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 Debt Ceiling, Long Term Deficit Reduction and Insanity

Having barely survived the Fiscal Cliff, we now face the prospect of the crazies using the debt ceiling as a second attempt to derail this recovering economy. Everyone acknowledges that we have a growing debt problem which must be solved. That is a long term issue and should be dealt with accordingly, as opposed to immediate austerity in the face of a fragile but growing US economy. Even the IMF has finally concluded that austerity at the wrong time and at the wrong level is not the answer.  Restoring the Payroll Tax is already a mistake. This is not the time to reduce any flows into this economy.  It is time to sit down and develop a long term plan to reduce the rate of debt accumulation via serious review of federal spending across the board, entitlement reform, tax policy and, at the same time, redirection of spending and policy toward areas that will produce long term economic growth and jobs in this country and the world. We know the levers that will produce growth–education, technology, infrastructure, energy independence, immigration.

We do run the risk of waking up one day and finding the global financial markets unwilling to finance the debt we continue to incur.  However, if we develop a serious long-term plan that begins to go into effect well before this administration is out of office, while still maintaining a growth path, the financial markets will likely be very supportive. Companies and individuals just need to know the rules and see an economy with opportunity. While it was a rather optimistic view, the forecast I made in December does provide at least a vision of what could begin to happen this year. Look at how global equity markets, including our own, have reacted to what was a modest resolution of the fiscal cliff. I would predict that if the debt ceiling increase is accompanied by the elements of austerity that the chief crazy, Mitch McConnell, wants to put in place immediately, financial markets will reverse in anticipation of a major slowdown in growth domestically with an impact on global economies as well.

Where are the folks that are prepared to have the discussions in meetings among disparate parties as opposed to fighting their battles in the media? This includes both sides of the aisle as well as the Executive Branch. We have a real opportunity to get this right. Let’s hope we don’t blow it.

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.

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.

 

Fuel Cells: Maybe they aren’t 10 years away…….

Up until a couple of years ago I have been in the camp that “fuel cells are 10 years away,” which is where they have been for the last 30 years. However, as I commented in a recent tweet that is no longer the case. After that tweet commenting on Katie Fehrenbacher’s post on GigaOm.com  re test driving the Mercedes Fuel Cell vehicle I got a reply from Ron Glantz. Ron, who for many years was the number one ranked auto analyst on Wall Street and a successful money manager, has forgotten more about the auto industry than most people actually know.  While he claims he truly has forgotten almost everything and has not kept up on the industry, his email to me belies that point and raises some interesting questions. I have copied it below:

“While automakers are still working on fuel cells, apparently they have given up on generating hydrogen in cars by processing gasoline. (I had previously sent you a note saying that the problem was the cost of the platinum used in the catalyst.) Instead, they are counting on hydrogen refueling stations:

  • The Nikkei says that the Japanese government is supporting an initiative to draw hydrogen from oil refining. Oil refining uses hydrogen to remove sulfur from oil. The hydrogen used in this process doesn’t have to be high quality, 90 percent pure suffices. Fuel cells expect 99.9 percent pure hydrogen. The sponsored project aims to produce high purity hydrogen, based on “industrial” hydrogen technology”. The Japanese government will bear half the cost of a cheap project. It is estimated to cost 500 million yen ($ 6.15 million) over a three-year period.  It wants to be ready before 2015. Why 2015? Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) expects a “wide adoption of fuel cell vehicles by fiscal 2015” and “seeks to secure a steady supply of high-purity hydrogen.” Again: Why 2015? It just so happens that Toyota is dead set on selling its first mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015.
  • In Korea, Byung Ki Ahn, general manager of Hyundai-Kia’s Fuel Cell Group, said recently: “There are already agreements between car makers such as ourselves and legislators in Europe, North America and Japan to build up to the mass production of fuel cell cars by 2015.” Indeed, if you go through the many files produced in Brussels, you find that in Europe “car manufacturers are getting ready for the commercial production of hydrogen vehicles by 2015.”

So, now you have a “chicken and egg” problem — how can you sell cars before there are refueling stations; how can you justify building stations before there are cars?”  -Ron Glantz, 01/01/11.

Of course this is not a problem for a country that is building into a growth market, e.g., China, India. If one has to build service stations for a growing population of vehicles, anyway, they can just as easily be hydrogen, or natural gas, and, maybe as an interim step, battery recharging or replacement stations.  This is an oversimplification, but it highlights the problem facing the developed world when it comes to a new paradigm. Most innovations applied in the developed world are as replacements, not necessarily meeting new demand. A different economic equation which the developed world has to accept or be left behind.

Trade Deficits, Energy Independence and, Oh Yes, CO2 Emissions

Our trade deficit with the rest of the world widened in September to $36.5 Billion, more than was expected.  Oil prices, a weak dollar and a rising deficit with China were viewed as the culprits. To the extent the trade deficit widens it reduces the growth of GDP. So economists are lowering their growth rate numbers for the third quarter and shaving numbers for the future as well. With President Obama’s trip to China in the news, journalists and others have jumped on the “undervalued” Chinese currency as a systemic problem that China must correct to solve the US’s trade problems and maybe those of the rest of the world as well.  It is highly unlikely, in my view, that a rise in the value of the yuan would do much beyond shifting the manufacture of some of the goods the Western world is buying from China to other Asian countries. I also think those countries, which already have strong trading relationships with China, would remain within the Chinese supply chain.  Nominally, our trade deficit with China might shrink, but it would rise with the other lower cost countries within the Asian sphere that are increasingly an integrated  part of the new center of manufacturing for the world. Of course, in the short term, deficits would rise as US companies would not easily shift from the established supply chains they have which are working well. Some combination of profit margins falling and prices rising on finished goods would be the more likely result.

So let’s, instead, turn to something that we control that would over time reduce our trade deficit—eliminating imported oil. I wrote about this in my post “Our Mileage Standards Are a Joke,” but let’s do it again with some refinement.  I apologize for all the numbers but we have to deal in facts if we want to get to a solution:

We are still importing close to 10 million barrels of oil a day, about half from OPEC (with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela the biggest), a fourth from Canada and a little more than 10% from Mexico. We have about 240 million cars on the road traveling about 3 trillion miles a year, consuming 4 billion barrels of gasoline or about 11 million barrels per day. At a scrappage rate of 4.5% a year we will have a new fleet of cars on the road in 20 years.  By the way, the current rate of new car sales is about equal to the scrappage rate.  We aren’t adding to the fleet. If we pushed our mileage standards up to get us to 55 miles per gallon on new cars in 20 years (which is where the rest of the world is going already), our usage would only be 5 1/2 million barrels per day on its way down every year after that as continued scrappage eliminated the lower mileage vehicles. Given what we are seeing already from the new start-up car companies and Ford and GM I think we could blow those standards away. I also think scrappage would accelerate if there was a real breakthrough in miles per gallon on a broader class of new cars.  The eVolt gives us a hint of what could happen.

So what about the trade deficit?  Well, the reduction of 5.5 million barrels per day of oil equivalent at, say, $70 per barrel (pick your price) is a $140 Billion annual reduction in imported oil. That is giving no credit for exports of the technology created to meet these mileage standards if the US government truly supports the development of these technologies within this country. The ARRA and DOE grants to new vehicle and battery companies are a start.  It also gives no credit for a possible share gain by US based auto manufacturers as the new technologies grab hold.

And CO2 emissions? A little more problematic a calculation since it depends on what gets one to 55 miles per gallon.  The simple calculation is the elimination of 83 billion gallons of gasoline at 20  pounds of CO2 per gallon or about 830 Megatons of CO2 per year.

Certainly, this is not the only thing we can do to reduce the trade deficit, but it provides a partial solution to existing geopolitical, economic and climate change problems that we don’t really seem to be addressing.

Where’s the Money–Will the Real Financiers Please Stand Up?

We have entered into a different cycle of entrepreneurship and opportunity.  That doesn’t mean the last cycle is ending.  The internet, the delivery of content at faster speeds and lower cost, the parsing of that content for greater benefit will present enormous opportunities for our health care systems, our energy systems and almost every other system of importance to humanity.  At the same time the world has embarked on a path of carbon reduction engendering new technologies, new challenges and new opportunities.  While the elements of previous cycles will be incorporated, as always, into the new cycle, this one has the added requirements of the intense application of the physical sciences, brute force engineering and re-engineering and real capital.

Over the last several years I have visited many alternative energy and clean-tech start-ups and reviewed many business plans of potential ventures in this area. At the same time I have continued my paticipation in some personal investments and others’ investments in ventures from the last cycle. There is a difference. Business models involving the movement of bits and bytes lend themselves more easily to continuous adjustment, typically have a lower capital requirement and have historically had shorter periods to failure or liquidity events, although that is changing as the industry matures. I take nothing away from the ingenuity or management talent required to succeed in these ventures, but it certainly seems different from some historical venture cycles and the carbon-reduction cycle we are now in.

Twenty years ago, Tom Doerflinger and I published a book, “Risk and Reward-Venture Capital & the Making of America’s Great Industries.”  The book detailed the start-up history of several industries–Steel, Railroads, Telephones, Autos, Computers and Biotechnology—in an effort to draw out some lessons about success or failure as it related to the role of venture capitalists/financiers.  While there were many lessons a primary one related success or failure to the relative patience of the financiers–the more patient and unintrusive the financiers the higher the rate of success.  For the most part, these were industries that required commitments of significant capital, time and technological and engineering innovation. In its early days the Auto industry may have come the closest to the characteristics of internet-related investing—small amounts of capital, quick evidence of success or failure, high gross margins and growth. After early years of high and rising prices for the products, it also experienced the pattern of declining prices and improved performance. There were many start-ups pursuing different technological paths (including electric) and distribution models.  We think of the industry today as made up of a small number of behemoths. In the early days there were many companies. A study at the time said that between 1900 and 1908, 485 car companies were started with over half failing during that period and many more in years to come. Sound familiar?

What some of the carbon reduction entrepreneurs are doing is truly amazing.  Those ventures that are moving ahead include first class engineers and scientists as well as experienced businesspeople. Watching how they deal with the typical (and some atypical) engineering problems that such operations confront daily in start-up and production modes is a real testament to these individuals and the academic and real-world training they bring to bear. It is inspiring and gives one great hope that there are solutions that will be funded, produce substantial returns and make a difference.

For the most part—and I admit this is an overstatement—the generation of venture capitalists that got their experiences only in the last cycle, don’t quite get the time and capital equipment and the technologies that have to be applied in this cycle.  Or, maybe they do, and this is just not where and how they want to invest.  Some companies are getting funded, but many promising ventures are struggling and some will disappear or at best go into hibernation. If we are counting on the classic venture capital industry as the source of funds for carbon reduction technologies and companies, the pace of innovation and implementation in the United States in particular, may be too slow for the country to be a leader in this space. Is there a new model that must emerge or will it simply be the case that the smaller number of companies that do get funded in the next few years will produce some of the best vintage year returns that we will see in this decade? That, likely, will not make us the leader, but at least we will be a participant.