Should Companies, their Investors and Bankers Adopt Some New Year Resolutions?

Environmental concerns are all the rage at present. Indeed it’s become a new religion verging on paranoia. Some people believe that the world is going to become impossible to live in after a few more years, or that seas will rise enough to submerge many major cities. They ascribe the cause to global warming caused by rising CO2 emissions from the activities of mankind. Even if we are not all wiped out, the impact on the economy could be devastating due to mass migration and the costs imposed by decarbonising all energy production, food production and transport.

This article is not going to attempt to analyse whether global warming is a major threat, or what its causes might be, but simply what the reaction of companies, their investors and their bankers should be. Should company directors adopt a New Year’s resolution to divest themselves of all activities that might result in CO2 generation? Should investors who hold shares in such companies sell them and invest in something else, and should bankers stop lending money for projects such as creating new oil production facilities.

Even outgoing Bank of England Governor Mark Carney gave some dire warnings in a BBC interview a couple of days ago.  He suggested that the world will face irreversible heating unless firms shift their priorities soon and that although the financial sector had begun to curb investment in fossil fuels the pace was far too slow.

What do oil companies or coal miners do if faced with such rhetoric?  There is clearly a demand for their products and if one company closes down its activities then other companies will simply move in to take advantage of the gap. There will be a large profit incentive to meet the demand as prices will likely rise if some producers exit the market.

Companies also have the problem that they cannot close down existing facilities, or move into new markets such as wind or tidal energy in the short term without incurring major costs.

Famous investor Warren Buffett does not think they should do much at all. He has suggested that even if Berkshire’s management did know what was right for the world, it would be wrong to invest on that basis because they were just the agents for the company’s shareholders. He said “this is the shareholders money” (see FT article on 30/12/2019).

So long as the law of the land says it is OK to exploit natural resources even if they generate CO2, and the shareholders support a company’s activities then company directors should not be holding back he suggests.

But I suggest shareholders have other things to consider whether they believe in global warming or not. Investors clearly face a risk that even if they are happy to invest in coal mines, the Government might legislate directly or indirectly to put them out of business. As a result of Government policies in the UK, the amount of coal produced and consumed in the country, particularly for power generation has been going down. It’s now only about 5% of electricity generation, largely replaced by natural gas usage (with lower CO2 emissions) and renewables such as wind-power and hydroelectricity. Forget trying to get planning permission for any new coal-fired power stations even if very cheap coal can be imported.

As an investor, clearly divestment from coal mining and coal consumption is a worldwide trend in most countries with a few exceptions such as China. So any wise investor might simply look a few years ahead and take into account this trend. Investing in declining industries is always a bad thing to do. However well managed they are, companies operating in such sectors ultimately decline in profitability as revenue falls and competitors do not exit as the management has only expertise in that sector and won’t quit.

Investment is also not about what you believe but about other people believe because other people set the share prices of companies, not you. You might think that global warming is simply not true, but if the majority of investors believe it then they will sell the shares in companies that are involved in CO2 generation and drive down the share price. This is surely already happening to some extent with major oil companies. Shell and BP are on low p/e ratios no doubt because they are seen as having little future growth potential. You can of course become a contrarian investor if they become cheap enough but that is a risky approach because clearly these companies are facing strategic challenges.

Investment managers are divesting themselves of holdings in oil companies so as to please their investors. Both the managers and the investors have been subject to propaganda that has told them for the last few years that oil is bad and consumption needs to be reduced. They are unlikely to take a contrary stance. Once a religion becomes widespread, you have to follow the believers or be branded a heretic, whether the religion has any basis in reality or not.

There are not trivial sums involved. The Daily Telegraph suggests that UK shareholders are some of the most vulnerable in the world with about £95 billion invested in fossil fuel producers. If you consider that CO2 needs to be reduced, and choose your investments accordingly, then you need to exclude not just coal, oil and gas producers but a very large segment of the economy. All miners and metal producers are big energy consumers mainly from fossil fuels, and engineering companies likewise. And then one has to consider the transport sector and the producers of trains, planes and automobiles. Even producers of electric vehicles actually use large amounts of energy to build them although much of that is consumed in other countries such as China. Food production and distribution also consume large amounts of energy, and building does also. For example cement production uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel and actually generates about 8% of global CO2 production for which there is no viable alternative.

There are actually very few things in the modern world that don’t consume energy to produce them. That production can be made more efficient but decarbonising the economy altogether is simply not viable.

For investors, it’s a minefield if they wish to be holier than thou and claim moral superiority. There may be some simple choices to be made – for example why support tobacco companies where their products clearly kill people? But as an ex-smoker, I am more concerned about future Government regulation that will kill off or substantially reduce their business which is why I am not invested in tobacco companies.

Company directors, investors and bankers do not need to make moral choices. New year resolutions are not required. They just need to look to the future and the evolving regulatory environment and the court of public opinion.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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