Streetwise Professor

March 9, 2019

The Laundromat That Reveals Just How Dirty–and Doomed–Russia Is

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:10 pm

The Troika Laundromat–a massive money laundering operation organized by the eponymous Russian investment bank–has been much in the news of late. Most of the coverage has focused on the western banks–including several in supposedly squeaky clean Nordic countries–that were the conduits for the money. But what is far more interesting to me about the story is what it says about Russia, and in particular how it illustrates with particular force what started me writing about Russia 12+ years ago.

Specifically, as a lower middle income country, with an educated populace and abundant natural resources, Russia should be a magnet for capital. Instead, it is one of the world’s all time greatest capital repellants. They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: obviously, what is made in Moscow (and elsewhere in Russia) doesn’t stay, but gets out any way that it can.

So what overwhelms the forces that would otherwise draw capital to Russia?: the state, and the culture that supports it, and which it sustains. The predatory nature of the state, the predators the state protects, and the lack of basic legal protections make money vastly safer outside of Russia than in it. Put differently, although Russia is rich in human capital and resource capital, it is tragically poor in social capital. It is a low trust society, and one in which formal institutions do not compensate for the lack of trust, but exacerbate it.

Putinism has done nothing to encourage investment in social capital–the opposite is true. Yes, it arguably tamed the greatest excesses of the 90s, but this was essentially a matter of replacing roving bandits with a stationary bandit. An improvement, but hardly a launchpad for social and economic development.

This is a major reason why I consider all of the hyperventilating about the threat posed by Putin and Russia to be vastly exaggerated. It can raise Cain in its neighborhood, but beyond that the country suffers from debilitating weaknesses which are unlikely to change anytime soon. For all Putin’s strutting domestically, and on the world stage, to say that he (and Russia) have feet of clay is an extreme understatement. This is a country that is already far behind, and is doomed to fall even further behind with every passing year.

All the laundromats in the world cannot wash away that reality. Indeed, they are symptomatic of how filthy that reality is.

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Message to Merkel: Merging Two Piles of Manure Does Not Improve the Smell

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 5:29 pm

Reuters reports that Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank have begun merger talks. The German government has been pushing for such a merger. In part, Berlin is hot for a combination because it wants to create a “national banking champion”:

And as Mr Scholz and Mr Kukies’ clandestine London meetings show, the idea is now gaining traction in Berlin. Policymakers and corporate bosses see a stable national banking champion as the backbone of their export-led industrial policy, vital if the country is to weather the next downturn that many economists warn looms large.

This is hilarious and infuriating on so many levels.

First. Hmmm. “National champion” sounds kinda, uhm, I dunno, nationalist, doesn’t it? And Frau Merkel keeps telling us only bad people are nationalists, and nationalists are bad people.

Again–German hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Second, by what financial alchemy does merging two horribly underperforming banks create anything of championship caliber, unless you mean a national champion clusterf*ck? Both banks are priced at a huge discount to book–for good reason. Both have returns on equity that are at the bottom of league tables. Merging two manure piles will not improve the smell.

Further, Deutsche Bank in particular is already a bloated monstrosity. Successive CEOs have failed to rationalize it. Every merger faces huge integration challenges, which would only complicate the task of rationalizing and downsizing DB.

Moreover, Deutsche Bank is already a huge systemic risk, given its size and dodgy balance sheet. Mashing it together with Commerzbank will only increase its systemic importance, and its complexity, and hence its systemic risk.

And this is yet more hypocrisy: the Germans are always lecturing everyone (especially the Italians and Greeks) about financial imprudence, and the risks that they impose on Germany. Speak for yourself, Fritz. DB is the poster child for financial imprudence. So why not make it bigger? What could possibly go wrong?

Maybe sanity will prevail, and the merger will not go through. But the very fact that it is being thought of, and indeed pushed by the German government, tells you everything you need to know about how hypocritical, and how clueless, the German government is.

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March 6, 2019

Fists of Fury Fly Over Tesla’s Price Cuts

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Tesla — cpirrong @ 8:29 pm

According to this Seeking Alpha post, Chinese buyers are furious at the Tesla price cuts. The WSJ concurs.

And with good reason. In my post yesterday, I wrote that Tesla cut prices by 6 percent–which was another of the company’s half-truths. Or maybe fifth-truths, because for the pricier models the price cuts are on the order of 30 percent. The Model 3 Performance version price cut is 8 percent in China, and the pricier the car, the bigger the percentage discount. So no wonder buyers are furious. They look like suckers because if they’d waited, they would have saved as much as $50K.

A 6 percent price cut by an ostensibly demand constrained growth company is bad enough. 8-30 percent price cuts is Armageddon time.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, this is a sign of a truly desperate company. Or maybe a completely delusional one. Because anyone in their right mind would know that price cuts–especially of this magnitude, and especially on what should be the most profitable vehicles–vaporize customer goodwill. Especially the goodwill of the type of customers who are vital to making the company profitable by buying the high margin vehicles.

You only do that if you are so desperate for cash today that you say f-the-future, it will have to take care of itself: if I don’t get cash today, I won’t have to worry about the future.

But they’re not done with incinerating their credibility faster than a flaming Model S that lost a wheel and hit a tree! The company also cut prices on its “Autopilot” function–and won’t refund those who pre-ordered and pre-paid. And oh, it just said that what it had previously said about self-driving capability was, what’s that old phrase?–no longer operative.


But hey. Why listen to me? Elon’s got some really, really cool stuff coming . Trust him! What could go wrong?

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March 4, 2019

More Muskapades

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Tesla — cpirrong @ 7:48 pm

It’s been an eventful few weeks for our Elon. His new corporate counsel departed after barely enough time to warm his seat, because Elon (whose Twitter free associations the GC was charged with monitoring) tweeted a forward looking statement (“clarified” after a few hours) about 2019 output without the GC’s approval. The SEC then moved post haste to get a judge to rule Elon in contempt of his previous settlement agreement. Then, apparently believing he hadn’t twitted the SEC enough, held an invitation only call with select analysts–a facial (in the Marv Albert use of the term) violation of the SEC’s Regulation FD (“Fair Disclosure”) .

But we’re not done. Tesla announced–at long last!–that the long-promised $35K Model 3 would soon be available.


Not so fast. In typical Elon fashion, this was just a garnish on a crap sandwich: in addition to the Model 3 announcement Tesla said, oh-by-the-way-we’re-closing-all-our-sales-outlets-and-laying-off-thousands-and-cutting-prices-6-percent-bye.

This is hardly what you would expect to see from a demand constrained growth company. In typically weasely Tesla fashion, the company said that the closing of sales outlets cut costs and allowed it to cut prices. Uhm, that’s not the way it works.

The price cut is particularly telling. This wreaks of a company that needs to generate cash in a hurry (and is hence willing to burn some goodwill), and has an overhang of inventory on its hands. This price cut has also infuriated recent buyers. And the future effects may be quite damaging: people may well hold off buying, in anticipation of buying cheaper later.

The Wall Street Journal said that Tesla is going into “uncharted territory” by closing its showrooms. Not really: bankruptcy is pretty well-charted.

And of course, desperate times call for desperate measures. So right on cue, Elon/Tesla said that an announcement regarding the launch of the long-awaited crossover Model Y was only weeks away.

Just where is the cash for the capex necessary to build a new vehicle going to come from? How to reconcile this with the capex diet that Tesla has been on in recent quarters?

Methinks that this is really another financing ploy intended to keep the balloon aloft a little longer. With the announcement, the company will be able to take deposits, use the cash for other purposes, and then dawdle on actually, you know, building and delivering cars. (Check out the lag between deposit and delivery on Model 3s, and the difficulty those trying to get back their deposits face.)

This act is getting a little old, but it still works to some degree. So expect Elon to continue his muskapades until reality inevitably rears its ugly head.

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The New Green Trojan Horse

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:16 pm

My daughter alerted me to this interview of Rhiana Gunn-Wright, “one of the architects of the Green New Deal.” It’s annoying–I swear I would have gone completely mental had she said “right?” one more time–but educational. Not because you will learn anything about the way the world works, but you will learn the way the minds of the Green New Dealers work.

The interview is hosted by ex-Obamaite Jason Bordoff, now of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Given Bordoff’s current gig, he was obviously interested in the GND’s implications for energy. After all, the supposed raison d’etre of the GND is that our current energy system, dependent on fossil fuels as it is, is causing us to hurtle towards catastrophic warming.

But whenever Bordoff asked a question about energy, or climate policy, Gunn-Wright couldn’t even feign interest. Her responses were in the vein of “whatever”, and then she launched into impassioned monologues about what really interested her–a laundry list of progressive dreams from health care to child care to labor policy.

What’s clear from Gunn-Wright’s performance is that “climate change” is merely a Trojan Horse for a hard-core leftist agenda. The plan is to use climate alarmism to stampede voters into electing hard-left politicians who, once ensconced in power, will implement what good (I use that term ironically) socialists have been drooling to implement for decades–since before the original New Deal.

Meaning that if you think the GND as presented by the likes of AOC and Sen. Ed Malarky–excuse me, Markey–would be ruinously expensive–you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Speaking of AOC, thinking of her reminded me of Mark Twain: “First, suppose you are an idiot; now suppose you are a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” I think even Twain would be gobsmacked by the stupidity of Ocasio-Cortez. It’s beyond disturbing that such a moron promoting such a malign program is taken seriously, and has indeed bamboozled virtually every Democratic presidential candidate into endorsing her program.

But maybe that’s the good news. I think that it is highly likely that as enthusiastically as the coastal elites have embraced GND, it will prove toxic at the ballot box. Trump’s full-throated attacks on socialism certainly indicate that he believes so. And he has an innate sense for these things, as the very fact that he is president demonstrates.

One last thing. If you think I was scathing about the GND, I had nothing on Richard Epstein. He about jumps out of your computer in this podcast from a few weeks back. Worth a listen–especially as an antidote to the leftist bromides of Rhiana Gunn-Wright. Right?

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February 20, 2019

Is Ivan Glasenberg Playing B’rer Rabbit?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:31 pm

In the folk tale about B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, the trapped trickster bunny is at the mercy of B’rer Fox. The Fox debates ways to dispose of the Rabbit–hanging, drowning, burning–and the Rabbit pleads to do any of those things–just don’t throw him into the briar patch. Falling for the reverse psychology, B’rer Fox hurls B’rer Rabbit into the supposedly dreaded briars, after which B’rer Rabbit says: “Born and bred in the briar patch. Born and bred!”

Yesterday mining behemoth Glencore announced that it would cap coal output at 150 million tons per year, claiming that the cap was an acknowledgement of the threat of global warming. Various activists claimed vindication and victory.

Might I offer a more cynical explanation? Getting thrown into the output limitation briar patch is exactly what B’rer Glasenberg wants. A firm exercises market power by limiting output to raise price: global warming gives Glencore an elite-blessed excuse to limit output, i.e., exercise market power. It will be especially beneficial for Glencore if other coal producers are stampeded into cutting output too.

Indeed, you know how this will play out. The activists will now descend on the other producers, holding up Glencore as a shining progressive example. Some, perhaps most, and maybe even all, will capitulate, further increasing prices.

And Glencore/B’rer Glasenberg will laugh all the way to the bank.

As an aside, this is an interesting illustration of the theory of the second best. In a world without any distortions, an exercise of market power is a bad thing–it reduces welfare. But in a world with other distortions, an exercise of market power can enhance efficiency.

If due to an externality, coal output in a competitive industry is too large, the exercise of market power mitigates the effect of the externality.

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February 19, 2019

Whoops, They Did It Again

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

An American investor, Michael Calvey of Baring Vostok, has been arrested for fraud in Russia. It has been some time since something like this has happened, a fact that has been attributed to Putin’s direction that business disputes should not result in the imprisonment of any of the disputants. But when it comes to westerners, it just may be the case that there aren’t many of them around to be arrested.

The FT article reports a stunning statistic that speaks to this point. Foreign direct investment, which totaled $79 billion before Putin’s glorious triumph in Crimea, had fallen to $27 billion by 2017 . . . and a pathetic $1.9 billion in 2018. Less FDI, fewer foreign direct investors–and hence fewer to arrest.

Between sanctions, and the stultified (and risky–financially and personally) economic environment in Russia, foreigners have finally wised up. Once upon a time, the returns looked very appealing, and many were willing to take the plunge. Well, the returns were high for a reason–they were compensation for risk of expropriation, sometimes facilitated by, er “legal” means. And evidently, most have decided that the rewards don’t justify the risk.

I have some sympathy for Calvey, but not a great deal. He assumed a known risk, presumably thinking he would be able to manage it–or perhaps foolisly assuming that Putin really cared about trying to create a more hospitable investment environment. Further, no doubt that anyone who swam in those waters for as long as he did had more than a little shark in him.

The FT article is titled “Calvey’s arrest sends chills through Russia’s foreign investors.” To which I say: what foreign investors? The article includes this quote:

A person close to the Vostochny dispute said: “This is transformative. This kills FDI stone dead forever . . . This sends the message, can you use the security services against your business rivals over a few million dollars? Yes, you can.”

But (see above) FDI is already as dead as Monty Python’s parrot, and there was virtually no prospect for resurrection. As for sending a message: uhm, if you hadn’t gotten this message by now, you are a little slow on the uptake. A decade plus slow.

And that’s likely why Putin has said and done nothing about this. Kudrin may think this is “an emergency for the economy,” but Putin almost certainly recognizes that Kudrin is living in the past, and that the parrot is indeed dead.

Moreover, the last thing he would do now is take any action that would give the impression that he is kowtowing to the West. His political persona is now heavily invested in the image of a strong Russian leader standing up against a West–and an America in particular–that desires to subjugate Russia. He’s particularly unlikely to abase himself (in his eyes) before the US/West when he realizes that the payoff for doing so is negligible.

Michael Calvey was a fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread, and his arrest is more of an echo of the past, than a harbinger of the future. Certainly as long as Putin is around Russia will be largely isolated from the West, and will stagnate accordingly.

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February 13, 2019

Brave Green World

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:21 am

I was considering not commenting on the Green New Deal, given the largely negative–and often incredulous and scathing–response that its release evoked. Including from mainstream Democratic politicians, notably Nancy Pelosi. But most of the cast of thousands currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have embraced it to some degree or another, and the criticism has spurred a counterattack from many media precincts. The plan will therefore not be consigned immediately to oblivion, so I will weigh in.

In a nutshell (emphasis on the “nut”), the proposal aims at making the US “carbon neutral” in a mere decade by eliminating the internal combustion engine, retrofitting every existing building in the US, largely eliminating air travel and replacing it with high speed rail, and reducing, er, flatulence from cows by sharply reducing our consumption of meat. No biggie, right?

I find it somewhat ironic that hard on the heels of the announcement of the basics of the GND, the hard left governor of California, Gavin Newsome, said it was necessary to “get real” and recognize that the state’s high speed rail project was a disaster, and to eliminate most of the route.

But “getting real” is not on the GND agenda.

If implemented, the GND would effectively destroy a vast amount of the existing US capital stock, or require its replacement with less productive capital. This will make Americans poorer, in terms of consumption of goods and services.

The proponents of the GND commit the fundamental economic fallacy of arguing that this destruction of productive resources will bolster the economy because of all the jobs that will be created to build a fossil-fuel free power system, electric autos, massive rail systems, etc. The reality (sorry, but I can’t help dealing in reality) is that jobs are a cost, as is the decline in consumption required to make massive investments in new capital to replace existing capital.

The point of producing–including through the use of labor which entails the cost of foregone leisure–is to consume. The GND will unambiguously reduce consumption of goods and services, and make us poorer. GND is crypto-Keynesianism at its worst.

Then there is the detail of paying for this. Here advocates of GND invoke MMT–Magical Monetary Theory. Sorry, MMT actually stands for “Modern Monetary Theory” but my description is far more accurate. MMT is free lunch economics writ large, mistakes accounting identities for economic substance, and commits errors that would be embarrassing for someone in their first session of Econ 101 at one of your more backward community colleges.

The Magical Monetary Theorists argue that an endeavor as massive as the GND can be paid for by printing money.

Really. Don’t believe me? Consider this (rather conclusory) tweet by a major MMT advocate, Stephanie Kelton:

Q: Can we afford a #
? A: Yes. The federal government can afford to buy whatever is for sale in its own currency.

What follows (as is usually the case with MMT arguments) is a verbal discussion of a game of financial Three Card Monte.

Read that again: ” The federal government can afford to buy whatever is for sale in its own currency.” But at what price, dear? At what price? Venezuela has been operating on this principle, and is on pace to achieve record inflation of more than a million percent per year.

All of which obscures the economic essence. Investment today requires people to reduce consumption of goods and services. They only do so in anticipation of consuming more in the future–the “more” is the interest/return on capital from the investment. In private capital markets, the interest rate/return on capital adjusts so that the additional consumption people demand to fund investment is just paid for by the additional production flowing from the assets invested in.

In GND, as noted above, the massive investment will not result in a greater flow of goods and services in the future that will make people willingly reduce their consumption today. Indeed, future consumption in goods and services will decline. The private rate of return will be negative.

And indeed, GND implicitly acknowledges this. Its entire rationale is to reduce carbon emissions, under the theory that these are a “bad.” That is, the payoff from the massive investment (the sacrifice of private consumption) is a lower level of bad carbon emissions.

But to the extent that the reduction of this particular bad is a good, it is a public good. Everyone benefits from a decline in this putative pollutant, regardless of their contribution in paying for the reduction. Meaning that it cannot be financed voluntarily via private capital market transactions, but must be compelled, and paid for through massive taxation.

Printing money only changes the form and/or the timing of the taxation. Inflation is a tax. Moreover, if you borrow/print to pay for investment today, the investment cost not covered by the inflation tax must be paid for by higher taxes in the future. Like the old oil filter commercial: you can pay me now, or you can pay me later. But you must pay.

This is not hard. But reality is not magical.

Furthermore, given that it will be the most massive government program in history, it will entail all of the rent seeking and waste inherent in such programs.

I should also note that it will entail massive redistribution, most notably from rural, exurban, and suburban areas to urban ones as it will dramatically raise the costs of transportation and mobility which are borne disproportionately by those living outside cities. If a few Euro cents/liter fuel tax in France sparked massive protest in non-metropolitan France, just think of what would be in store in the far more sprawling US in response to taxes orders of magnitude larger than those imposed by Manny Macron.

These costs could be justified if the cost of carbon is sufficiently high, in which case the social rate of return could be substantially higher than the private rate of return, and the cost of capital. But even if one believes the most alarmist estimates of the cost of carbon, the adoption of GND by the US would have a modest–and arguably trivial–impact on emissions and temperatures, given the level and growth of emissions elsewhere, especially in China and India. Thus, the social rate of return is almost certainly far below the cost of capital.

The advocates of GND argue that the US needs a grandiose mission. The analogies that they draw are to NASA’s moon landings, or–get this–World War II and the defeat of the Nazis.

But neither Apollo nor even WWII envisioned the radical transformation of society–which is an explicit goal of GND. Apollo was a focused, and by comparison with GND, a relatively moderate expenditure financed in the ordinary course of government business and intended primarily as a campaign in the Cold War, undertaken at a time when the Johnson administration waged another Cold War campaign–Vietnam–with the specific objective of minimizing disruption to US society and the economy. World War II definitely altered every aspect of American life, but these disruptions were also viewed as temporary sacrifices necessary to win the war, to be reversed at its conclusion. Which happened in the event: the US demobilized rapidly, and most wartime expedients (e.g., rationing, the massive employment of women in manufacturing) were scrapped precipitously at its conclusion. As happened in WWI as well: Harding’s 1920 campaign slogan was “return to normalcy” after the extraordinary measures adopted during the war. But GND proposes to be the new normalcy, deliberately destroying the old normalcy.

The original New Deal as implemented was also not intended to be as transformative as its latter day green version (though the more Bolshi elements of the Roosevelt administration did harbor such ambitions).

What are the politics here? This is being pushed by the urban progressive left, epitomized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Brooklyn. (Sorry, Tatyana!) The ubiquitous AOC is the face and voice of the movement, though frankly I doubt it would get the same attention if her face looked like, say, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and I wonder whether her Munchkin voice will eventually grate on even her fellow travelers, not to mention the rest of us.

But the main political effect here is to cause deep fissures in the Democratic party. Mainstream elements are in a state of near panic, which they are attempting to conceal, with little success.

And this will redound to the benefit of Donald Trump. Opposition insanity is the greatest gift an incumbent can receive. And methinks this is a gift that will keep on giving, through November 2020.

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January 29, 2019

Bo Knows Hedging. Not!

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:42 pm

Chinese oil major Sinopec released disappointing earnings, driven primarily by a $688 million loss at its trading arm, Unipec. The explanation was as clear as mud:

“Sinopec discovered in its regular supervision that there were unusual financial data in the hedging business of Unipec,” it said in a statement. “Further investigations have indicated that the misjudgment about the global crude oil price trend and inappropriate hedging techniques applied for certain parts of hedging positions” resulted in the losses.

Er, the whole idea behind hedging is to make one indifferent to “global . . . price trend[s].” A hedger exchanges flat price risk–which, basically, is exposure to global trends–for basis risk–which is driven by variations in the difference between prices of related instruments that follow the same broad trends. Now it’s possible that someone running a big book could lose $688 million on a big move in the basis, but highly unlikely. Indeed, there have been no reports of extreme basis moves in crude lately that could explain such a loss. (There were some basis moves in some markets last year that were sufficiently pronounced to attract press attention but (a) even these did not result in any reports of high nine figure losses, and (b) nothing similar has been reported lately.)

The loss did correspond, however, with a large downward move in oil prices. Meaning that Unipec probably was long crude. Some back of the envelope scribbling suggests it was long to the tune of about 17 million barrels ($688 million loss at a time of an oil price decline of about $40/bbl.) Given that Unipec/Sinopec is almost certainly a structural short (since Sinopec is primarily a refiner), to lose that much it had to acquire a big enough long futures/swaps position to offset its natural short, and then buy a lot more.

One should always be careful in interpreting reports about losses on hedge positions, because they may be offset by gains elsewhere that are not explicitly recognized in the accounting statements. That said, as the Metalgesellschaft example cited in the article shows, for a badly constructed hedge, or a speculative position masquerading as a hedge, the derivatives losses may swamp the gains on the offsetting position. In the MG case, Merton Miller famously argued that the company’s losses on its futures were misleading because daily margining of futures crystalized those losses but the gains on the gasoline and heating oil sales contracts the futures were allegedly hedging were not marked-to-market and recognized and did not give rise to a cash inflow. I less famously–but more correctly ;-)–did the math and showed that the gains on the sales contracts were far smaller than the losses on the futures, and what’s more, that the “hedged” position was actually riskier than the unhedged exposure because it was actually a huge calendar spread play: the “hedge” was stacked on nearby futures, and the fixed price sales contracts had obligations extending out years. This position lost money when the market flipped from a backwardation to a contango.

Mert did not appreciate this when I pointed it out to him, and indeed, he threw me out of his office and pointedly ignored me from that point forward. This led to some amusing lunches at the Quandrangle Club at UC.

So perhaps the losses are overstated due to accounting treatment, but I think it’s likely that the loss is still likely a large one.

The Unipec president–Chen Bo–has been suspended. I guess Bo didn’t know hedging.

Bo wasn’t the only guy to get whacked. The company’s “Communist Party Secretary” did too. So Marxists don’t understand hedging either. Who knew?

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January 22, 2019

Regulating Carbon Emissions: Efficiency vs. Redistribution

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 8:01 pm

Bloomberg reports that New York state’s plan to eliminate its few remaining coal power plants has caused power prices for delivery in 2020, 2021, and 2022 to increase. Eyeballing the chart, the impact of the proposed regulation is on the order of $7/MWh, or about 25 percent of the 2019 price.

Coal represents a dwindling fraction of New York’s generation. The EIA reports 0 electricity from coal in October, 2018. As of 2014, the last full year for which I could find data on the EIA website, coal accounted for 4.6 million MWh, out of a total of 137 MWh of generation.

The efficiency impact of this depends on (a) the estimated social cost of carbon, (b) the kind of generation that will replace the shuttered coal plants, and (c) the non-energy costs that this replacement generation creates.

If you believe that the cost of carbon is $40/ton, if coal is replaced by zero emissions generation, the move is efficiency enhancing. A coal plant with a heat rate of a little more than 10 implies a carbon cost per MWh of $40. This is well above the price increase of around $7.

If coal is replaced by natural gas, with a carbon cost of about $20/MWh, the call is closer, but still comfortably in favor of eliminating coal.

Lower social costs of carbon of course affect the math. The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that the price is for energy only. Changing the generation mix also affects the need for ancillary services to maintain grid stability. In particular, substituting diffuse and intermittent renewables for coal increases the non-energy costs of supplying electricity. These costs can be appreciable, though again it’s difficult to see them being so large as to overcome the approximate $160 million in carbon cost savings from eliminating coal, based on a $40/MWh CO2 cost, ~4 MWh of coal fired generation, and replacement of coal by zero carbon emissions generation sources.

What’s truly startling about the numbers, though, is the redistributive impact. Price is driven by marginal cost, and the price impact suggests that the cost of the marginal megawatt hour from coal replacement generation is about $7/MWh above that of the eliminated coal units. Note: that $7/MWh price increase benefits every single MWh generated by inframarginal units (e.g., combined cycle NG). Coal represents (as noted before) ~3 pct of NY generation, but the remaining 97 percent will see a big increase in margins.

This is a crude calculation, but roughly speaking the regulation will result in a transfer of about $1 billion/year from consumers to owners of generation (~140 million MWh x $7/MWh). The vast bulk of this $1 billion will be a quasi rent for inframarginal generating assets. (About $28 million–4 mm MWh/year x $7/MWh–will cover the cost of the more expensive generation that replaces coal plants.)

As is often the case with regulation, the wealth transfers swamp the efficiency effects (which total at most $130 million=~4 MM MWh x $33/MWh in social cost savings). (Since coal generation has probably dropped from the 4 million in 2014, and the price impact reflects the elimination of the remaining coal generation, the total efficiency effects now are probably substantially smaller than $130 million.)

Thus, although this regulation is sold as one benefitting the environment, I strongly suspect that the political coalition that has given it birth is strongly supported by incumbent generation operators selling into the New York market. That is, it smacks of the typical special interest regulation that benefits a small concentrated group at the expense of a large diffuse one (i.e., the consumers in New York), all dressed up in pretty green (environmental green camouflaging Benjamins green, as it were).

Yes, in this instance perhaps–depending on one’s assumptions about the cost of carbon and the incremental uplift costs created by the regulation–this bargain has produced an efficient outcome. But the redistributive nature of this regulation, and those like it, creates a great risk that such regulations will be introduced even when they are inefficient.

Those harmed include ordinary New Yorkers lighting their homes, and commercial and especially manufacturing firms (and their employees) who pay higher power costs. (Employees will pay in lost employment and lower wages, due to a decline in derived demand for labor driven by higher costs of other inputs.) In France, a seemingly small imposition on a similar group sparked widespread social unrest. It hasn’t happened in the US yet (or in places like Germany, where consumers and employers are paying steeply higher electricity costs due to anti-carbon regulations), but US states should be aware that such policies could trigger resistance here as well–especially if and when the hoi polloi realize that the biggest winner from these policies is not the environment, but companies that are pretty unpopular to begin with.

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