Tag Archives: Economy

Arguments Against Decarbonization Crumble, Fossil Fuel Divestment Momentum Builds

By Walter Borden

Two recent reports challenge the conventional wisdom that decarbonization via carbon taxes or other methods in concert with divestment from fossil fuel marketers means diminished prosperity. Both reports were widely covered and come from authoritative international groups. Both the New Climate Economy Project  and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) find that robust policy action reducing carbon emissions would have very limited negative effects on economic growth and shared prosperity. They also advance substantive arguments and analysis that such policies may indeed accelerate growth.

Notably and not without a soupçon of irony, economist and vocal climate change climate skeptic Richard Tol, argued in 2013:

In sum, there is no carbon bubble. If there were a carbon bubble, it would not be about to burst. If it would burst, the economic impact would be minimal.

Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment
Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment

So interestingly, there is agreement from distinct and opposite quarters that decreased use of fossil fuels poses limited economic risk. For example, as Paul Krugman wrote earlier this week in reference to the two reports from the New Climate Economy Project and the IMF:

This might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses….

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the IMF paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And we may be in later stages of divestiture than some opine. For example, Fund Balance has created  an ETF  on the Motif Platform that tracks Coal Stock prices. It was initiated after Stanford University’s signal move to divest from coal stocks. This ETF is down 32% since inception in May 2014 vs. 5.9% return for the S&P 500 and down 77% over the past five years vs. a 109% return for the S&P.

Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.
Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.

What of the argument that China and India will continue to rapidly increase their respective carbon emissions even as US and EU emissions fall? We can see now that there are many health benefits and hence productivity gains from cleaner air and water. Factor in the inevitable pressure such efforts will put on these two nations to curb emissions as well as their budding sustainability movements (not to mention pollution so bad that major cities must be shuttered and entire rivers cleaned ever more frequently), and such arguments suddenly reveal their superficiality.

So, critical mass for decarbonization is ever closer as the World Council of Churches, Rockefeller Foundation, Google among many other large scale organizations join in with major universities in their divestment commitments. As Eric Schmidt said when asked about Google’s withdrawal from fossil fuel promoters/renewable energy policy antagonists, The American Legislative Council a.k.a. ALEC:

“The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told NPR’s Diane Rehm in explaining the decision. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”


Whither Generational Theft? A Tale of Two Decouplings: Profits and Pensions, Investment and Productivity

By Walter Borden

Does it make sense to tell someone that doesn’t have health insurance to go to the doctor? Does it make sense to expect jobless and underemployed citizens to save more? Many of the most profitable corporations across the US perennially underfund their pensions while simultaneously funding campaigns for privatization of social security paired with cuts to the program.

Pension shortfalls. Click to enlarge.
Pension shortfalls. Click to enlarge.

Yet, these same corporations oppose raising the cap on payroll taxes or asking Wall Street financiers to sacrifice via minimal financial transaction taxes common in the US during many a bull market and still common in the EU and Asia. All of this set against a backdrop of historically high corporate profits, S&P record highs, and stratospheric ratios of CEO pay to that of middle management and wage earners.  The term generational theft is popular argot for corporate bureaucrats and their funding recipients in Washington, DC. Many of the CEO’s and hedge fund managers recommend pain of the majority and none for themselves. Yet, US taxpayers currently fund corporations at an historical scale via low interest rate loans and subsidies. This is the real generational theft: draining the the US middle class so financial speculators can ship away jobs, keep cash in tax havens, and speculate on Asian markets.

Gillian Tett writing in the Financial Times makes notes of a statement by a top executive of a consumer goods conglomerate:

We see a pronounced difference between how people are shopping today and before the recession,” the executive explained. “Consumers are living pay cheque by pay cheque, and they tend to spend accordingly. Then you have 50 million people on food stamps and that has cycles too. So for our business it has become critical to understand the cycle –when pay [and benefit] cheques are arriving.

Hence, the mostly austerity driven so-called recovery further reveals another deteriorating economic indicator for the middle class. Compare and contrast this with austerity champion the Walton Family and its Walmart. Without accounting for its massive local and federal tax breaks and subsidies, Walmart receives even more welfare from US taxpayers by paying its workers so little that they cannot afford healthcare and so must utilize social programs funded by their neighbors and fellow Walmart customers. In short, the world’s largest employer, after the US Department of Defense and the Chinese Military, relies on taxpayers rather than participation in the general welfare of the communities in which it operates and generates huge profits for its small group of majority shareholders (5% of of its owners possess 50% of its shares). Is this an example of good corporate citizenship?

Click to Enlarge.
US Profits and Investment 1929 — 2012. Click to Enlarge.

Nevertheless, the most economically secure in our society mostly talk of deficits and are enabled by our nation’s highly consolidated media to dominate the public debate thereby granting them disproportionate exposure. Yet, their arguments that austerity and fiscal contraction will resolve the unemployment crisis fail logical and evidentiary tests time and again. Sequestration is projected to shave a point off GDP this year. As GDP shrinks consumers have less money to spend and consequently labor demands falls. Further, low-paying and low-to-no benefit jobs, which are the bulk of jobs now being created in the US, threaten a generation’s retirement security and access healthcare (health services as opposed to health insurance need disintermediation). Furthermore, corporations and the super affluent pay lower taxes than ever.  Supporters for this program argue that it frees up capital to be reinvested in the economy. But, this not the pattern of the past 30 years. In the last decade the pace of reinvesting these perquisites into the economy or funding pensions has all but completely lapsed. Rather, these windfalls are shipped to hedge funds and tax havens. Additional study finds deeper problems.

From a recent blog post by James Kwak:

That was my goal in my first law review article, “Improving Retirement Options for Employees”, which recently came out in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law. The general problem is one I’ve touched on several times: many Americans are woefully underprepared for retirement, in part because of a deeply flawed “system” of employment-based retirement plans that shifts risk onto individuals and brings out the worse of everyone’s behavioral irrationalities. The specific problem I address in the article is the fact that most defined-contribution retirement plans (of which the 401(k) is the most prominent example) are stocked with expensive, actively managed mutual funds that, depending on your viewpoint, either (a) logically cannot beat the market on an expected, risk-adjusted basis or (b) overwhelmingly fail to beat the market on a risk-adjusted basis.

Furthermore, how can someone that works full time outside of Wall Street understand the complexity of 21st century markets? For example, this animation shows what happens inside of the one half-second of trading in Johnson and Johnson shares: more than 1,200 orders and 215 actual trades occur again, in a half a second. (The colored boxes in the video represent exchanges, and the dots that go flying represent individual orders.) Such behavior takes place roughly 100,000 times a day according the animation’s creator, Nanex. Many professionals in the industry within the financial industry understand its mushrooming supercomplexity:

Could this meltdown have been avoided? Should rating agencies have spotted it? Well, this is how it would work with the rating agencies when we were building a new CDO. They would tell us their parameters and criteria; if you meet this requirement, you get that rating and so on. And they gave out a free model so we could test our product and tweak our portfolio for the CDO until it fit, I mean get the rating that we wanted. We would do a lot of stress-testing ourselves too, of course we would. We’d pretend the market changed and run the models to see how our products would hold.

But what happened during the financial crisis was like a perfect storm. In our tests we would assume the market moved, say, 10% – while in reality it rarely moved more than 1%. Now the crisis happens and suddenly the market moves 30%. Our models were based on what we saw as normal. Now we saw numbers behave in ways barely conceived possible.

Consequentially, a quartet of corporate sector driven storm clouds hang on the horizon:

 Nanex ~ Order Routing Animation ~ 02-May-2013 ~ JNJ .Click to Enlarge.
Nanex ~ Order Routing Animation ~ 02-May-2013 ~ JNJ .Click to Enlarge.
  • Underfunded pensions from corporations with record amounts of cash and an investment climate skewed towards insiders and Wall Street
  • Their ongoing failure to hire new employees and consistent blockage of publicly funded programs to fund infrastructure investment
  • A largely fossil fuel derived economy that requires large scale degradation of  our present and next generations air and water resources
  • Over-priced/under-performing privatized healthcare drives healthcare inflation at unsustainable rates all the while forcing the good neighbors in US society to pick up the tab for the uninsured, many of whom are employed by highly profitable firms

Whats going on?

Why are record profits and CEO pay more and more divergent from the economic well being of the society’s whose labor and resources they use?

Continue reading Whither Generational Theft? A Tale of Two Decouplings: Profits and Pensions, Investment and Productivity

The Prius Paradox Paradox: Rebound Effects Are Relative

Walter Borden

WILL money saved from using clean technology simply be spent on using    more energy? Jevons paradox (or the Jevons effect) is named for economist William Stanley Jevons.  In the 1860’s, he observed that technologically driven increases in the efficiency of coal-use increased coal consumption in a wide range of industries. Counter-intuitively to some, he argued that technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption. Buyers simply use the savings to buy more energy. Such rebound effects as a batch of recent research reveals, are at work in energy markets yet are often overdetermined and misunderstood. Their occurrence suggests the need for carbon taxes in order to price environmental risk in energy costs. The basic logic of such taxes was sketched out in the 1920’s by another economist, Arthur C. Pigou, as the Pigovian Tax. He argued that landowners who allow their rabbits to overbreed and spill over to neighboring land, therefore damaging  crops, have a financial responsibility for the damage. Such activity, often uncorrected by markets, is seen as a market failure. So its remedy is a tax or law to protect the rights of neighboring landowners.

Interest in both is keen among policymakers, thinktankers, bankers, and the general public as the tension between energy demand  and supply increases. Pollution, global warming, declining oil reserves, and increasing demand for energy in the neoliberalized global marketplace underlie both the interest and the tension.

To the extent that they are at work, Jevons rebound effects in a system vary based on the scale of the market considered. For example Richard York of the University of Oregon finds:

A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil-fuel sources 1, 2, 3, 4. However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes, do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered.

Dr. York’s work appears to reveal an instantiation of the effect.  Across most nations of the world, developed and developing, he reports an average pattern, “…over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use. When looking at electricity specifically, the displacement of each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources is less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.”

These conclusions put a useful empirical foundation under recommendations found in Google.org’s clean energy innovation study: meaningful suppression of fossil fuel consumption requires adaptation of mainstream energy policy. Also looking at the international scale, Grist.org published a chart this week titled The mind-boggling rise in Asian coal consumption shown as Exhibit 1.

Chinese Coal Consumption vs. Developed World
Exhibit 1: Chinese Coal Consumption vs. Developed World. Source: grist.org

Coal going unconsumed in the U.S. is being burned with little scrubbing in China and India, further arguing for the need to decarbonize via international agreements. Liberalized trade (neoliberalism) needs alignment with a flow of trade that balances externalities – pollution – created by exchanges of resources and capital. This also complements York’s finding: shifts to renewables will be inconsequential if the total decarbonization rate isn’t decelerated, that is, if amounts are merely shifted from one market to another.

When Rebound Effects Are Perceived But Not Found

Then there is the contention of the paradox at work in driver behavior popularized as the ‘Prius Effect” in sources such as Conundrum and the Wall Street Journal. Their argument is that Prius owners drive more and thus erase their net carbon and energy savings for the system. However, the work of Ken Gillingham of Yale University and analysis from CO2 Scorecard show Prius owners rack up comparatively the same vehicle mileage as non-Prius owners.

This Prius Fallacy has a dual premise: Prius drivers drive more because they are paying less for gas, and/or they use their savings on carbon-intensive goods and activities.

Gillingham’s micro-dataset on personal automobiles contains information – further analyzed by Thinkprogess – which refutes premise one as the scale of the consumer. The plot in Exhibit-2 shows no significant difference in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by Prius owners vs. the rest of  California’s drivers. (For those interested in statistical details on the data and diagnostic regression Thinkprogess’ analysis is worth a good study). Prof. Matthew Kahn of  UCLA writing in the Christian Science Monitor reinforces these conclusions.

So in these cases when consumers switch from conventional cars to a fuel-efficient hybrids a meaningful reduction in gasoline consumption – up to 430 gallons per year for an owner who switches from an SUV— is also observed.

Continue reading The Prius Paradox Paradox: Rebound Effects Are Relative

The True Cost of Fossil Fuel: Oil and Petrodollars

By Walter Borden

“The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”  Theodore Roosevelt

What’s In a Petrodollar?
Fossil Fuel producing nations should extract their resources consistent with the health needs of their people, air, land, and water.  History shows us that regulation plays an essential role in this mandate. Energy marketers insist regulations are counterproductive. Implied though not often stated, nations like Russia and China can more easily form capital and drive labor demand from fossil fuel exploitation because they can act largely unencumbered by regulation. This unproven assumption ignores the escalating costs of unconstrained fossil fuel extraction to present and future generations. Should we be more concerned about poisoning our planet for future generations than leaving large amounts of debt for them? I argue yes. Does the regulation of fossil fuel extraction impede aggregate labor demand? The evidence indicates no. The earth is the source of all money so worrying about debt instead of planetary health puts the cart before the horse. A sick, weakened planet will create less value, profit, and wealth.  Concurrently, as oil supplies wane, systemic risk will form around basing currencies on fossil fuels, oil in particular. Searches for fossil fuel resources will grow into fierce and destabilizing conflicts. Increasingly scarce tracts of clean, fertile land can only deepen them.

Unregulated Nations and Quality of Air, Water, Land and Life
Russia and its oil country exemplify the realities of unregulated, petrodollar capitalism. Its oil producing areas constitute what experts describe as our planet’s worst ecological oil catastrophe. Based on reporting from the Associated Press, estimates are that roughly one Deepwater Horizon-scale leakage occurs about every two months. Outdated infrastructure, minimal and unenforced regulation allow for oil to contaminate soil, kill plant life, and damage habitats for mammals and birds. State-funded research shows 10-15 percent of Russian oil leakage enters rivers with nearly 500,000 tons flowing into the Arctic.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

From Chernobyl to more recent paper mill pollution seeping into Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which holds one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, Russia’s lax regulatory posture renders great swaths of territory uninhabitable and fallow. Russian oil spills are more numerous than in any other oil-producing nation. “Oil gets spilled literally every day,” said Dr. Grigory Barenboim, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Water Problems. His is not alone. And by all accounts the estimate is conservative since under Russian law, leaks less than 8 tons rate as “incidents” and can thus go unreported. By contrast, the U.S., the world’s third-largest oil producer, logged 341 pipeline ruptures in 2010 — compared to Russia’s 18,000 — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The republic of Komi, just south of the Arctic Circle, is the scene of Russia’s largest oil spill. Up to 40 kilometers of two local rivers were polluted, killing thousands of fish. Respiratory diseases rose by over 28 percent in the year following the leak. Komi’s officials blamed neglected infrastructure and oil companies reporting that “companies that extract hydrocarbons focus on making profits rather than how to use the resources rationally.”

Continue reading The True Cost of Fossil Fuel: Oil and Petrodollars