Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Beware of [President] Obama's 'Battery Gold Rush'

Please note that Marc Gunther is one of the 'greenest' writers out there. It is simply prudent to remind ourselves that investing in areas that are not self-sustaining is as much about politics as it is about balance sheet analysis. When you are backing rentseekers you have to stay attuned to the political winds or risk being blindsided by a policy change. This is why, since our second month, we have periodically quoted the first inductee into the prestigious Climateer Hall of Fame:
...Finally for investors in rent-seeking organizations there is the real risk that the politicians will change the rules. Heed the words of Sen. Simon Cameron (R&D!-Pa.):
"The honest politician is one who when he is bought, will stay bought."

Our Hero

Simon Cameron

From GreenBiz via Reuters:
A lot of smart people -- Warren Buffett, Andrew Grove, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn -- believe that electric cars will be a big answer to our climate and energy problems. GM and Ford have apparently come around to that view as well, and even Chrysler recently released a cool little neighborhood vehicle called the Peapod (see photo at left).

I’m impressed by BYD, the Chinese battery and electric car company, and by Better Place, Shai Agassi’s bold electric-car startup aimed at transforming the global automobile industry. Batteries are the key to making electric cars affordable. So why did this Wall Street Journal headline make me cringe?

Obama Administration Sparks Battery Gold Rush

Companies, States Vie for $2.4 Billion in Funding Aimed at Turning U.S. Into Top Maker of Fuel Cells for Electric Cars

The story went on to say that the Department of Energy has received 165 applications from companies seeking some of that $2.4 billion. which is “aimed at turning the U.S. into a battery-manufacturing powerhouse.” The Journal’s William M. Bulkeley reports:

"Companies vying for the federal money include General Motors Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Johnson Controls Inc. and A123 Systems, a closely held battery maker backed by General Electric Co. and others. States including Michigan, Kentucky and Massachusetts are also weighing in with applications, usually in alliance with their favored battery makers.

"When the winners are decided, as soon as the end of July, the Energy Department may anoint Livonia, Mich., or Indianapolis or Glendale, Ky., as the future U.S. hub of car batteries."

Reading carefully, it’s clear that The Journal (“free people, free markets”) is not happy about this news. Note the use of the word “anoint,” hinting that the government is assuming divine powers. The article characterizes the DOE grants as “one of the government’s biggest efforts at shaping industrial policy” -- fighting words in Journal-speak.

They’ve got a point, though, don’t they? One unhappy result of all the bank bailouts of the fall is that $2.4 billion doesn’t seem like much -- hey, Citi alone has collected north of $45 billion, last time I checked -- but a billion here, a billion there, and you’re starting to talk real money. And if electric cars are going to be as big a business as a lot of people think, then why should government investment be needed at all? Particularly since we have a climate change bill making its way through Congress that will, at long last, if all goes well, put a price on carbon emissions -- thereby giving low-carbon energy sources what they desperately need, which is a fighting chance to compete with fossil fuels on something resembling a level playing field. I thought the whole idea behind cap-and-trade (which I strongly favor) is to capture the externalized cost of global warming pollutants, and then let the market figure out how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: regulation that would have a light touch but a profound impact....

...But this battery program is explicitly about picking winners and losers in one industry sector, which may or may not turn out to be a real business. It reflects, I’m sorry to say, the Obama administration’s faith that the best and the brightest Ivy-educated government executives can figure out what needs to be done, and just how to do it. I have no doubt that the people around Obama are smart, well intentioned and hardworking. I dearly hope that they can, in fact, figure out just what needs to be done. But if we learned anything from Bush II, it is to worry about people in Washington who think they have all the answers....MORE

As an aside, when I was pulling this story up the second most accessed story on Reuters today is:
Canada frosts the most widespread in recent memory