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

 

‘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

The Astonishing $600 Trillion Interest-Rate Derivatives Market

A post from April 21, 2010 on Washington’s Blog calls derivatives “the world’s largest market, dwarfing the size of the bond market and world’s real economy” and says that the derivatives market “is currently at around $600 trillion or so (in gross nominal value).” — See “Are Interest Rate Derivatives a Ticking Time Bomb?

In contrast, Washington says that the worldwide bond market in 2009 was $82.2 trillion and the world economy was $58.07 trillion.

The most popular derivative, he says, are interest rate derivatives, in which “the underlying asset is the right to pay or receive a notional amount of money at a given interest rate,” according to the Wikipedia definition of interest rate derivative.

Washington quotes various economists to demonstrate why such derivatives have the potential to seriously destabilize the world economy (which we all know is so solid right now). He includes a long quote from portfolio manager Doug Noland, who compares interest rate derivatives with the so-called “portfolio insurance” that played a role in the stock-market crash of 1987.

One proponent of portfolio insurance is cited as making this breathtaking statement in 1985:

[I]t doesn’t matter that formal insurance policies are not available. The mathematics of finance provide the answer…The bottom line is that financial catastrophes can be avoided at a relatively insignificant cost.

About interest rate derivatives,Washington believes:

[N]o one – even the people that design, sell or write about the various interest rate derivatives – really knows how much of a danger they do or don’t pose to the overall economy. In addition to all of the other complexities of the instruments, the very size of the market is unprecedented.

AB — 22 April 2010

Defining Asset Bubbles

Here is an interesting interview with Jeremy Grantham of investment firm GMO, discussing asset bubbles, what they are, and how they should affect investment decisions.

Economist Edward Harrison at Naked Capitalism adds some analysis and explanation in his post “Jeremy Grantham on Bubbles.” Harrison’s “informal working definition of a bubble is “a price rise that is at least two standard deviations above trend.” He says that

Above two-standard deviations the psychology of prior price movements starts to dominate price activity and a bubble forms in which power law characteristics come into play.

In “power law” relationships, a quantity varies more than you should expect. It kind of refers to the “tall head” part of a distribution graph, the opposite of the “long tail.”

AB — 21 April 2010

The annoying thing about The Big Oligarchy

The annoying thing about The Big Oligarchy …

the banks

the insurance companies

the government

the giant firms

and their privileged controllers

… is that you pay into It all your life through premiums, taxes, and the money It makes from the float on your cash …

but then when you ask for the promised (or implied) benefits, It begrudges paying you and does Its best to stonewall.

AB — 26 March 2010