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.

Marcellus Shale:New York::Prudhoe Basin:Alaska. Why Not?

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has put out a 46 megabyte document with proposed regulations on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing  of the Marcellus Shale formation in the state. The regs together with existing regs cover almost every known possibility of risk with some ways to mitigate the risk.  The DEC has asked for comments. I just posted one which you will see below. I don’t understand why these massive game-changing formations, the Marcellus, the Bakken and others, should not be treated the same as the Prudhoe Basin for the benefit of those states under which the formations exist.  These are depleting assets–and they produce GHG emissions. Why not create Permanent Funds designed to create something lasting beyond the lives of these assets. And why not create some mechanisms to deal with possible unintended consequences from the exploitation of these resources?  These formations and the technology to exploit them are game changers. They have certainly quieted the dialogue on Climate Change as we focus on Energy Independence and that natural gas takes us part way to reduced emissions relative to other fossil fuels. Let’s not forget: it is still a fossil fuel. I can’t solve everything in this post, but take a look at the suggestions for how to deal with the Marcellus. The submitted DEC comments begin below:

The SGEIS of September 7, 2011 provides a very comprehensive review of the risks associated with Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing and provides mitigation against many of the known risks either through regulation, approvals or restrictions on where drilling can take place. However, in its work, the DEC with the assistance of Alpha Environmental does recognize that there are substantial risks and actual likelihood of occurrences of damage as indicated by the restrictions on where drilling can take place as well as the substantial amount of requirements necessary to be allowed to drill, to handle the materials and back-flow from the processes, to reduce the GHG emissions and to transport materials and the ultimate hydrocarbons resulting from the drilling. The Marcellus and the Utica formations as well as others that may be exploited represent a significant economic opportunity for New York and other states as well as the United States in general. There will be much comment on the proposals put forth in this document. No doubt, the Oil and Gas Industry will have comments on the costs of the proposals as well as whether the risks highlighted are significant enough to warrant all the proposals for mitigation.  Economics will be a key factor. These formations, the Marcellus in particular, represent a low cost source of domestic energy, in some ways not too dissimilar from the Prudhoe basin, which has been a major economic boon for Alaska and the US.  I would like to suggest that, in addition to the proposals in the SGEIS, that the state of New York, in conjunction with the other states that exist over these formations, consider the following:

1)    Much as the state of Alaska created a Permanent Fund for collection of royalties on the production from the Prudhoe basin and other Oil and Gas activities, there should be a similar Permanent Fund developed for the states where hydraulic fracturing and any other approaches are used to exploit these enormous and game-changing formations. An appropriate royalty (Alaska takes 33%) should be determined. While a small portion of the royalties could go toward the various state operating budgets, the majority would be available for the creation of alternative energy or energy efficiency opportunities to ultimately replace or supplement the production from the formations, as they are depleted. It could also be used for training of local residents in the technical skills required to participate in the manpower requirements for the industry. The royalties could also be used to support the inspection efforts and other mitigating elements in order to support the O&G industry in its exploitation of the formations. The DEC has indicated that drilling approvals will be slow as there are not sufficient resources to meet the likely demand.

2)    While the DEC has proposed many mitigations to avoid problems, specifically with water contamination, there is no certainty that problems, anticipated or unanticipated, will not occur.  The O&G industry is certainly of the view that there are no serious problems that could affect the various water supplies in the state or water that either contains animal life or is important to land-based animals’ survival. It would make sense for the industry to put up a sizable bond to deal with any problems that do arise, requiring treatment plants or other means to correct any such problems. If as the industry states, the occurrence of such problems is remote, such a bond would bear a reasonable price, and could be targeted to specific elements. For example, while the NYC watershed has been excluded from drilling specifically, drilling will be allowed to take place not far from the borders of the watershed area. NYC consumes about 1 billion gallons per day of unfiltered water for which it collects about $1 billion a year. To construct treatment plants and maintain them could cost as much as $30 billion and add about a billion dollars per year to operating costs.  In the event that the unforeseen happens or appears to be happening, it would be good to know that funds are available to insure that sufficient potable water continues to exist.

3)    The DEC has also proposed rules to mitigate GHG emissions, which could be high in the early stages of the process if methane releases are not contained. It is understood that under steady state conditions natural gas produces fewer GHG emissions than coal or oil, but there are still emissions.  And such emissions can exceed those of other hydrocarbons if there are methane releases during the early hydrofracturing activity. A CO2 or CO2e charge per ton above a certain level of emissions would provide an economic incentive for the industry to keep emissions levels in the drilling, production and transportation activity to a minimum. Such a charge could revert to the Permanent Fund.

I leave it to the experts to determine the feasibility of these suggestions and the appropriate economics. Exploitation of the Marcellus and other gas reservoirs in New York and elsewhere in the country can have a major impact on the economics of the United Sates and can serve as a significant interim step toward reduction of GHG emissions if done properly. Much as Alaska, Texas and other states have benefited greatly from the exploitation of resources within the states, New York should as well. I commend the DEC for the thorough review of the risks associated with this method of drilling and production and its proposed rules for mitigation of those risks. I would hope that we use this opportunity to benefit the state and its residents appropriately, and consider the long-term effects of exploiting a depleting hydrocarbon resource.

A Brief Look at the World—China, the US, Europe and the Lake Forest Investment Society

I am heading out to Chicago for one of the triannual meetings of the Lake Forest Investment Society.  We have been meeting three times a year (yes, triannual can mean three times a year) for many years to talk about the economy and the markets, including providing some specific stocks for a “portfolio.” The best performing security for the period between meetings gets its touter a free lunch. The portfolio, an unaudited, equally weighted hodge-podge of names is actually up  427% vs. the S&P at 130% over the 16 years this group has been meeting.  The Society originated as a group of ex-Mitchell Hutchins employees and some of their favorite clients who wanted an excuse to share some provocative ideas on stocks, the economy, the world and life, eat high cholesterol meals, and maybe play a little golf. Some of the members and their origins have changed over the years, but the dialogue continues. The following are some thoughts I expect to share at the meeting:

China’s Role

This global deficit crisis won’t really be resolved until China enters the picture. China needs an export market to provide sufficient jobs while it tries to move to a consumer economy. It cannot find itself with a slow-growth economy if it wants to avoid political disruption, particularly at a time of leadership change. The developed world, both the US and Europe, needs to be showing some growth in order to be consumers of Chinese goods. With new leadership coming in 2012 there is an opportunity for China to provide some form of quantitative easing through the purchase of longer-dated securities or other mechanisms.  This could be combined with the purchase of real assets and intellectual property as well in both the US and Europe. Until we see some movement by China, the developed world markets will face continued uncertainty, as the resources available to resolve the European crises, specifically, are just not adequate. However, I doubt China will move until both Europe and the US take stronger steps on their own to develop long-term deficit solutions and near-term stimuli.

The US’s Role

Contrary to what has been a continual reduction in GDP forecasts and increasing odds of a double dip by the pundits, I think the US could show decent growth in the second half of this year—not enough to create a lot of jobs, but decent. This does assume that the Super Committee or some variation thereof comes out with a long-term deficit reduction program combined with some near-term stimulus, and Congress actually supports this effort. I think the odds are greater than 60% that they will. This doesn’t necessarily provide a boost for the second half of the year, but it clears the air for next year and eliminates some elements of uncertainty in the minds of business and investors. My guess is we could have one more horrendous scare, probably coming out of Europe, before the world comes to its senses and responds to what could be a real crisis otherwise. What needs to happen long term is a whole ‘nother post, but one could read Friedman’ and Mandelbaum’s new book, “That Used to be Us,” to get a sense of some of what has to happen.

Europe

What a mess. It does not appear that the mechanisms exist to deal with the Greek deficits without putting the European banking system and maybe some other financial entities at grave capital risk. Whatever does come out of Europe as a solution—and I think it will take the Chinese to at least have the appearance of a solution—growth will be slow, as the European banks will not be in a position to lend for some time.  This is an opportunity for the Chinese probably to the detriment of the US, if they choose to pursue it.  China bashing in the US will likely drive China closer to Europe. China can also be more specific in its actions by dealing with individual countries and companies as opposed to the Union.

Other Topics

In spite of what most of the Republican primary candidates say—Jon Huntsman excluded–climate change is happening. We have no coherent policies in place and what was previously there is slowly being dismantled in Congress and by the Administration. Fiscally, we don’t seem to believe we have the resources to tackle this issue now, in spite of the long-term job creation possibilities.  And, the fascination with “fracking” and what that could do for energy independence is in the forefront with massive resources from the energy industry devoted to selling the story. In the meantime the failure of an over-funded science project, Solyndra, has raised issues about government involvement in clean tech.  These are their own topics, which I will deal with separately in other posts. In the meantime, back to the LFIS meeting, I will have a hard time coming up with a good stock idea. My personal portfolio is in cash and private illiquid companies. My compatriots will have some very interesting ideas, particularly at this moment in the market. I am not so sure the public market is as cheap as many opportunities in the private market today, particularly away from some of the frenzy around social media and other Internet related companies. Maybe one more crack in the public markets will get it there if it is combined with some stimulus in response.  In the meantime, real private companies are having a hard time finding funds from the traditional venture capital sources. We appear to be going back to the original sources of capital for venture companies, rich families either in the form of family offices or direct.  They can name their prices.  We are back to the old maxim that one makes the most money on a good price going in vs. the price going out.

Shutting Down Nuclear Power in Germany? This May be the Best Thing for Renewable Energy and Emissions Reductions.

So, Germany is shutting down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. At the peak the plants produced 27.5% of Germany’s electricity. Renewable Energy is now up to 17.5%. There is a big gap to fill in a short period of time and it has German industry and the utilities screaming. This is on the path to have 80% of all its electrical energy come from non-carbon sources by 2050 in addition to a 50% reduction in consumption.  While one could question eliminating Nuclear from the clean energy picture, what Germany is doing will very likely produce an acceleration in innovation, efficiency and the development of intellectual property that will 1) keep Germany’s energy costs from rising, 2) expand Germany’s trade surplus 3) increase Germany’s share of global Intellectual Property and 4) reduce the world’s CO2 emissions more than would have occurred otherwise. This is a bold, audacious step and does require a leap of faith that the German engineers and scientists will accelerate the pace of economic renewable energy development, and German industry and its people will further increase the efficiency of energy usage. I think they will do it, primarily because they have to and they have the talent to do it. This may be one of the most exciting moves by a government to date in the renewable energy field—and a positive move on emissions.

In the meantime, the US is looking for more carbon in less mature formations to fill its energy needs. We’ve basically found all the pooled oil and gas that took 300 million years or more to produce and are now going after “tight” carbon in shale formations as our solution to meet energy demand and produce energy independence. While the shale gas most likely will produce fewer emissions than coal over the 100 year life of a formation, it is still producing carbon and requiring a fairly aggressive use of other resources, primarily water, and some real brute force in liberating the carbon. This, too, is a bold step with some big environmental risks associated with it. It may prove to be a bold step in the wrong direction. We will take a closer look at this in a future blog. The move by Germany is an exciting one, but it saddens me to see the innovation and the aggressive steps to produce the lower carbon world we need taking place elsewhere.

Risk and Opportunity

Mother Nature, the Economy, Intellectual Property & Innovation, Strategic Risk and Private Equity 

The first quarter of 2011 was rather tumultuous to say the least, and we are entering the second quarter with very little of that turbulence fully calmed and the human toll and uncertainty continuing to rise. This has heightened concerns about specific Risks and, more generally, the global economy…  Continue reading the text version →

Or fast forward to the Q&A session in the video below.

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.

Management Trends in the 21st Century–Climate Change and Innovation play their part

I recently posted a comment on the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website where a discussion is developing on the Most Significant Ideas in Management for the 21st Century. Below are five ideas I posted, all of which relate to management trends vs. societal trends. Of course, societal trends are almost always incorporated in forward thinking management views:

1)    Global Businesses, regardless of where they are headquartered, will be run by non-Western citizens.

2)    In the early part of the century there will be a significant age shift to a younger senior management structure effectively skipping a generation.

3)    With the accumulation and availability of investment capital outside the Western World, entrepreneurship will truly become global.

4)    A recognition of the growing real financial liability a corporation faces from not incorporating environmental sustainability and other societal issues into its decision-making will lead to widespread adoption of CSR. We already are seeing a valuation differential in the marketplace between CSR adopters and their counterparts.

5)    As the developing world begins creating its own patentable Intellectual Property, the fight over IP will become global and intense and, to some extent, may offset expanding universal access to information. The creation of IP may assert itself as a higher objective for management even though the shortened life of a new idea decreases its present value.

By the way, this is an interesting forum and I would urge others to contribute to it, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6639.html?wknews=02222011 .

The last two bullet points above clearly relate to what I think will be a management requirement—incorporating the impact of Climate Change on conducting business as the century progresses.  There is an implicit growing business liability related to lack of incorporation of likely legal and administrative response to emissions of various types as well as an impact on various factors of production. Some of that liability is already showing up, and in other instances, e.g.,  super fund sites, acid rain, there is some element of retroactivity that can be applied. It is not an easy present value calculation to determine if and when a corporation takes action, but it is not clear that many corporations are even making the calculation. Intellectual Property is a part of this calculation. Of course, here, it is not just related to innovations around Climate Change, but all innovations. I wrote,  in an earlier post, about steps China is taking to enhance its ability to create and protect Intellectual Property. Maybe coincidentally–or maybe not–the US is now making significantly more noise about increasing its spending on R&D and patent services in the face of significant pressure to cut federal spending. If the differential that the market place is willing to pay for reduction in liabilities through CSR investment and for ownership of Intellectual Property becomes more apparent, the pressure to lay out clearer guidelines in response to Climate Change and to improve our patent services should come from the corporate world with the government following. That is the way it should be. I hope it won’t be too late.

NextWealth–Distributed Incubation and a new outsourcing model with profound implications

On a recent trip to Bangalore to visit with Duron Energy, an Idealab company, I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Sridhar Mitta, the original Chief Technology Officer of Wipro, one of its earliest employees, and, as President of Wipro Global R&D, the key missionary of outsourced product development. He is the Founder and Managing Director of NextWealth, www.nextwealth.in.  After receiving his M. Tech. from IIT he went on to get a second Masters and his Doctorate at Oklahoma State University. (He did say it was nice to meet another “Okie.”) He returned to India and spent several years in the public sector before joining Wipro in its startup days. He retired in 2001 and subsequently has been involved in a number of technology companies. His career truly traces the development of the IT industry in India. But his primary focus now is NextWealth, which may represent another step along the IT path in India and possibly elsewhere.

NextWealth is a for-profit social enterprise that is taking advantage of a significant cost arbitrage between urban and rural India, but also, profoundly, makes use of and reinforces certain cultural and social aspects of the Indian society.

In addition to the famous network of IIT schools in most of the major urban locales, India has located many very good technical schools in rural areas in an effort to increase the number of college educated members of the workforce.  Many of these campuses have quite complete infrastructures including, importantly, sufficient primary and back-up power. The schools provide a college education to students in rural India who would not be able to move to urban areas because of the costs and the prospect of separation from their families at a young age. This particularly applies to the young women from the rural areas. The problem is that once they receive their degrees, the job opportunities are most likely elsewhere, not in the local community.  In India, culturally, family takes precedence, but the economic realities brought about by the demand for technically trained individuals in the large engineering complexes in the cities require difficult decisions for these graduates. NextWealth finds an entrepreneur or entrepreneurs either living in the rural areas, or more often working in urban areas, who would prefer to be nearer to home and family. NextWealth provides the start-up funds and other support to create a business that can scale locally. Dr. Mitta pointed out that in many ways it is a distributed Idealab concept. While Idealab incubates the companies at its facility on West Union in Pasadena and then moves them out, typically to a nearby location (Duron is an exception!), NextWealth starts the incubation where it knows the workforce will exist to sustain and grow the company. The willingness and ability of the US college-graduate workforce to locate almost anywhere allows for the Idealab model. NextWealth is to some extent capitalizing on the current state of the Indian infrastructure, but more so, the cultural phenomenon of the importance of geography and family.

The NextWealth model, itself, has some profound implications. We have all seen the articles and dissertations on the urbanization of populations globally. The pundits are predicting that, ultimately, 90% of the population will end up living in cities. It is hard to imagine what life will be like if that occurs. In many societies as the migration takes place the disruption to the concept of family is significant and is being resisted. That is certainly the case in India and is happening in China as well. Dr. Mitta is pragmatically taking advantage of the ties to family and geography in India. But in so doing, he is creating an alternative model to this inexorable march toward the mega-cities. In addition, Dr. Mitta told me that NextWealth’s companies are primarily employing educated women, where the pull from family is the strongest and the prospect of moving away to a single life in the city is remote. NextWealth is bringing many more women into the workforce in roles that provide higher incomes than they historically were able to receive and where they are actually making use of their education. The incomes are lower than they might earn if they moved to the city, but the cost of living is more than proportionately lower, while the quality of life and family interaction is higher. The empowerment of these women feeds on itself in the local area providing a model for other younger women to pursue an education without the prospect of it disrupting the pull of place and parents.

For this to work does require Tom Friedman’s Flat World. It requires global connectivity as well as the local infrastructure resulting from the creation of these rural educational facilities. It relates primarily to service businesses as opposed to manufacturing. It also requires acceptance by the customer that a reliable network and an educated workforce does exist in rural India.  Dr. Mitta says the selling process to the customer reminds him of the early days of Wipro, when the first response to the idea of outsourcing to India was “Where’s India? And how can they possibly speak and read English?”  He says the questions today are “Where’s Karnataka? And how can they possibly have that skill set?” Sounds like we still have a bit of work to do in the US educational system on Geography and Global History in addition to Math and Science.

This model won’t apply everywhere, but with some tinkering it might even work in the developed world. Dr. Mitta is exploring that possibility, starting with regional educational institutions in the US. One of the Indian businesses that has been funded is providing math tutoring for K-12 students in the US, www.tutorvista.com . Yes, that’s right. Educated individuals sitting in the town of Mallasamudram, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, are helping US students improve their math skills. Dr. Mitta thinks there is an economic model that doesn’t require outsourcing the service all the way to India. He may be right, but in the meantime, the model is changing lives and bringing more of the world’s population into the global economy.

I must admit that this post has very little to do with Climate Change, and probably belongs in a blog with a different URL. I guess the closest I could come is that the purpose of my trip to Bangalore was to visit Duron, www.duronenergy.com , which is providing solar home lighting to rural India. The original point of contact with Dr. Mitta was his interest in learning more about the company. When one has the opportunity to meet such a unique individual doing some unique and possibly profound work, sharing the story may stimulate others to think outside the box and come up with unique ideas of their own, whether it relates to climate change or other big issues confronting us over this century.