What to Expect in 2014 (And Beyond)

This outlook is being written a good 45 days later than when “What to Expect in 2013…” was written over a year ago. It is amazing how much can happen in that short time frame and can influence one’s view of the next year. If I let another 45 days pass I am sure there would be some things that would change. I believe the risks are to the upside on more positive news on the economy but at some point that news could affect Fed action.  Much of what could happen this coming year is influenced by what is going on in the energy sector. Middle East economies, of course, but also inflation, GDP growth, and geopolitical events will affect markets and the US economy specifically. These points will become clear as I spell out some of my expectations. Understand that these expectations follow the Byron Wien formula where I believe there is greater than a 50% chance they happen when the rest of the world may not agree. The “Expectations” are designed to stimulate thought. Some of them can relate directly to the securities markets, but some do not, and this year, a little whimsy. Hopefully, you can figure out which one that is. Let’s begin:

  1. After printing two 4% GDP quarters in 2013 and seeing a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, there is finally some recognition that, maybe, the Fed’s actions really did produce some stimulus. This could lead to self-sustaining growth in the US economy in 2014 with at least one more 4% print this year. Less noise from the crazies in Washington adds to business confidence and, ultimately, capital expenditures.
  2. Economic growth and job creation become more apparent with forecasts for a decline in the unemployment rate possibly approaching 6% before the end of the year. The Federal Reserve begins making noise about speeding up tapering and hints at reducing the time the Funds rate would remain anchored at its current level. This is in spite of limited evidence, at least early in the year, that the inflation rate is approaching the targeted 2% level. This ultimately has a dampening effect on the markets.
  3. We begin seeing some academic work and, of course, the pundits talking about an acceleration of the technological revolution making the case that low inflation or maybe even some signs of deflation are actually a good thing in this technologically driven environment. The low inflation picture is reinforced at the headline level by energy supplies expanding within the US, in the Middle East from Iraq and, ultimately, Iran. As other countries embrace fracking the potential for even more supply keeps downside pressure on energy prices.
  4. The negative elements on inflation, which are not sufficient to cause major concerns, come via erratic supply in soft commodities from continuation of drought in certain areas combined with weather abnormalities which, more and more, are blamed on climate change. As we get into the latter part of the year, the improving developed market economies combined with growth in Asia put some upward pressure on hard commodities. Investors must make the decision to invest in the extraction companies that have suffered from low prices or directly into the commodities themselves.
  5. The positive change in US trade balances from lower imports of energy combined with rising energy exports adds more than a percentage point to US GDP and reinforces the case for a strong dollar relative to almost every other currency except possibly the Chinese yuan. Asia shows growing signs of a currency war fueled by the impact of further weakening of the Japanese yen beginning to very seriously affect the export trade of its Asian competitors.  While this has a tendency to push up inflation rates in many of the Asian countries, the developed markets benefit from lower prices on many imported goods further softening their inflation rates.
  6. The impact of the currency wars raises questions about the stability of some of the emerging markets, particularly in Asia. There are also concerns about the pace of wage increases in these heretofore attractive locations for outsourcing. Manufacturing and some service corporations begin making different strategic decisions on the best places to locate manufacturing and processing centers.  The decisions are reinforced by a growing belief that technological advances will continue to allow capital to substitute for labor, or at least keep pressure on wages. More business activities find their way back into the developed countries of the world. China moves cautiously in the same direction, taking advantage of its own technological progress. It begins marketing itself as a technological leader as opposed to a low-cost labor market. This is not easy as China, at the same time, continues to push toward a more consumer-oriented society. Incomes have to rise and, politically, the population needs to be kept content. It will not be a smooth year for China.
  7. Coming elections in India point to a possible loss of leadership for the Congress party. Combined with continued economic difficulties and some strife associated with the potential leadership change, the country moves further down the path of being even less attractive for foreign direct investment. It loses another year to the relative growth of its Asian neighbors and finds itself participating in the currency wars as a possible way to salvage elements of growth.
  8. With the exception of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Panama, the rest of Central and South America flounders. The US begins to pay more attention to its southern neighbors. Out of desperation, Argentina reaches a settlement on its outstanding debt and begins a focus on building its energy sector with some help from outside sources. A Menem-like regime change becomes a more likely political outcome.
  9. The changing energy picture outside the Middle East, combined with likely increased production out of Iraq and, ultimately, Iran, result in a change in the relative importance of Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Israel. This could produce some positive movement in the Palestinian situation, and some changes in the relationships of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the Middle East and possibly Asia as the US becomes an even smaller market for its oil and an export competitor. On the other hand it raises the risk of some turmoil in the region as the power picture changes and attempts are made to preserve the old order in  a possibly military fashion.
  10. The fading newspaper industry surprises the street with its earnings in the early part of the year and benefits from contentious congressional races in the third and fourth quarters as well. The advertising related to Academy Award nominations and ultimately selections reaches new heights in print and social media. Studios advertise some small (but not cheap) movies to extremes to compete with some very high quality films and performances. We actually walked out of a couple of the most highly advertised ones. Aren’t two-page spreads a little extreme? Unfortunately, the correlation between the advertising and the nominations and awards becomes very direct leaving it up to the audiences to hopefully, make their own decisions after the fact. The quality and audience continue to rise for television productions and the associated delivery mechanisms for these performances leaving 3-D sequels and prequels to the movie industry. Can’t wait for “Inside Llewyn Davis Today–in IMax.”

So what does this all mean for the markets? I wish I knew. History says that the kind of equity market we had in the US in 2013 is usually followed by a decent year.  I don’t think it is that simple. We could see some re-allocation by institutions whose US equity portfolios have been pushed above their target percentages. At the same time, if we are beginning to return to a more normal relationship between earnings yields and fixed income yields, traditional debt doesn’t look that attractive. It may mean that markets outside the US are more attractive–maybe Europe and maybe some of the emerging markets if the currency is hedged out. There are some risk elements in the geopolitical situation. I think we will have to look harder for returns this year and the risks are high enough to look for some less correlated investments. I wouldn’t reduce my equity exposure, but I might change the mix.

We’ll have to see if another 45 days sets us up for totally different surprises. If nothing else I hope this has provided some food for thought.

I have some longer term expectations including a carryover from past years which, one of these days, will actually come to pass. I include these as additional repast for the brain. As has been the case since the millennium, the year will likely be more interesting than we anticipated.

  1. Contrary to normally quiet years during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes further steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring more immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service operations.
  3. Moore’s Law, driven primarily by Intel driving down the nanometer scale and introducing other innovations,  continues to march on. The use of Big Data becomes ubiquitous. This produces technological advances that enhance the opportunities in health care, manufacturing, extractive industries, media and services beyond even the imagination of some of the best speculative fiction writers. These advances, on balance, are positive but continue to raise concerns about the environment and quality of life and opportunity for those at the lower end of the economic and educational spectrum.
  4. Breakthroughs in stem cell research particularly led by work coming out of the New York Stem Cell Foundation change the nature of disease management and eradication and move general therapeutic advances away from animal models to direct testing on human cells. Targeted therapeutics driven by DNA analyses tied to narrower classes of patient recipients change the nature of drug and health delivery. It becomes apparent that the US FDA model is slowing the pace of US therapeutics development by the cost and time required to bring solutions to market. Much as financial services regulation was geared to the benefit of larger entities, it becomes clear that therapeutics development has been on the the same path. Change occurs in response to other countries moving more rapidly in bringing solutions to market.
  5. Away from continual ups and downs in financial assets as the world works its way through the hangover from the 2008-2012 financial crises, the general march of human progress is positive. I hope to be around to observe it. Maybe the breakthroughs suggested in the previous expectation will help that.

The Economy, The Markets, Obama’s Climate Change speech and Idealab: A Podcast

I recently did a broadcast on the Hays Advantage reviewing the turmoil in the marketplace, tying it back to our outlook of last November. We also spent some time on Obama’s speech and introduction of some new regs on Climate Change. I pointed out that we need to do something as we are falling behind technologically what is happening in Germany, Japan and, to some extent, in China. I wrote about what Germany is doing a couple of years ago.  I think we would all agree that regulations have a place, but it is not the best way to deal with this issue. At some point we need to have an explicit Carbon price which allows for economic decisions within a broad framework of rules.

Kathleen Hays had visited Idealab two weeks before and we had a chance to talk about innovation and the process there as well. You might find the 20 minute podcast interesting.

What Could Happen in 2012 (and Beyond)

Byron Wien, the Election, the Economy, Immigration, China, India, South America, Education–surprises!

Byron Wien does the most thorough job of putting together thoughtful, provocative and useful ideas on possible surprises for each year. I have been fortunate enough to know Byron and to participate in the Third Thursday group on which he draws, in part, to test both conventional wisdom and real surprises. I could not attend the December lunch this year as I was in India. Below is the email I sent Byron in late November. I will use that as the start of my thoughts on surprising things that could happen in 2012 and will then toss out a few additional ideas. Here we go:

“Byron, Am heading to India on Friday. Sorry I will miss your pre-surprise lunch. Am attaching copies of the text and slides I will be using in India. I don’t think they say anything you don’t know, but you might find something in there…My big surprise is that Joe Biden will not be the VP candidate in the coming election. Second surprise would be that the US does better than expected in 2012 given the debacle in Europe. Neither China nor India do as well as currently expected and China steps up to do something in Europe–maybe buy a Greek Island? They need Europe. Brazil starts to look a bit like Argentina–I think they are way understating their inflation rate. Capital flows our way and the RU dips into the 7’s before the election. If so, Obama wins in a walk. The really big surprise would be Huntsman as the Republican candidate–or maybe Obama’s VP candidate? What a ticket that would make. Jack”

The idea of surprises is to get people thinking away from trendlines. I use Byron’s definition, which is a personal belief that there is greater than a 50% chance of something happening where conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s continue:

1) It is hard to see us getting through the year without an energy crisis of some type where demand significantly exceeds supply and oil prices spike once again. This could stem from trouble in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. It could be brought about by some covert action by the US that has been in the works for some time and comes to fruition within the next 10 months. There are too many possibilities for this not to have greater than a 50% chance of occurring within this calendar year. The combination of a hydrocarbon energy crisis combined with a major climate disaster somewhere in the world will lead to policy actions on the part of the US to accelerate both natural gas development and alternative energy development as well.  Energy efficiency finally begins having its day. Talk of a carbon tax grows particularly as other countries implement implicit and explicit carbon pricing.

2) Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent forced by an “Asian Spring” throughout the region, China takes several bold steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress, combined with a desire by Hu and Wen to put more of their stamp on the future.  This includes major acquisitions in the developed countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities. At home, R&D is accelerated particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced or eliminated and an explicit carbon tax is put in place. Following Australia’s lead and China’s moves, several Asian countries put in place mechanisms to reduce their use of conventional hydrocarbons for energy–although everyone finds that they have 200 million year-old hydrocarbons in shale formations and begins using the immature  production technologies developed in the US, creating even more environmental disasters.

3) As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by. Enlightened corporations, led by GE,  become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems which were supposed to do the job. Corporations become much more vocal about bringing illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the pool domestically. It becomes clear that a controlled amnesty program for current illegals in the US will add significantly to GDP and to government revenues. The tide begins to shift on immigration issues.

4) The US labor situation is aggravated in the short term by decisions on the part of several US corporations to bring manufacturing operations back into the States.  Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity and relative safety lead to better economics manufacturing locally. Caterpillar’s actions with its Canadian operations start the ball rolling. As stated above, US corporations take on a significant role in training and general education to meet their labor needs.

5) In spite of the demand for its natural resources, South America finds itself in much more turmoil politically and economically than one might expect. Natural disasters from climate change and it’s young mountain ranges compound economic issues from changes in export markets and a continuing misallocation of financial resources. Led, once again, by problems in Argentina, some degree of turmoil ripples north through the continent into Central America and requires more of the attention of the US than we have been willing to give thus far. Immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, accelerates as the US economy picks up steam.

6) India becomes a focal point. With an economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, India looks for diversions. Troops move north to “prepare” for confrontation with China, and west to confront Pakistan. Some elements internally are confronted as well. While the numbers show growth, the quality is somewhat problematic. Energy shortages push India toward even more aggressive alternative energy policies.

These aren’t all of the surprises we will find in 2012. I must say I continue to be optimistic about the US in spite of the crazies in Washington and the anger, bigotry and fear manifesting itself during the Republican primary battles. All of those who were planning on moving out of the country if Obama was re-elected–the ABO crowd– or any of the Republican choices–the ABAR crowd, might want to reconsider.

Reduce Oil Imports by 1/3? Can we do it all with fuel efficiency?

The short answer is maybe. It would require that vehicles being sold ten years from now would have to average 75 miles per gallon—not impossible, but  improbable–unless. It requires political will, higher and real CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards and continued technological improvements or a gasoline price that rises substantially. The latter two are the factors about which I have the most confidence.

I hate to do this, but we need to understand the numbers. Try and stick with me on this. These numbers are rough but get us into the ballpark.

We import 9 million barrels of oil a day, about half from OPEC by the way. So we need to get rid of 3 million barrels a day or 1.095 Billion barrels a year. Now, those barrels don’t just go into making gasoline, but let’s make the leap of having all that reduction come from gasoline.  Based on refining experience, each barrel of oil typically produces about 19  gallons of gasoline (there are 42 gallons in a barrel). If we are to get rid of 3 million barrels of oil per day that means we need to reduce gasoline consumption by about 46 Billion gallons (42 gallons per barrel x 1.095 Billion barrels);  that’s out of the 160 Billion gallons consumed each year by the 240 million vehicles on the road today. (Notice that I capitalize Billion. We are talking BIG numbers.)  Those vehicles, each traveling about 12,000 miles a year, are actually averaging about 18 miles per gallon. To think about it another way (inverted), each vehicle is consuming about 0.0556 gallon per mile or 0.00132 barrel per mile. Pretty exciting so far…

Over the next ten years at a scrappage rate of 5% a year we will replace half of those 240 million vehicles. That’s where the reduction in consumption has to come from.  Let’s calculate what the mileage improvement has to be to eliminate those 1.095 Billion barrels a year.   Currently the half of the fleet that will be scrapped, which is less efficient than the whole fleet, is likely consuming about 1.8 Billion barrels a year or 4.93 million barrels a day. We would need it to be consuming only 1.93 million barrels per day or 0.705 Billion barrels a year or 29.61 Billion gallons per year. If each vehicle in that half of the fleet is traveling 12,000 miles a year it would have to be averaging about 49 miles per gallon. You can do this calculation yourself by dividing the total mileage for the fleet (1.44 Trillion miles) by the gallons expected to be consumed (29.61 Billion).  To get that average for the 120 million vehicles assuming a linear increase in miles per gallon over that ten-year period, the vehicles bought in 2022 would have to be averaging 75 miles per gallon.  While the all-electrics are already getting over 100 miles per gallon equivalent and many of the hybrids over 50 mpg it is still a stretch to think that we will get the average on all vehicles sold in a year up to 75 miles per gallon in 10 years or about 50 miles per gallon in 5 years.  It is not impossible, but would require one hell of a change in the growth path for highly fuel-efficient vehicles, supported by significantly higher CAFE standards.  The problem is we are starting with only 40% of all vehicles being subject to the higher CAFÉ standards. We have a lot of light trucks and real trucks on the road.

We should strive for all 3 million barrels a day coming from fuel efficiency. As I said, political will, CAFE standards, and technology are required, and higher oil prices are a given unless we do this. And, by the way, every million barrels a day of gasoline we don’t use, reduces CO2 emissions by 148 megatons per year.

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015? Well, It’s a Start.

In the State of the Union address President Obama announced a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road in the United States by 2015.  Part of that plan involves continuation of some existing incentives such as the $7500 credit on a purchase, but some new incentives and actions as well—incentives to communities for vehicle fleet conversions, HOV access and other steps. In addition the GSA will purchase 40,000 alternative fueled and fuel-efficient vehicles as replacements for aging vehicles in its fleets. 1 million sounds like a nice number, and we have to start somewhere, but let’s hope the number is significantly larger.

There are over 240 million vehicles on the road in the US now, and a replacement of 5-7% of those vehicles a year. Those vehicles average about 20+ miles per gallon.  Replacing 0.4% of the fleet with vehicles averaging, let’s say, 100 miles per gallon equivalent, under the most optimistic assumptions reduces our oil-equivalent consumption by about 12 million barrels a year and CO2 consumption by about 4 million tons.  Unfortunately, we import 9 million barrels of oil a day.  However, it’s a start! It also has the effect of stimulating activity in electric vehicles and associated and competitive technologies.  Importantly, it will stimulate activity on increased fuel efficiency of all types.  In my view, this is where we need to focus—set very aggressive targets on average fuel efficiency for each manufacturer selling in the US with a goal to getting the whole fleet—all 240 million vehicles–up to 60 miles per gallon or better in 25 years. That does start making a big dent in CO2 emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. I have written about this in earlier posts, (see TRADE DEFICITS, ENERGY INDEPENDENCE AND, OH YES, CO2 EMISSIONS—November, 2009).  In other words, provide incentives for fuel efficiency in general.  With electric having the potential for the highest efficiency, the credits and other specific incentives there will drive the rest of the industry, but lets get more explicit on very aggressive fuel efficiency targets.  The competitive juices and the resulting innovation will get us there.  President Obama talked about out-competing and out-innovating the rest of the world. That has to start with competition and innovation at home.  More to come.

 

“Cool It” Redux

It is worth seeing the commercial version of “Cool It.”  Hurry, though, since I don’t think 4 people in an audience at each showing will be commercially viable.  Ondi Timoner must have gotten more control over the final product than I thought she would.  The commercial version is quite balanced.  There are some fairly sharp digs at Al Gore and “An Inconvenient Truth,” but a recognition that Gore brought the topic of Global Warming to the forefront. Let me get some of the critiques out of the way:  There’s a little too much of “We’ve only seen a one foot rise in sea levels in the last century,” “… life is good with standards of living having risen substantially,” etc. In other words,  “We’ve jumped off the 50-story building and as we pass the 25th floor things actually look okay.”  Bjorn Lomborg points out that there is a bell curve of potential global warming outcomes and the alarmists only use the low odds extreme possibilities to make their case for immediate action and large expenditures.  However, he turns around and uses the least possible impact of the current actions on temperature change and sea level rise to make his case for diverting resources away from climate change toward other pressing needs.  He is right regarding the need to address other issues, poverty, health, housing, etc., but, as Ned Babbitt points out in a comment below, Lomborg doesn’t provide a lot of documentation for the expenditure levels he calls for.  Those may exist in his book of the same name.  I could go on, but these are all just nits. Go see the movie!

Lomborg goes out of his way to affirm that he is a true believer in global warming, that man is the big contributor to the path we are on, and that we need to do something about it. However, he believes that the solutions being implemented, cap and trade, electric vehicles, windmills, solar PV are just not adequate today to deal with the problem and much of the dollars being invested could be put to better use. I have to agree except in the case of the transportation industry, where I believe the solutions are there—they just haven’t been implemented. Elsewhere, the technologies we are using today are just not adequate to solve the problems in an economic fashion without an explicit price on carbon. The documentary spends a fair amount of time on geo-engineering, which Lomborg thinks may be necessary as stop gaps because we won’t have developed the economic solutions that can move us away from a carbon-based energy system in the right time frame.  His call is for spending more of the money on new technologies and innovation and less on today’s implementation, and in the process freeing up capital to deal with the other needs of the global society. The documentary supports the case by taking us on a whirlwind tour of some of the new technologies in the developed world that could get us to the right solutions. Whether it is Nathan Myhrvold’s work on 4th generation nuclear technologies, Stephen Salter’s work on wave energy or cloud whitening, or Hashem Akbari’s work on mitigating the urban heat effect, the journey through the new technologies is exciting and encouraging.  The solutions are there, in the lab, in prototypes or in a scientist’s head.

Unfortunately, most of the solutions don’t fit today’s venture capital model of low investment and quick return, which is still available in various aspects of the internet space.  The work that is being done is occurring in university labs based on government grants and other non-profit funding with the exception of the Myhrvolds of the world who are recycling the capital from earlier software/internet ventures into this new and exciting field. The other small exception is in those few cases where adaptation, primarily to rising water levels is already a requirement. The Dutch cannot really afford to take the chance that the low end of the distribution curve of climate change will be the end result. I don’t think the rest of the world can either.

We have to create the financing models that allow these innovations to progress to the next levels. Whoever does will own these technologies and the fruits of their implementation for their own geographies and certainly for the benefit of their own economies.  Lomborg’s whirlwind tour doesn’t get outside the developed world, but the innovation and implementation are occurring in the developing world at a startling pace as well. Go get excited by the view of what can happen as presented in “Cool It,”  and put some thought as to what needs to be done to move these innovations and others toward practical reality.

Cool It

At the Hamptons International Film Festival, I saw “Cool It,” the new documentary directed by Sundance two-time Grand Jury Prize winner, Ondi Timoner (“Dig!,” “We Live in Public”).  It features Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” and a pariah in many climate change and environmental circles. I thought it would be good to “know one’s enemy,” and went armed with facts and data to refute what I expected to be hyperbole and assertions in the documentary. This was the first US showing of the film. It was very poorly attended as one might expect, given the environmental views of many of the Hamptons’ weekend residents. A mistake.

The documentary actually presents a quite balanced view of climate change.  Balanced in the sense of putting Climate Change into perspective along with all the other global problems we face today. Lomborg is actually a strong believer in the likelihood of climate change.  He also believes that the polarization on the topic brought about by some of the hyperbole coming from the climate change zealots has been a detriment to progress on solving the problems. I think he does understate the risks in an attempt to present a “balanced” view, using some of the same techniques that he accuses the zealots of using.  However, his conclusions are valid—the primary one being that more of the dollars that are going toward today’s solutions would be better spent on research and development at this stage, to come up with true economic innovations that would speed the shift away from carbon based energy. This version of the film doesn’t talk about the need for a higher price on carbon, although it is my understanding that earlier cuts did.

I suspect that by the time this film hits the commercial theaters the final producers’ cut will be more of a polemic against Al Gore and others who have been a big part of raising awareness on this issue. I hope to see it when it becomes commercial, and I would urge others to do the same. I also hope that an earlier cut makes it to the Internet so one can compare the director’s apparent intent with the final product. Timoner’s responses to questions after the screening portrayed an intelligence and understanding that is already not showing up in each cut as it makes its way from the film festivals to the multi-cinemas for mass consumption. Lomborg will likely continue to be viewed as a pariah in certain circles, when his thoughts should be broadly incorporated into our efforts to deal with this and other serious global problems.  Read the book. See the movie. And get your hands on a director’s cut, if you can.

Do We Need a Price On Carbon?

In his January 10 Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/opinion/10friedman.html?scp=8&sq=tom%20friedman&st=cse, Tom Friedman makes several points about where things stand in the Energy Technology race and reaches the conclusion that China may be winning and will continue to win unless the US gets serious about energy legislation and carbon pricing. In recent days, starting with the State of the Union address, we have heard a bit more noise from the current administration on the energy front–nuclear power, additional subsidies, no capital gains on start-ups and maybe, a cap-and-trade system or some form of establishing a price on carbon. Maybe it will happen, and, maybe it is necessary for the developed world, where replacement of existing carbon-based energy is the principal requirement. In China, India, and much of Asia, new energy sources can be put in place to meet demand growth—a very different set of economics. And the markets are big enough to drive prices down a volume-related cost curve in addition to cost reductions from new technologies and systems. It allows room for more experimentation. It is a requirement if one really wants to be energy independent. Last year China did import 4.1 million barrels of crude oil a day, a little less than half of what the US imports. But this is likely to grow as auto sales grow, unless… See the April post, “China and Electric Cars—The Stakes Have Been Raised.”
China doesn’t appear to need a price on carbon today to look for alternative energy sources. It understands the relentless energy demand it faces as its economy grows and the pressure that would put on existing energy prices. And it understands, politically,  it cannot continue to pollute its air and water. In my visits there I have even seen some evidence that it understands the Climate Change risks from continuing CO2 emissions.

A brief story: In June, 2008, at a UNEP meeting in New York, I was asked if I could name one thing that one country could do that would accelerate the path toward alternative energy adoption and CO2 reduction. I responded “I guess the expected answer would be that the US should do almost anything. But since I do not think it will, my answer would be for China to institute a $50/Ton Carbon tax. This would accelerate the pace of change in China and would likely shame the rest of the world into responding in kind or with a serious cap-and-trade system.” Immediately the Chinese delegate asked to speak. She started with a very logical argument that China was in the early stages of entering the developed world with a low GDP per capita and such a tax would be a burden on many of the people finding their way into its new economy. However, she closed her statement by saying that China could not institute such a tax unilaterally (my emphasis). An interesting choice of words. The truth is, if China did institute an internal carbon tax, it would dramatically accelerate its alternative energy adoption and innovation. The US would spend way too much time figuring out how to respond and would then be in real trouble in Tom Friedman’s race.

At the moment, it is still a race. We shouldn’t require a price today on carbon to stay in the race. It should be apparent that the present value of tomorrow’s prices for carbon and the cost of climate change would justify alternative energy adoption and innovation today. Unfortunately, our system seems to require that the price be explicit before we really get serious. And, maybe, once the Western World as a whole has an explicit price, Asia will get explicit as well. Then we will see if it stays as a race between countries or simply becomes the race to save the planet.