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.

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.

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.


China and the Economy, China and Innovation, China and Climate Change

The extra emphasis on China in the media culminates this week with the US visit by President Hu Jintao. Much has been written about the visit and much posturing has taken place to set a “proper” tone. It’s hard not to comment on some of what has been said before hitting on the important topics of Innovation and Climate Change.

Economy. Let’s start with the currency. I don’t quite get all the noise about China needing to increase the value of the Yuan relative to the dollar. Secretary Geithner says it will help them control their inflation and will be “fairer,” whatever that means. The prices of Chinese goods are already going up which is a result of wages rising and productivity, particularly in low value goods, not offsetting labor costs. A rise in the value of the Yuan would increase prices more and would also increase the buying power of the poorer segments of the Chinese population while doing just the opposite for that segment in the developed world.  It would have the effect of creating jobs outside of China—not in the US, but in Mexico, Vietnam and other countries that will have a labor cost advantage relative to China. The rate of inflation would likely fall in China, but, of course, it would rise in the developed world. The short-term effect on the relative trade balance would be negative for the US, as it would take time for US corporations to shift purchasing to other countries. Plus, commodity prices, particularly oil, would likely rise in dollar terms, increasing our trade deficit in energy. Anyone who really expects that such an action would create jobs or a significant enough cost advantage to stimulate US exports or US buying of US goods vs. creating exports for other low cost countries isn’t looking at what China exports and imports vs. what the US makes. Odds are the media and our wonderful congress will spend more time on the currency issues than anything else. I think President Hu is here to go shopping. By that I mean putting China in a position to buy US assets that will be of value to its growth plans, primarily access to technologies that can allow it to meet its objectives of being a leader in innovation over the next several decades. The tradeoff will likely be further access to Chinese companies and markets by the US.  I reach this conclusion from a thorough read of China’s Patent Policy put forth this past fall.

Innovation. China’s National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020) is a scary read. China sets very high targets for patent filings over the next 5 years, dwarfing filings by the US and Japan (which already exceeds the US in patents in force). It establishes a budget for Patent services that could reach US$16 Billion annually at current exchange rates. It proposes to have ten model cities focused on utilizing the patent system and the incentives to create a vigorous intellectual property market. It will seek to acquire intellectual property from others. A couple of direct quotes from the Strategy are worth noting: “A large number of core patents will be acquired in some key fields of emerging industries and some key technological fields in traditional industries. …Encourage enterprises to acquire patent rights through innovation on the basis of digesting and absorbing imported patented technology. …Support and foster exports of patented technologies and increase the proportion of exported patent-intensive commodities and strengthen guidance on patent policies for enterprises in the process of overseas mergers and acquisitions.”  Implied in the budgets for patent services is a vigorous enforcement of patent rights. Once China has intellectual property rights (IPR) to defend, it will likely be one of the more aggressive enforcers of those rights. The number of patents in force today with their origin in the US and Japan are each almost 20 times those of China. When those numbers get closer to parity it may very well be the US that finds itself on the defensive for not respecting IPR.  This was last the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the US was the upstart and more intellectual property resided in Europe, primarily the UK.

Climate Change.  China’s plans for Patent Development raise significant issues about where intellectual capital will ultimately reside. When it comes to capitalizing on two significant areas of expected (or should we say required) technological innovation and value over the next decades, China is explicit as to their importance:  “…Balance the relationship between the patent policies and some major public policies such as public health and climate change.” (My emphasis)  Others can hold forth on the health front. In the patent document and others, China continues to highlight Climate Change as a focus of its policies and its technological efforts. It is clear that China sees the requirement to respond to this threat as political as well as societal. We will ultimately be a buyer of what China and others produce unless we also look at what policies we can put in place to be competitive.  At the moment we have the intellectual leadership existing in a variety of our institutions. Shame on us if we let that leadership slip away.

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  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.