Stranded Fossil Fuel Assets and the Carbon Bubble

In following the topic of economic bubbles, it’s worthwhile looking into what’s called the “Carbon Bubble.” The idea behind the Carbon Bubble has to do with stranded assets — assets that are on the books of a company but that can never be exploited for profit. This is potentially the case with companies that are in the business of extracting and exploiting fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas. The problem is that such fuels are causing climate change and are thus becoming increasingly subject to regulation. It’s possible that a significant volume of fossil fuels now on the books of coal and oil companies will never come to the surface and will eventually have to be written off at massive loss.

This problem was well explained recently by Joel Makower at GreenBiz.com — see “Exxon, stranded assets and the new math.” Makower’s piece was prompted by an announcement that ExxonMobil, the U.S.’s largest energy company, will be releasing the first Carbon Asset Risk report by any such company. A press release from Arjuna Capital says that the forthcoming report “will provide investors with greater transparency into how ExxonMobil plans for a future where market forces and climate regulation makes at least some portion of its carbon reserves unburnable.”

ARB — 25 March 2014

 

Warren Buffett: What’s So Great About Gold?

Gold coins and ingotsWarren Buffett, in a recent article in Fortune (“Warren Buffett: Why stocks beat gold and bonds,” 9 Feb 2012), identifies three major categories of investments — currency-based investments, sterile assets, and productive assets.

In his article, Buffett makes some comments about gold that are sure to be controversial. He classifies gold under the category of sterile assets — “assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else — who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive — will pay more for them in the future.” (Photo: Linked from Buy Silver Gold)

Then he goes on to write,

What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth — for a while.

He then goes on to draw a contrast between the investment value of today’s $9.6 trillion of gold and an equivalent amount of truly productive assets. With that same $9.6 trillion, he says, “we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge)” — a set of investments much more likely to produce value in the future than that big block of gold.

I’m certain there are good arguments against it, but I find his reasoning sensible and interesting. He also refers to the 17th-century tulip bubble, which I have written about previously — see “The ‘Tulip Mania’ Economic Bubble: Source of a Myth?

AB — 10 February 2012

Speculative Bubbles: Good for Innovation?

In a 2009 presentation, IT pioneer Bob Metcalfe argues that

Speculative bubbles accelerate technological innovation.

So he argues that we should “try not to outlaw bubbles,” but adds the warning that one should

Just be sure to have a chair when the music stops.

(See Metcalfe’s presentation “Enernet: Internet Lessons for Solving Energy.”

I would be hard-pressed to argue that the real-estate bubble was a good thing, except that it revealed the extreme perversity of the financial services industry. But I have long felt that the so-called “Internet Bubble” of the 1990s was a great thing in many ways, except possibly for investors swept along in the exuberance. The money and effort that were funneled into developing Internet startups helped to fuel an important surge of technology innovation and an intensive training period for new technologists and innovators, and we are still benefiting from that surge today.

In the notes from his presentation, Metcalfe adds some notes that are right on-point:

We saw from the many Internet Era bubbles that investment, speculation, inflation, competition, and collapse are tools of innovators against the status quo. Bubbles accelerate technological innovation. DC’s reflex (the reflex of the status quo) with each bursting of a bubble is to outlaw bubbles. This is counterproductive.

In the Internet Era, we had many bubbles, including generations of bubbles in memory, storage, LANs, wireless, PCs, spreadsheets, Internet browsers, databases, operating systems, VOIP, telecom equipment, optical technologies, programming languages, e-commerce, …

They all kept the Internet coming, against the vicious rearguard resistance of the status quo.

They go hand in hand with Christensen Disruption. The status quo declares innovations insufficient, non-standard, unsafe, and just plain HYPE!

During the mid-90s, some marketing professionals I respected then and still respect now dismissed Internet communication and marketing in just those kinds of terms. Nowadays, hardly anyone would deny the importance of the Internet as a component of a sound marketing program.

So I think I would have to agree that not all bubbles are all bad all of the time.

AB — 23 May 2011

Historical Chart of Home Values Shows Extent of the Housing Bubble

This chart, originally developed by economist Robert J. Schiller, then updated by Steve Barry, shows the recent housing bubble in dramatic fashion. This image is linked from the original at The Big Picture — click through for the original:

100-year chart of home values

AB — 15 April 2011

‘American Dream’ Film: Communicating Economic Ideas Dramatically

I’m interested as much in the way ideas get communicated as the ideas themselves. What brings this to mind is the animated film I saw today called The American Dream. This is the most creative expression I’ve seen of the more non-mainstream view of economics — the idea that the Federal Reserve is an evil conspiracy against America.

Some of the film’s explanations are less controversial — how banks manipulate the economy and create what amounts to a house of cards that is supposedly too big to fail. But the film does move into some uncomfortable areas, almost advocating violent revolution — patriotic language and images are used to whip up sentiments. Still, as I said, the most interesting thing to me is the innovative presentation of the creators’ arguments.

By the way, I also like Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course in Economics” — kind of a ‘chalk-talk’ approach — as another example of creative presentation of economics ideas.

The American Dream is a half-hour film available in two parts on YouTube.

AB — 25 January 2011

Do Companies Really Act in Their Own Interests?

Economics 101 would make one think that all actors always act in their own self-interest and that that is what makes a free-market economy work so well. But deeper economic study helps you to appreciate that the reality is much more nuanced.

This is emphasized in posts today by James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario and Felix Salmon at Reuters. What they are saying confirms my frequent observation that economic actors — from individuals to large companies to governments — can do really stupid things that are contrary to their own self-interests, as well as to the benefit of society.

In his post “Why banks are self-defeating on housing,” Salmon discusses banks’ disinclination to move ahead with short sales (in the real-estate sense — in such a case, the sale price is less than the amount owed on the loan — see the Wikipedia entry on this kind of short sale), even though the bank will lose in the long run if they let the property go into foreclosure. The problem is the human disinclination to got through pain in the short term, even though they will benefit in the long run:

Bank executives, it’s worth remembering, are human. Every time you do a short sale, you take a substantial loss on your loan. And no one likes doing that: it’s painful. So it’s understandable, from a psychological perspective, that they will drag out the process as much as possible, putting off until tomorrow the pain they know has to come at some point.

In his post, “The Private Sector Fallacy,” Kwak makes a similar point about large companies in general. He points to three factors as to why that is so:

One [factor] is that big company executives are prone to exactly the same sort of cognitive fallacies as ordinary people, and hence make stupid decisions routinely.

The second is that the incentives of individual people who make decisions (or provide information to people who make decisions) are only tangentially related to the interests of the company as a whole, and certainly not when you think of those interests over the long term.

A third factor is simply that companies are big, dumb, poorly designed institutions.

In spite of these problems with the classical “invisible-hand” model of economics, says Kwak,

the belief that the private sector is the answer to all our problems remains deeply rooted. One might even call it an ideology. I would hope that the financial crisis (and the BP disaster) might cause people to question that ideology, at least a little bit.

AB — 30 June 2010

The Produce Box: Local Foods in the NC Triangle Region

The trend toward local foods is one of the movements that makes tremendous sense to me in the current emerging economic environment. Here in the Triangle region (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA), a local startup, The Produce Box, has been been making weekly deliveries of local foods for the past couple of years.

Boxing produce at the Lee family farmEach week during the harvest season, we receive a box of produce picked the previous day ($22 for a smaller box, $38 for a larger box) delivered automatically and paid online by credit card.

The foods we receive aren’t flawless, and there’s no promise that they are 100% legally organic. But they’re fresh and delicious and local. The Lee Farm, the main farm that supplies The Produce Box, doubled its acreage under cultivation from 50 to 100 acres in just the past year because of this venture.

Each week the box includes a newsletter from Produce Box owner Courtney Tellefsen. This week she included some interesting insights into how the Lees grown their produce:

Because of the unique nature of this new food system, where they are growing FOR US, they don’t feel the pressure to produce a completely unblemished, beautiful product. They know that we would much rather see a small blemish we can cut away than have our food saturated with pesticides. So they use less pesticides and incorporate such farming practices as growing in black plastic for weed control and irrigation, using a closed water source (no open wells, ponds, etc.) to reduce contamination possibilities and applying insectisoaps rather than pesticides when they can.

They are “thoughtful” about the way that they farm, and the way that they pack your fresh veggies. The produce that comes to you in the morning was picked the day before and packed that previous afternoon at the farm by the Lee’s and their helpers.

She also included this useful chart showing which foods are in season when in North Carolina throughout the year — click on the image to download a full-size PDF version:

Produce: What's in season in North Carolina

AB — 19 May 2010