggest creator of wealth in history.  You will not find argument here, billions of people are now being lifted out of poverty due to the developed world’s appetite for cheap goods.  Even if one country is great at producing many goods, the concept of comparative advantage allows other countries to enter into the fray and begin to trade.  But while free trade is great for developing nations, what about America and other developed nations?  What we get in return is cheaper goods and soaring company profits, good for investors, bad for workers.  America has always been the creator, the inventor, and the producer.  We would then manufacture these new innovations on our shores (south and mid-west actually) for domestic consumption as well as export.  Now however, we have given up our manufacturing base.  We have outsourced and outsourced until the only possible play we have left is the service industries.  As education improves in developing nations, this advantage will become less and less.  New generations will have to compete with globally connected, highly skilled, low-wage workers.  So what is the answer for America?  How do we put America back to work?  That will have to be another post, so stay tuned.  One thing is sure, though, this bill is the wrong way to get results.  Not only would this bill fall apart in front of the WTO, but it also runs the risk of retaliation from other countries possibly convinced that the rounds of quantitative easing were a ploy to keep the value of the dollar low.  When countries stop trading, we all lose.  So instead of figuring out ways to build walls (pun intended . . . see photo below) to prevent trade, shouldn’t Congress worry more about optimizing the conditions for the next growth industry such as improved infrastructure, broadband or clean tech that will pull our country out of this funk?  After all, isn’t there an American jobs bill somewhere on their desks?Fordham MBA's on the Great Wall of China

Threats at Home and Abroad

At this point there is absolutely no denying that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change. The effects include warmer air and sea temperatures, glacial ice melting, desertification, soil erosion, increased disease, more frequent and stronger storms, and low crop yields. So how does this affect national Security? Two words – Failed States. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, America is the only remaining super power. With no real threat from a major developed nation, America is much more vulnerable from failed states and non-state actors. Every year Foreign Policy magazine publishes the Failed States Index listing countries suffering from a breakdown of basic services and often marked with internal and external conflict. In many of these countries, large areas of land are controlled by armed groups who rule by force and often battle ill-equipped government forces for control and exploitation of the country’s natural resources. Most of the failed states have elements in common such as a young and quickly growing population, inadequate jobs and opportunity, lack of potable water and poor health care. As the populations increase, there is going to be ever more strain on the country’s resources and increased suffering among the citizens. Further more, as the political situation deteriorates, the economic situation falters as well with investors pulling their money out and looking for less risky options. When foreign direct investment falls, jobs suffer, complicating the problem of unemployment and hunger. The price of food spikes leading to crime, corruption and even terrorism. Sustainable environmental practices must be implemented in order to minimize this risk of failed states. First and foremost, developed nations must lead the switch to alternative and renewable energy to minimize CO2 emissions. Currently there are 6 billion 7 billion people on this planet but only 1 billion “high energy” users, mostly in the developed world. By 2050 there will be over 9 billion people with more than 3 billion being classified as “high energy” users. Failure to switch to renewable energy will only result in more funds being given to questionable and often hostile regimes. After looking at the list of failed states and the problems they are facing, the question we ask ourselves should no longer be “Does it pay to act sustainably?”, the real question is, “Can we afford not to?”