What Price Saving the Earth?
"...It should come as no surprise to find Wall Street urging us to go green. There's money to be made - tax-funded profits squeezed out of guilt-ridden consumers and PR-hungry business..."
NOT CONTENT with abolishing the economic cycle, the world's central bankers and finance ministers - led by Gordon Brown and ordained by Pope Al Gore the First - now plan a 'New World Order' to fight global warming.
A wealth of tax-funded humbug is certain to follow. So it comes as no surprise to find Wall Street and the City of London urging us all to "go green" as well.
Or rather, the masters of the financial universe would like us all to buy and sell green. Carbon traders worldwide turned over $21 billion in the nine months to Oct. '06. And if New York is to dominate saving the Earth in the same way that London now dominates the hedge fund industry, it will need to innovate.
Witness last week's news that investors can now bet on global warming washing away the City of London and its satellite, Canary Wharf, through a $150 million "flood" bond issued by Allianz, the German insurer.
Or how about "a trade in congestion charge permits?" as Giles Keating asked in the Financial Times the very same day. Head of research at Credit Suisse's private banking division in London, Keating would like to see the British government give out road-use permits for free, rather than rolling out London-style congestion charging nationwide.
Gas-guzzlers could then salve their guilt by buying extra permits from innocent pedestrians and cyclists. And hey - maybe professional brokers from, say, Credit Suisse could act as the middleman!
Over at F&C, the fourth largest asset manager in Britain, the Compliance Team has just been joined by a sustainable investment officer. They recently put a report together showing the fund management staff how to be more eco-friendly around the office. PR is as PR does, after all.
Whether they choose to or not, F&C's investors already help the firm off-set its carbon footprint. At its main head office in the City of London, the lights turn themselves off automatically at night! But it's a shame that the two largest holdings in its flagship Foreign & Colonial trust, as the Evening Standard noted a few weeks ago, are those arch fossil felons, BP and Shell.
And what about the hot air produced by F&C's sustainable investment officer? Who's offsetting that?
Like so much else, of course, your guilt at polluting the planet can be neutralized by sending money to Asia. Carbon credits bought from Chinese and Indian manufacturers also come at bargain prices too, thanks again to cheap labor and input prices.
It costs Asian firms much less to produce one ton of carbon emissions than it does in Europe. So by the same logic, reckon the European Union's world-savers in Brussels, it must also cost less to cut the production of carbon emissions.
Asian industrialists can thus pull new carbon credits out of thin air - simply by tweaking their production forecasts - and sell them to guilt-ridden or PR-hungry businesses in Europe. Net-net, global emissions won't slow, much less shrink. But polluting companies here in the West get to buy their way out of guilt, while the Asian manufacturers get to fund fresh investment.
SRF, a leading Indian chemicals and textile manufacturer, recently announced that selling its 2007 carbon credits raised $117 million. SRF produces fluorochemicals and chloromethanes - refrigerant gases high on the list of greenhouse offenders. The cash it's raised will cover 70% of SRF's entire expansion costs since 2004, enabling it to grow faster still - and pump out yet more greenhouse gases in future.
Wondering where saving the planet comes into all of this? The profit opportunities don't stop once a new carbon credit has found its way to the rich, industrialized West.
Last May, Baxter Healthcare - a US health service firm listed on the Nasdaq - became the first company to trade European carbon allowances on the Chicago Climate Exchange in the US. "Are they the smartest carbon traders in the room?" asked Terrapass.com in Jan. '07, after the price of European credits dipped below the price of US credits. The arbitrage rewarded Baxter for gaming with what's supposed to be the future of the world.
Indeed, if you're looking for a change of career - burnt out from hedge fund or private equity dealing - then you might want to consider the carbon offset market. Here in Britain, sales staff posted outside London are now being offered £40,000 per year, some $80,000 at today's record exchange rates. Senior consultants and project managers based in the capital earn half-as-much again.
Beware, however. There is a threat to the West's fast-growing trade in these indulgences, and just like a large chunk of the credits themselves, it comes from China. Beijing plans to launch a carbon exchange this summer.
"It makes you wonder about your future," fretted one manager at a Western carbon-trading firm to Reuters recently. Kind of puts the future of global temperatures and sea levels in perspective, no?
For now, however, the opportunity to make money from the West's environmental guilt - make-believe or otherwise - is just getting started. Friends of the Earth estimate that Germany's green sector now employs 1.5 million people; that's almost 4% of the active workforce. The new building code in Spain makes solar panels compulsory in all new and refurbished buildings; it's expected to generate 5,000 new jobs by 2010. By 2010, according to an estimate cited by the European Trade Union Confederation, the global market for eco-friendly goods and services could be worth £480 billion.
"If you are a savvy investor interested in a good return, you need to pay attention to ecological trends and how they affect the bottom line," says Carsten Henningsen, co-founder of Portfolio 21, a socially-responsible investment fund. He might just be talking his book of course. But as the share price of outsourcing firms like Serco has proven, you shouldn't ignore the impact that tax-funded meddling can have on your investments.
The Co-op's Sustainable Leaders Trust recently topped the UK All Companies Sector, according to The Scotsman newspaper. Standard Life's UK Ethical Fund has beaten the FTSE 100 index over the past three years. Jupiter's Ecology Fund has returned 429% since launch, against a 340% rise in the FTSE World Index.
And carbon credits? The Scottish Socialist Party said earlier this month it wants all new buildings north of the border to be carbon-neutral by 2011. The prime minister of New Zealand wants to achieve this same nirvana for every home and business in her entire nation!
"Won't you part with a farthing to buy this letter?" asked Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, in his sales pitch for the Sacrosanctis of 1515. Pope Leo X's famous indulgence helped pay for St.Peter's Basilica in Rome. It also spurred Martin Luther to kick-start the Reformation.
Cheap at twice the price, "it won't bring you money," said Tetzel, "but rather a divine and immortal soul, whole and secure in the Kingdom of Heaven."
Today's guilt-neutral indulgences also promise eternal life, if only for the planet instead of the buyer. Whether or not they'll prove effective remains to be seen. But there's plenty of opportunity to turn a fast buck here.
See you at confession!