"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Friday, January 23, 2015

Deficiencies in the E.U. Capital Markets: A Silver Lining

With the IMF reducing its forecast of E.U.[1] economic growth for 2015 by 0.2% to 1.2 percent, E.C.B. officials still intent to go ahead with the much-anticipated “quantitative easing” program (i.e., buying state bonds), and, the euro having recently fallen 12% against the U.S. dollar since peaking, and crude oil prices below $60 a barrel in January, the limited scale of the E.U.’s capital markets relative to their American counterparts exacerbated the E.U.’s blight. Most directly, the lack of diversification on the types of capital markets meant that the focus on the bonds issued by state governments would continue.[2] With an upcoming election in the state of Greece making stock markets jittery due to the risk that the state might default on its bonds, the precarious condition of a relatively undiversified capital market added, albeit subtly, to the sense of risk in the air. Having had years to develop alternative markets since the financial crisis, E.U. policy makers had no one to blame but themselves—it would seem. However, a bright spot in European culture or society may be responsible for the lack of development.

The size of the corporate bond market was at the time just 34% of the American counterpart as a proportion of GDP, according to New Financial, a think tank in London.[3] The E.U.’s leveraged loan and securitization markets were 19% and 17% the size of their U.S. counterparts, and the venture capital market was just 15 percent, again all in terms relative to GDP.[4] Because the respective U.S. counterparts dwarf the E.U. markets by such an amazing extent in terms of GDP, part of the explanation may involve different business cultures with respect to debt.

With the U.S. federal debt at nearly $18 trillion and the previous year still showing a deficit of over $400 billion, and almost a third of student loans in default, it is easy to view Europeans as relatively debt-averse even if the post-financial-crisis years of debt-weary states (i.e, the “PIGS”) present an image to the contrary. I suspect that the relative skepticism on debt is in turn a manifestation of European society being less infatuated with business and thus less reflective of its culture. Put another way, the positive connotation that leverage (i.e., using borrowing in productive investment to hopefully capture more of the returns than is possible in the case of stock-issuance capital financing) has in the business world has been more salient in American society than in its European counterpart. Considering the misuse of debt-financing in the American and European housing markets that led to the financial crisis in 2008, the relative size of the European capital markets as of 2015 has a silver lining.

[1] Specifically, for the part of the E.U. that uses the euro currency.
[2] Simon Nixon, “A Continent in Need of Greater Capital Markets,” The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Oil Supply: Problem or Panacea?

Between June 2014 and January 14, 2015, crude oil prices fell by 57 percent. Between November 1985 and March 1986, the prices had fallen by 67 percent.[1] That time, it took nearly two decades for oil prices to rebound. Would it take that long again? The answer has implications for how efficient the market mechanism itself is, and in turn for public policy on energy and global warming.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the discovery of oil in shale rock makes all the difference. The difficult question involves what that difference might be. With less time entailed from discovery to extraction, and less cost relative to the more traditional sources such as off-shore oil, the supply of oil on the market should be able to adjust downward much quicker, resulting in higher crude prices, other things equal. For example, wildcatters in Texas discovered the Eagle Ford Shale in 2008; within only five years, a million barrels a day were going to market.[2] “Faster-reacting shale production could help cut supply more quickly than in the past, restoring market balance without a decadeslong wait.”[3] This assumes the efficient market hypothesis—that suppliers quickly reduce their respective contributions to the market as a result of lower prices.

So it is surprising that the Journal cautions that the faster-reacting shale production does not necessarily “mean prices will rebound soon, or return to the triple-digit levels . . . Price pressure may need to remain on the U.S. oil industry and its lenders for months to rein in supply.”[4] Andrew Hall, who runs a $3 billion energy derivatives hedge fund, wrote to investors that it is unclear how long it would take for American suppliers to cut back due to the lower prices and even what the new price-equilibrium would be.[5]
For one thing, oil producers sunk into contracts would rather get as much revenue as they can, even if they will still lose money. Although shale producers have a shorter timeframe, the short life of a given well means that the producers are under pressure to start new wells in order to cover as much of the initial investment as possible. Put another way, keeping production up is the better of two bad options.

With the tap expected to remain open, the supply of oil from shale was predicted to peak in 2020, after which the annual decrease in oil from liquid sources would be less and less made up by oil from shale. By 2030, the production from liquid sources could be only half of its level in 2014, with no oil left from shale. In short, the lack of a drastic downturn in supply during the last half of 2014 suggests that the American economy might suffer shocks in the 2020s as oil prices skyrocket from dramatically reduced supplies. With alternative energy representing only about 3% of the total in 2014, even increased investment in wind and solar facilities would not counter the anticipated drop in oil supplies.

Had the oil market in 2014 been more in keeping with the efficient market hypothesis—with supplies dropping drastically as the prices of crude drop likewise until the reduced supply pushes the prices back, up at least partially—the anticipated “cliff” in the early 2020s could be either flatter or delayed. Policy makers would have more time to get the economic “up to steam” on alternative sources of energy. Already in 2014, when I was driving across the Midwest, I was stunned by the number (and size) of “wind fields.” Even so, considering that carbon emissions were at the time going in the wrong direction—up instead of down—the continued supply of oil in spite of the lower prices must have been relieving pressure on policy makers to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the lower gas prices gave American consumers the misperception that oil supplies are just fine and a lack of incentive to obviate global warming above the 2C degree threshold.

In short, the lack of an efficient market was forestalling vital public policies concerning both the American economy and climate change. It is not that an efficient market would obviate government action. In fact, just the opposite.

[1] Russell Gold, “Back to the Future? Oil Replays 1980s,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Divestment as a Carbon-Reduction Strategy

As gas prices were dropping during the fall of 2014 throughout the U.S., sales of SUVs were picking up. That such drivers might find themselves with gas-guzzlers and high prices was apparently out of sight, out of mind. Moreover, that the increased carbon emissions might push the planet further from the habitable zone for humans was a point entirely missing from the mainstream media as well as office-holders. To the extent that some “socially responsible” investors selling off their holdings in or related to fossil-fuel companies was generally deemed to be a suitable approach to global warming, the overriding question may be how a species could treat its own survival as if it were an after-thought rather than a priority.

According to The New York Times at the time, “180 institutions — including philanthropies, religious organizations, pension funds and local governments — as well as hundreds of wealthy individual investors . . . pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies from their portfolios and to invest in cleaner alternatives. In all, the groups . . . pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios, and the individuals more than $1 billion, according to Arabella Advisors.”[1] Although these figures are by no means “chicken feed,” the overall imprint of such divestments pales in comparison to the assets in the American financial system, not to mention the global system of capital. The prioritizing of investors can perhaps be inferred here, with global warming coming up short—given its potential harm.

The divesting investors themselves were not convinced that their efforts would pay off climatically. According to the Times, “(t)he people who are selling shares of energy stocks are well aware that their actions are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the companies, given their enormous market capitalizations and cash flow.  At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, there [was] no equivocation but there [was] caution, [according to] Stephen Heintz, its president. The fund [had] already eliminated investments involved in coal and tar sands entirely while increasing its investment in alternate energy sources. Unwinding other investments in a complex portfolio from the broader realm of fossil fuels [would] take longer. ‘We’re moving soberly, but with real commitment,’ he said.”[2]

To the extent that other investors would simply swap up the holdings for sale, the “bad” companies would be “harmed” only marginally—certainly not enough to make a dent in their role in the carbon-emitting process. Moreover, “moving soberly” at a time when climatologists were warning that the global temperature would rise more than the 2 degree C threshold (beyond which human habitation would be uncomfortable at best) points to a major disconnect between even the diverters’ priority and the true significance of the problem.

Pointing to the complexity involved in unwinding a portfolio is itself an indication of misplaced priorities akin to a passenger in an airport risking his flight merely because he wants to finish the meal he has purchased. That such a passenger would likely be completely unaware of the foolishness of his decision may suggest that we as a species may be utterly unconscious of our individual and collective lack of perspective as concerning our own medium- and long-term comfort and the survival of our descendants. Indeed, by 2014, the survival of even the future children of teenagers could be hanging in the balance. Touting divestment as a viable strategy, or even part of one, leaves me with the impression that the human brain may be ill-equipped to grapple with its own propensity to put the species itself at risk.

1. John Schwartz, “Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity of Fossil Fuels,” The New York Times, September 21, 2014.
2. Ibid.

Amtrak: Running on Empty

Letting Amtrak expire in the U.S. in favor of encouraging other companies to pick up new high-speed routes is, I submit, in America’s interest. I make the claim not because Amtrak trains are slow and cumbersome—which they are—or because the food is over-priced—which it is; rather, the company culture is the true culprit, being sordid in a way that I suspect few employees or passengers suspect.

As a case study, I take the case of an Amtrak train that is split between “sleepers” and “coach” cars. This dichotomy is misleading, however, because other cars, such as lounge cars, hang in the balance and presumably must take sides. Prime facie, whether a given passenger has access to a lounge car should not depend on whether he or she has a sleeper compartment or a seat. The problem becomes acute when the lounge for “sleeper” passengers has wifi whereas the lounge for “coach” passengers does not. Put another way, the purported rational for segregation based on whether a passenger has a sleeper compartment falls short.

One former Amtrak passenger confided to me that she was about to “upgrade” to get a sleeper compartment on a ride from mid-morning to 9 p.m. in order to have access to wifi—that is, until she snuck past a few dining-room employees to find that the wifi was inoperative in the secret lounge car. The dining-room manager had earlier told her that no such lounge existed—that the “other side” consisted only of sleeper cars. She then learned from another employee that the secret lounge did in fact exist just beyond the dining-car “wall” and that the only wifi on the train was in that lounge. Had she not checked herself by slipping into “West Berlin,” she would have purchased a bed she would not have used in order to have access to wifi that did not work.

Adding insult to injury, her waiter that night tried to over-charge her as if her dish’s sides were “extra.” Nevertheless, the mentality behind the exaggerated apartheid seems to me to be particularly squalid and unethical. Manipulating coach passengers into purchasing a sleeping compartment even though said passengers would have no use of a bed—being on a train during the day and early evening, for instance—is also unethical.

In Kantian terms, Amtrak’s managers and employees are not treating coach passengers as ends in themselves, but only as means. In business terms alone, giving certain passengers a sense of being part of an inferior group (i.e., “coach) is not exactly in line with maximizing revenue. Any astute “coach” passengers might quote Nietzsche’s strong—what are these parasites to me! That is to say, from thirty-thousand feet, it does not matter whether east Berliners are being kept from the only car that has wifi. Have your fun with your artificial, stubby wall, such an enlightened flier might say from thirty thousand feet at the sight of a small train crawling along far below, for an atmosphere of distance naturally exists between perspective and pettiness.