Germany’s Electric Vehicle (EV) dilemma

Why the coming electric vehicle revolution threatens to up-end the entire German economic model

While Germany has long been admired as a leader in the clean energy transformation, notably for its package of energy policies termed the “energiewende”, the reality is that German industries have often born the brunt of these changes as have the tax payers. However, while Germany was able to absorb the hits to Siemens, RWE and Eon resulting from power sector reforms, the challenge posed by Electric Vehicles is altogether more serious. In this article I want to outline why, without a major new strategic plan, the global shift towards electric vehicles may not only up-end the entire German automotive industry, but transform the German economy as a whole.

First thing to note is how fast the Global EV market is growing:

It is hard to underestimate just how flat-footed policymakers have been, as have industry analysts, in predicting the uptake of electric vehicles. In fact, the growth has been so rapid that the International Energy Agency (IEA) revised up its original estimates for Global EV demand, such that The EV30@30 Scenario sees 228 million EVs (excluding two- and three-wheelers), mostly Light duty vehicles, in the global fleet by 2030. To contextualise this figure, the current light duty vehicle market is estimated at around 1.2bn, therefore EV’s will account for roughly 20% of global vehicles within the next 12 years[1].

Image 1

In 2013 the world had less than 500,000 EVs on the roads. By 2017 this number had reached 3 million. To reach the IEA target (which many believe is still conservative), the Global EV market will have to grow by an average of more than 12 million sales per year. But that doesn’t look unrealistic, given that the current EV market is growing by between 40%-60% per annum.

Image 2

But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Current EV growth is not evenly distributed, rather it is heavily skewed towards a few key economies, with China accounting for 50% of Global EV demand, followed by the USA, then Norway[2].

Image 3

Car companies can see the threat:

Whatever your personal views on Elon Musk, it is hard to argue that Tesla has not been a huge driver in explaining why global automotive companies are increasingly focusing on the EV space. As Forbes noted in its summary on the market in 2018:

“Porsche aims at making 50% of its cars electric by 2023. JLR has announced it will shift entirely towards electric and hybrid vehicles by 2020. General Motors, Toyota and Volvo have all declared a target of 1 million in EV sales by 2025. By 2030, Aston Martin expects that EVs will account for 25% of its sales, with the rest of its line up comprising hybrids. By 2025, BMW has stated it will offer 25 electrified vehicles, of which 12 will be fully electric. The Renault Nissan & Mitsubishi alliance intends to offer 12 new EVs by 2022.[3]

However, while manufacturers see the need to pivot towards EV’s they need domestic infrastructure and demand to drive that growth. This is why Germany has a problem.

The German economy literally begins and ends with cars:

The German economic model is based on exports. Germany remains the World’s largest exporter, running a trade surplus in excess of 6% of GDP, and as of 2016, Cars represented 12.3% of the total exports of Germany, followed by Vehicle Parts, which account for 4.63%[4]. To put this another way, according to the German Trade and Investment (GTAI) association, the automotive industry accounted for 10% of German GDP in 2016[5].

Image 4

Source: OEC, 2018[6]

The German car industry also explains the unique model of the German economy. Due to the highly specialised demands of traditional, internal combust engine (ICE) vehicles, automotive manufacturers have traditionally required an extensive range of specialist suppliers. This has not only helped to create the famous German “Mittlestand”, but also to sustain it. This has been essential to ensuring a distribution of wealth and job opportunities across Germany and as a result, the German automotive industry employed 825,500 people in 2018, generating a turnover of Eur 423bn and sustaining over 940 German businesses from OEM’s to parts suppliers.

But EVs are very different. By some estimates, a regular ICE vehicle has around 2,000 moving parts requiring exactly the specialists that Germany have. By contrast, EVs have 20[7]. This dramatic change is estimated to put at least 75,000 German jobs at risk in the car powertrain sector alone, according to research by the Fraunhofer institute[8] (up to 100k if the switch was faster than modelled). But as if losing 10% of the workforce alone wasn’t a concern, the other issue is that future car models won’t make sense to build in Germany at all.

Car manufacturing is driven by domestic demand:

Germany remains a minnow in the Global EV demand scene. It was only ranked 4th in Europe in 2016, and barely scraped 2nd place by new EV sales in 2017.

Image 5To add insult to injury, there were only 28,000 EVs in Germany as of 2016 (from over 2 million globally) and[9] even worse, the most popular EV in Germany isn’t even one of the multiple German brands, its Kia[10].

Image 6

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that given Germanys considerable lag in entering the EV space, a number of leading German manufacturers have decided that they cannot compete with the lead that competitors have built up in parts of the new automotive supply chain. In a particularly embarrassing blow for German Industry, Bosch, “Germany’s biggest and most important supplier of car components[11]”, ruled in March 2018 that it wouldn’t even try and compete with the Chinese and Korean firms that dominate the manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles[12].

Image 7So what does this mean?

It is clear that Germany has a formidably capable and resourceful industrial base. But it is also clear that the transformation of the EV market has caught Germany’s leading companies badly off-guard. Despite widespread anticipation that German car companies would easily and rapidly overtake Tesla, the initial feedback from the first wave of “Tesla killers” has been disappointing[13].

Time has not run out on Germany to adapt to the disruptive forces roiling the global automotive sector. But Germany is starting from far-behind and the stakes are high. A failure to adapt could mean more than job losses and faltering economic growth. It could mean an end to the German “Mittlestand” and the economic engine that built the modern Germany. What that means in a time of populist politics should give all German politicians pause for serious concern.

 

References

[1] IEA, 2018, https://webstore.iea.org/registerresult/1?returnurl=%2fdownload%2fdirect%2f1045%3ffilename%3dglobal_ev_outlook_2018.pdf

[2] EV sales, 2018, http://www.ev-volumes.com/

[3] Forbes, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarwantsingh/2018/04/03/global-electric-vehicle-market-looks-to-fire-on-all-motors-in-2018/#62970a12927f

[4] OEC, 2018, https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/deu/#Exports

[5] GTAI, 2018, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjQjrrMotLdAhWJTt8KHXqQDgAQFjABegQIBRAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.gtai.de%2FGTAI%2FContent%2FEN%2FInvest%2F_SharedDocs%2FDownloads%2FGTAI%2FIndustry-overviews%2Findustry-overview-automotive-industry-en.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1MoymuoslNxq8CGePOtmYu

[6] OEC, 2018, https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/visualize/stacked/hs92/export/deu/all/show/1995.2016/

[7] Cnbc, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/14/electric-vehicles-will-soon-be-cheaper-than-regular-cars-because-maintenance-costs-are-lower-says-tony-seba.html

[8] Autonews, 2018, http://europe.autonews.com/article/20180605/ANE/180609877/ev-push-threatens-75000-german-auto-industry-jobs-study-says

[9] EV sales, 2017, http://www.ev-volumes.com/country/germany/

[10] Cleantechnica, 2018, https://cleantechnica.com/2018/05/19/shocking-electric-car-takes-1-in-germanys-april-2018-electric-car-sales-ranking/

[11] The Verge, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/8/15/17685634/germany-car-industry-battery-cells

[12] GTM, 2018, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/bosch-abandons-ev-battery-manufacturing

[13] FT, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/3f5ded00-bd7d-11e8-8274-55b72926558f

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Wham, Bham, thank you Ma’am! – Financial Market chaos in 2018

On the 5th of February 2018, the Dow Jones witnessed its largest one-day point decline in its 120-year history. In total, the 30 largest US listed companies from across the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) dropped 4.6%, a percentage decline not seen since the eurozone crisis in August 2011. Nor was the Dow alone.

As investors across the world saw the roaring US stock market come to a violent halt, stock markets in Asia and Europe started to collapse as well.

Why? What went so badly wrong that the world suddenly lost its cool and within a week almost all global indices had fallen by 6%-12%?

Most of the news for 2018 actually looked pretty great.

The IMF had upgraded global growth forecasts for 2017, 2018 and 2019, while claiming that the world was about to witness the “‘broadest’ upsurge in global growth since 2010”. Global Mergers & Acquisition activity was at its highest since the dot.com boom over 17 years ago, the eurozone grew at its fastest rate in a decade and manufacturing growth has exploded across the US, Europe and the UK.

Given these factors, many retail investors and ordinary people reasonably asked the question: “Why did everything collapse and what should I do with my money now”? In an attempt to answer the first part, we have to begin with separating the event itself (the stock market collapse), and the reasons behind the crash (the fundamentals).

There are many different and authoritative views on this issue, including a very easy and concise piece by Bloomberg available here. My take is below:

With interest rates at record lows, the stock-market continuing to grow at breakneck speed and the global economy expanding, people have thrown caution to the wind and invested in the stock markets. In fact, January 2018 witnessed record levels of investment in the stock-market, as confidence took over and people from all walks of life began to invest. This is where the problem started.

Everyone in the stock market had been waiting for a fall. But knowing when it would come had been a significant challenge. If investors left too early, they would be potentially giving up the chance to make more money. If they left too late, they may lose everything. On January 29th and 30th, the first investors lost their calm and pocketed their gains and as January came to a close, the US stock market saw two days of consecutive decline and its largest fall since May 2017 (a small blip in comparison to what would happen later).

But why were the professional investors sceptical of the market? Here again we must return to expectations.

The aim of a professional investor is to generate returns that exceed what could be earned by investing in a risk-free asset. In simple terms “risk free” usually means bank deposits and the bonds of the worlds most financial secure markets (US, UK, Switzerland, German). The reason they are “risk free” is because most bank deposits are covered by insurance and because these governments are considered financially prudent enough to guarantee that any money owed to investors will always be repaid. Naturally this sounds like a great deal for investors. Put your money into a bond and earn a guaranteed amount of interest. What is not to like? Well the problem is that after the financial crisis too many investors thought that this was a good idea and so as the demand for bonds increased, their price increased. To cut a long story short, when the price of a bond increases the interest (read return) gets smaller. This is where the problem started.

Risk free bonds are the benchmark for professional investors. The expectation is to beat the risk free rate and the more risk the investor is asked to take, the bigger the return they expect (over the risk free rate). But if the risk free rate is extremely low, then risky investments can look increasingly attractive if investors cannot reach their target return through traditional investments. Pension funds are an excellent example of this. Prior to 2008 a pension fund would expect to pay 3% of all its funds under management out to its retirees every year. Therefore, as long as the pension fund could earn over 3% the fund would meet its obligations. Conveniently several types of government bond from the UK, USA and across leading economies were paying around 5% prior to 2008, allowing pension funds to make a 2% profit and meet all of their commitments, with minimal risk. But the financial crisis and ultra-low interest rates changed everything.

 As interest rates dropped to nearly 0% (in some cases negative), investors like pension funds, were forced to find other ways to generate their returns and so they piled into property, real assets (gold, oil, etc) and stocks. Accordingly, the stock market exploded. It didn’t matter that a company was now generating 3% return a year (compared to 5%) because its share price had risen. The alternative was a 1% government bond.

So back to 2018, the key question for investors was this: when would interest rates rise sufficiently that large money managers would sell their stocks? After all, if the interest rate rises then the return from the stock must price in tandem at every step. But that cannot happen forever.

So the magic number was 3%. Specifically, investors began to believe that rising wage inflation in the US at the end of January would increase the interest rate on US ten-year debt to 3%. If inflation was high, the US Federal Reserve would increase rates and money managers would sell their stocks. In Germany the same thing happened when the largest German workers union negotiated an inflation busting pay rise in February, leading to significant stock market declines in the US stock market (the 2nd worst performer after the Dow Jones).

What next?

The financial markets have broadly calmed following their collapse at the start of the month, but the truce remains uneasy. It is clear that investors remain extremely uncertain whether the sharp decline in share prices remains the only price “correction” that we shall see for the year, or if it is merely an early warnings tremor before a larger financial earthquake later in the year. On this question, expert opinion is fiercely divided.

However, for people interested in following the stock market closely its worth looking at whether any of the large companies, famously called “Unicorns” choose to finally go public this year. Traditionally private companies go public when they believe that valuations are at record highs, not when they believe that there is space to grow. So if you see AirBnB, Uber or even Spotify go public, then maybe consider putting some more cash in the bank and out of the stock market.

Important disclaimer here: This piece merely reflects the views of the author and should not be considered as financial guidance or advice.

The cynicism is unjustified – Hydrogen is the key to a clean transport future

The world’s largest free trade deal fundamentally re-shaped the future of Transportation – and no one noticed.

In December of 2017, the EU and Japan announced that they had agreed the terms of a vast international free trade deal. The deal, still subject to final approvals in the EU and from the Japanese diet, will create a combined economic free trade area of 600mn people worth 30% of GDP. But while the focus has been on the changes to agriculture, sustainability and regulatory alignment, a key provision has slipped almost unnoticed from the public eye. A regulatory drawbridge for hydrogen vehicles has been created.

In one of the most startling changes, barely noticed by the press, the EU have been allowed to sell hydrogen cars straight into the Japanese market, bypassing stringent legislation for Japanese specialist steel and labelling standards. In addition, the EU has agreed that “Furthermore, EU manufacturers that are not yet as far advanced in the development of this technology of the future can, thanks to the specific and much lighter conditions, import hydrogen fueled cars for testing and validation purposes and use the Japanese infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations to fine-tune their cars.”

Why does this matter? It matters because (arguably) the world’s most technologically advanced nation has bet big that the future of transportation will be Hydrogen and it is now luring all the world’s largest automakers to build out their R&D and manufacturing within Japan.

Hydrogen cars:

In 2020, Japan will host the Olympic games and the vehicles of those games will be hydrogen fueled. The aim is to put 40,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) onto the roads by 2020, including over 160 charging spots. However global current sales of HFCVs are low, with only 1,600 sold in H1 of 2017. In part this is because the vehicle selection remains limited and the cheapest versions…are not that cheap. As a result, there are no shortage of critics. Elon Musk is famous for deriding the chances of hydrogen vehicles, a view widely shared amongst the lithium battery bulls.  However, with its ability to re-charge a car in under 5 minutes and its exceptional long range, the battle for vehicle dominance is far from over.

In only 5 years’ the global electric vehicle fleet has risen from ~50k cars to over 2mn worldwide, driven by government subsidies and falling costs as production increased. Analysts believe those same drivers could transform the hydrogen market too. In early 2017, Honda and GM announced targets for mass production of HFCVs by 2020, while Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, BMW and Daimler have committed $10.7 billion into research and development of hydrogen-based products over the next five years. There are now even a range of apps that can show you all the planned and current Hydrogen re-fueling points, like this one.

Granted, I am a confessed Hydrogen fan and have been so for a while. So in the interests of fairness, I also leave an attached rebuttal of the case for Hydrogen cars here, though it is a little dated. But regardless of whether Hydrogen will transform the light vehicle car market, there are plenty of other sectors where Hydrogen technology is likely to transform our transportation system.

De-carbonizing transport:

Depending on the source, transportation accounts for between 14% and 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This sector is also growing rapidly, as aspiring middle class citizens seek to travel more and to own their own forms of transport. Ride-sharing, urbanization and automated driving all offer potential avenues in the longer term, however poor urban planning, under-educated regulators and significant cost challenges will ensure that these solutions are unable to meaningfully reduce emissions until 2040 if not later. Moreover, they only deal with the simplest solution of all, light duty vehicles.

Using IEA estimates from the Global Tracking framework, a joint World Bank and IEA publication, global renewable transport numbers remain a significant concern for efforts to de-carbonise the global energy system. According to the IEA, Electric vehicles must reach 160mn by 2030 to meet the 2 degrees target set at Paris and over 200mn to reach the below 2 degrees target. In other words, the world has to manufacture and sell at least 158mn EVs in 13 years globally, mostly fueled by clean electricity and with sufficient grid infrastructure to handle re-charging.

Achieving the Paris commitments for light duty electric vehicles alone should put pause to the idea that we can electrify shipping, aviation, rail and heavy freight with batteries as well meeting the Paris commitments for electric light duty vehicles. The only credible alternatives are hydrogen, LNG or CNG.

Compare and contrast: the new Tesla truck with the Nikola Two. The Tesla truck will have a maximum range of 300-500 miles and will require 30 minutes of full charge to add 400miles. It will also require the equivalent demand from the grid of 3,000 – 4,000 UK homes when it is charging. That is per truck…In contrast, the Nikola Two can cover 800 – 1,200 miles with a 15 minute re-fuel time. The bigger brother of the Nikola Two, the Nikola One, has similar statistics but has received $2.3bn in pre-orders, totaling over 8k. Nikola isn’t the only company in the field either. Toyota has its own project, called “Project portal”, while Kenworth is examining HFCV options as well.

Looking at the aviation space, Hydrogen fuel cell planes have already been developed and successfully tested, including the HY4 passenger craft. The plane already has a range of 1,500 kilometers and expansions for a 19 passenger plane are underway. By contrast, experts from WIRED estimated that electric batteries will take until 2045 to have a commercially viable battery plane available. Even in the smaller plane segment, the current record distance set for an EV plane is 300 miles in a two seater plane, largely modelled on a glider technology.

In freight, Alstrom and Hydrogenics already have tested Hydrogen on trains in Germany, while Ontario is looking at Hydrogen trains to replace the current rolling stock on the GO rail network. Aside from promoting local businesses, the trains are almost silent and emit none of the harmful particles associated with diesel or other fuel sources. There clearly will remain a role for electrification of urbanized rail, but even in a small landmass like the UK, the costs of electrifying entire train lines have forced planners to move towards mixed fuel and electrification trains. In this regard, Hydrogen is likely to compliment electrification for long distance commuter trains. The UK is already considering this option.

Then we have shipping. The maritime industry is one of the worst sources of pollution in coastal cities, with cities like Hong Kong calculating that 50% of all locally produced air pollution comes from the maritime industry. In Norway, parts of Canada and the USA, various attempts to introduce LNG bunkering have produced significant results in reducing maritime emissions, with Vice estimating 20% less CO2 emissions per ship, but hydrogen is likely to be the next major frontier. So far both Viking Cruises and Royal Caribbean have committed to procuring hydrogen powered ships, while Norway’s Fiskerstrand Holding AS is building a hydrogen ferry and the Port of San Francisco is mulling a $5mn investment in a Hydrogen fueling station. They are unlikely to be the last movers.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Hydrogen now is its wider application in more niche services. For Amazon, hydrogen fuel cells have allowed the firm to revolutionize its warehousing forklifts, so much so that the company invested $70mn into a fuel cell company called Plug Power, while Walmart reacted with its own investment of $80mn in the same firm. Why? Well according the leading US body NREL, hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are at least 10% cheaper than alternatives over a 10 year investment. But the effect is not limited to forklifts. Amazon now uses Hydrogen powered drones in its warehouses to monitor inventory. With a flight time of two hours, compared to 30 minutes for a comparable electric powered drone, Pincs aerial drones offer savings of up to 5% of the total inventory stock.

Final comments:

On our current global trajectory there is almost zero chance of the world reaching its Paris climate commitments, let alone the wider level of agreement needed to reduce CO2 emissions below the two degrees limit by the middle of the century.

Our energy system is going through the most rapid transformation in its history. It is going to be messy, complicated and littered with failures. It is going to cost more than it may have done had we guessed everything right at the start, and for decades there will be debates around this subject. But one thing is clear. Without hydrogen in transportation, there is no clear evidence that we can save our planet.

In 2003 to 2004, the UK government overwhelmingly backed the idea that Hydrogen would be a key fuel of the future. Like most new ideas, the hype came early and failed to deliver. In product innovation this is often the case. The dot.com boom was preceded by the explosion of the internet almost a decade later, with the worlds largest companies all being tech stocks. Electric vehicles themselves were considered the car of the future….in the 1900’s!! Yet it took over 100 years to become the new focus of policymakers hopes for a clean transportation future.

Hydrogen has had a lot of bad press, some of its deserved. But if we are serious about climate change, investors need to drop the cynicism and engage with the technology.

The renewables driven revolution in electricity pricing

Away from the public eyes, one of the most radical transformations of wholesale electricity markets in the last 100 years is occurring. Since the time of Thomas Edison, almost all the electricity that we use has come from the combustion of fuels. By releasing the latent energy in coal, gas, wood or oil, we convert latent energy into heat, and use that heat to create steam. The steam forces a magnet to spin around a set of wire coils, thus creating a current. It is this innovation in science that created the modern world, but today a growing proportion of the developed (and developing) world’s electricity no longer comes from fuels. I am of course talking about wind and solar.

When power is created from the combustion of fuels it is dispatchable. This means that it can be turned on and off whenever the owner of the power station wishes. While a Nuclear plant will often generate electricity around 92% of the time, making it effectively a constant (hence “base”) generation source, most fuel based generation sources run for much less time. In the USA, coal and gas plants often run less than 60% of the time. By contrast wind and solar are not dispatchable. Rather, their production output is variable. Wind and Solar do not require a fuel to create energy, but they cannot control when they will produce electricity. It is this contrast that is at the crux of the challenge.

To ensure a power grid has sufficient electricity for all consumers, a grid operator such as National Grid, must estimate demand and source that demand on an annual, monthly, daily, hourly and sub-hourly basis. In complex power markets like the UK, the sourcing of electricity supply comes from an auction system. This is why wholesale power prices are in upheaval.

To match supply with demand, national grid asks companies that produce electricity to make offers to supply electricity. Each company states how much electricity it can supply and the price it will accept to supply that level. These prices are then sorted from lowest to highest and national grid will accept all bids necessary until it reaches the supply level it requested. This is called “Merit Order Dispatch”.

To explain this is shown in the table below:

Electricity needed 100MW   
Clearing auction price £30/MWh  
       
Bidder name Bidding price Quantity of power offered Quantity of Power Accepted
Wind 1 £10/MWh 20MW 20MW
Solar 1 £20/MWh 20MW 20MW
Nuclear 1 £25/MWh 30MW 30MW
Gas 1 £30/MWh 30MW 30MW
Coal 1 £40/MWh 30MW 0MW

As wind and solar have no fuel, their cost to run is essentially zero. As such they can bid any price they like. For Nuclear, the cost of fuel is considerably less than building the site, so it also bids a low price. By contrast gas and coal have to buy their fuels to combust them. As shown in the table above, coal can’t compete against wind and solar on cost and so it losses the auction. Everyone else is paid the marginal cost of production, which is the amount that gas receives (£30/MWh) and they supply the grid.

So what does this mean? Essentially as we build more wind and more solar, we will increase the number of electricity supply bids into the market which are below the viable level for any fuel based generation. This is why the USA’s Department of Energy wants to pay a subsidy to coal and nuclear. As wind and solar are not dispatchable, there is a concern that all dispatchable fuel sources will be unable to compete in the price auctions for the majority of the year, except for periods when electricity demand is extremely high. That would make most plants economically unviable, as they would be required to cover all of their capital costs, maintenance and staffing, based on generating electricity for less than 50% of the year. If these plants go, then what will provide the electricity when the sun goes down and the wind doesn’t blow? That is the question that energy market regulators are asking in the UK, USA, Europe and across the developed world.

To many the concept that renewables are cheaper than fuel based sources doesn’t seem correct. Indeed, most renewables remain more expensive than coal (though not in all areas and not by much), when considering the total cost of the system. But it is important to understand that wind and solar are fundamentally different in how they are financially structured and that explains the pricing disruption. Operations and maintenance of renewable power plants are minimal. Building the assets is the expensive part. As a result, Renewables always want to sell their power at any price in order to re-coup the cost of construction. By contrast a coal plant or gas plant will lose money if they try to sell electricity for below the cost of their fuel source. This gives renewables an incentive to bid almost zero, thus guaranteeing that they will be able to sell almost all their electricity they generate at any time.

This is actually worse in countries that have adopted a renewable government subsidy called a Feed-In-Tarriff (FIT). Under a FIT, the government guarantees the owner of a renewable company that they will receive a fixed price for the production of their electricity. However, the electricity has to be generated and supplied to the market in order to claim the subsidy. As a result, renewables have no incentive to put in competitive prices for auctions because they already have a fixed price.

What does all of this mean though for businesses, consumers and investors? Well for now it means that the annual average wholesale cost of electricity has fallen in countries like the UK on a constant basis. That also means that most households and industries have paid less in energy bills than would otherwise have been the case.Wholesale market

But while the costs of electricity have fallen, other costs are occurring across the system. As coal and gas plants cannot compete in the market they are forced to close the plants early and suspend new constructions. A great win for climate change, but an outcome that has cost European utilities half a trillion euros according to the economist. In California, where solar PV deployment is high, prices in the wholesale market now go negative for periods of the day. Yes that is correct. Producers effectively pay other people to take the power that is being produced. In the same is happening in Germany.

The move towards greater renewables in the electricity mix is vital. But like any great transformation there will be unintended and unanticipated consequences. The greater the growth of renewable energy, the more inevitable it will become that wholesale power markets will change. If consumers are focused that could potentially lead to longer term price stability and cost savings. But only if they know where to look.

The Case for BREXIT

The starting gun has been fired and now begins the race. By the end of June 2016, the UK will have made the most important decision it has faced in 25 years. Do we stay or do we go?

The BREXIT debate is one of identity, and it is on this issue that the referendum must deliver a clear answer. The question of Britain’s role and place in Europe has always been defined by this question: are we Europeans or are we something different?

Many misunderstand this notion. To say you are different makes people uncomfortable. In this context, it inspires claims either that British people are exhibiting national chauvinism or that they are being willfully ignorant of the realities of today’s world. These claims, however natural they may be given the appalling narrative on immigration in Britain today, are wrong. Britain is different not because we do not share with other Europeans the common bonds of humanity, shared love and respect for liberty and human decency, respect and tolerance of others and a commitment to helping those in need. We are different because we do not believe, nor do we accept, that Europe’s methods of how to build a society are the right ones.

Most would like this vote to be about a simpler issue. The “vote leave” seeks a migration narrative, the “vote stay” wants an economic narrative. But for the future of Britain, they must both fail in their endeavours. Instead, voters should understand the clear meaning of their actions. To “vote stay” means that British people must finally accept that they have a shared responsibility to working with Europeans to help solve their problems as well as our own. To “vote leave” requires British people to acknowledge that if we do not feel a responsibility to help Europeans outside of our national interest, then we must acknowledge simultaneously that Europe has no responsibilities to support our national interest.

In the narrative of history, we must all hope that the story of Europe continues. The European Union has made life better for the continent and its people. It is a symbol of hope and idealism to many across the world, despite all its failings. But it is not our story. I believe in BREXIT because in viewing my home and those from it, I see the world differently from those on the continent. Our nation is not afraid of no longer being a titan on the world stage, nor are we afraid of a world where we do not control the global agenda. Britain has always thrived on its ability to innovate, to be pragmatic and to take risks in order to survive. Such has always been the necessity of island nations.

Europeans see the EU as a mechanism to sit at the world table in the rising new world order. As an equal to China, the US and to India. Today’s modern Britain does not see that necessity. The reality of the modern world is that no nation, or body of nations, can unilaterally determine their economic environment or their security environment. The age of autarky and isolationism is dead. The challenge of our time is not do we choose to work with others, but how we choose to do so. In this context, one must always remember that national interests reflect national character.

The UK does not believe that protectionist trade tariffs, strict labour laws, state controlled economies or heavy state regulation leads to a greater quality of life for our people. The history of our nation shows that our prosperity has been driven by the periods where we innovate, where we seek out new ideas and where we search the world for new markets. The wealth of our nation similarly should never be dependant on one single trading block. It is often forgotten that before the European Union the UK’s biggest trading market was India. Why it is that such a pattern could not re-emerge is one of many unanswered questions that the “Vote stay” movement has yet to address.

The security of our nation has been achieved through the strength of our national endeavours. No foreign-armed force has landed on the British islands in over 300 years and when left alone to defend our citizens rights abroad, we have shown our ability to act unilaterally to protect them. Many mistakenly associate peace in Europe with the European Union. This is wrong. Peace in Europe has been achieved by NATO and de-facto by America. The “Special relationship”, for all its failings, has always been the recognition by Britain that Europe lacks the motivation internally to unite collectively in its own self-defence. If evidence of that were ever needed, the use of NATO in the Balkans and the European reliance on new US armoured brigades in Eastern Europe, provide two immediate examples (there are of course others). The Freedom of our nation therefore will always rely, first and foremost, on our own efforts and our relationship with the US. As to threats of terrorism and transnational crime, it is often forgotten that the UK’s worst period of terrorism came during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. If at the height of the cold war our allies were unwilling to help us when it conflicted with their national interest, it seems disingenuous (to say the least) that this will change in the future.

The challenge facing those who campaign to leave has been to explain “what comes next”. Setting aside the unchallenged assumption that staying in Europe will ensure that the UK follows a clear and predictable path for 20 years, it is not unreasonable to say that a vote to leave also requires a plan on how to leave and what should happen after we leave. As with all well laid plans, few survive contact with reality. Assumptions of behaviour and of processes are notoriously challenging even where precedents exist, let alone where they do not. But setting these aspects aside, a strategy for the UK would go as follows.

Following a vote to leave the UK will not immediately leave the EU. This is the reality and yet it appears often ignored. The UK will enter into a period of negotiation on the terms of our exit, while remaining in the Union. The negotiations are likely to require 4-5 years and, in essence, they will require the UK to accept EU governance for its companies who wish to trade in Europe. Conversely, European firms who wish to trade in the UK will have to follow English laws and governance. As most global regulation is increasingly being harmonised, over time there will remain few significant differences in regulation between the two. On immigration, the UK will move to a points based system. In so doing, it will significantly ease work and residency related visa requirements for Australian, New Zealand, US and Canadian nationals. Over time, these restrictions are likely to be expanded to other commonwealth states as their levels of development increasingly reach parity with our own.

From a trade perspective, we will work with the WTO to expand its effort for a new set of global standards and a reduction in global trade restrictions. We will also explore deals with ASEAN and other regional markets across the world. Such action was how we once thrived. We will re-discover this talent, as many of our young entrepreneurs already are doing.

At the International level, the UK will continue to sit and act in partnership with European nations. We will join with Canada, Australia, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand (and occasional the USA and Japan) as part of the EU+ grouping which exists within the major multilateral banks and other international organisations. On security matters, we will remain committed to the defence of Europe and particularly Eastern Europe, where we have already increased our presence and where we played an instrumental role in bringing these nations into both the EU and NATO. For issues of transnational crime, a bilateral extradition agreement will be made with the EU as part of our terms of exit. On this last matter, there is little disagreement between the EU and the UK and little incentive from either party to prevent such an outcome.

This is the case for BREXIT. A UK that remains a friend and partner of Europe, whilst remaining an independent nation state that pursues the best interests of its people on its own terms. To “Vote leave” is not a rejection of liberal values and a statement of disregard for the well-being of Europeans. Instead, it is a re-assertion of the well known principle that the best form of governance is self-governance. It is time British people remembered this principle.

To my countrymen and women, whatever your opinion, please make sure that you vote on 23rd June. This is our future and I hope you vote to leave with me.

The Good, the Bad and the Unknown – Predictions for 2016

To kick off the 2016 period, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the world as things stand and offer some predictions for the year.

Missing Billionaires, a lost election in Taiwan, abducted Hong Kong Journalists, a public rebuke to George Soros and suggestions that China’s economy may be growing at nearer 2.4% than 6%….2016 is certainly an interesting time to watch the Middle Kingdom. For my two cents the Chinese seem spooked, but their actions appear to be precautionary measures rather than those driven from a general fear that all hell will break loose. Expect more bad news and panics in the market, but that is unlikely to reflect a true collapse in the Chinese economy and a “hard landing” is still far from predictable.

From the Iran side, it remains “too early to tell”. What seems clear is that the oil oversupply argument is over-hyped. Iran already exports circa 1m barrels per day and likely smuggles 300-500k a day. At most it can add another 1m, but even that is uncertain. At the same time global oil production is at maximum, so the system has no spare capacity should a shock hit a major supplier (look to Venezuela for a possible negative oil shock by the end of the 2nd quarter 2016).

The Refugee crisis seems destined to dominate the EU discourse. There remains no easy solution, short of following the advice of an article from The Times and letting migrants drown in the Aegean (with mercy killings for those who survive their ship sinking). The mood however is clearly ugly and this looks unlikely to change. With Europeans feeling poorer and more afraid than ever, expect the ugly monsters of racism, extreme nationalism and xenophobia to provoke ever harsher measures. Still, these will deter none. The alternative remains worse for the refugees. Watch the Greek-Macedonian border for the first signs of trouble.

Brexit will still loom large in the UK, but investors and politicians will be forgiven for their lack of patience. At the end of the day, this is nothing to do with economics or politics and everything to do with Britain’s identity and place in the world. The UK will likely become more insular in its affairs leading up to June and no meaningful concessions will be made to Cameron. Still the Out campaign have their work cut-out. The lobby of big-businesses and institutional vested interests, coupled with British inertia to radical change, gives the edge to a “yes” vote to stay in Europe. Still, Labour is not as pro-Europe as it has been, with many Corbynistas seeing the possibility of Brexit as a chance to allow state-aid and interventions into the private sector. However don’t rule out Cameron bottling the whole thing and waiting till 2017. After-all Brown made the same mistake when he failed to call a General Election in 2008, despite holding the upper hand.

Lastly the US election. My increasing feeling is that Trump will actually get the nomination. The other “moderates” have run out of time and increasingly the view is that any establishment branded candidate is doomed in the current political atmosphere. Given the evils of Trump or Cruz, most commentators overwhelmingly back Trump to make the deals necessary to secure the establishment support at the final hurdle and knock out Cruz. This then creates two challenges – do the Democrats react with their own radical (Sanders) or play it safe with Hillary? Hillary is dull and a known entity, rightly many are asking whether she could energise a campaign in the same way that Trump has energised his parties base. It is still highly unlikely, but I reckon there is a 25% chance of a Sanders v.s. Trump campaign and of Americans being offered the most divisive split of candidates in a generation. Of course, at that injunction maybe we will see that famous “3rd party” entrant, with Michael Bloomberg looking very dangerous in such a role. If, and its a big if, that becomes the 3 way split in 2016, the outcome will be huge for America and the world writ large.

The Myth of “The United Petrostates of America”

Firstly my apologises for the delay in writing another article. It has been a busy few days, but now back to the title!

On Monday the well-known US publication, Foreign Policy, published an article on how the US would be transformed by the advent of Shale gas and become The United Petrostates of America (for the link click here). Of course this assertion is absolutely laughable.

Firstly the advent of US Shale will not lead to massive exports of Oil and Gas from the US because other domestic US energy sources (Coal, traditional oil + gas wells) are declining and also because other developing nations like China, India and Brazil have a plethora of other less politically sensitive sources of Petroleum products they can access.

Secondly, the US Petroleum industry primarily exists to service the production of US goods for US consumers and whether that is for transport needs (in a vast territory with poor public transport) or heavy industry like Chemical manufacturing, Ship building, Car building, etc. In short the US does not export what it needs at home and so does not get the boost in its trade figures with other states.

The Last error however is the assertion that the export of Shale oil & gas will boost the strength of the dollar. Now assuming the author of Foreign Policy by some miracle is correct, this is not the reason why the US dollar is strong against other currencies, it is because the Dollar is the world’s currency reserve. The value of the US dollar is high because in times of insecurity people put their money in Dollars because of the long held belief that the US will not default on its debts. Excluding those who write about the decline of the US from a position of desire not knowledge, and the mythical “Credit-ratings agencies” (if they even still deserve that name) people trust the US to pay and are almost blind to any other considerations, see the decline in US 10yr bond yields when the US had its Triple A rating cut for the first time.

In addition the US debt (now in excess of USD$14 Trillion) is, contrary to popular belief, largely held by Americans. The citizens of the US and global investors now the US will pay its debts because over $9 Trillion of that debt is owed to fellow Americans. Thus the incentive to default on citizens and institutions of the state itself is, in essence, non-existent.

All of these things combine to a very simple point that seems to be missed in the US discussions of Shale gas, what is the US net increase in Energy supplies? If we look at the historic growth in US natural gas over a 20 year period, we see that consumption of gas in the US rose from 19.17 TcF in 1990 (from all Sources) to 24.09 TcF in 2010. To put it more simply, between 1990 and 2010 US gas demand grew by 25%, yet over the same period the US production of natural gas only grew at 21% (17.81 TcF to 21.58 TcF). To add to this even further, the growth in US gas supply between 2012 and 2032 is predicted to increase at an even slower level of 15% over the whole period.

Thus the key point is that US Shale Gas is not a “Bonus” to US energy supplies, rather it is the critical lifeline preventing them from a huge collapse. According to the EIA the US is expected to increase its supply of gas (as mentioned above) from 23.65 TcF of gas (from all sources) in 2012, to 27.27TcF from all sources by 2032 but if the growth in gas demand increases by the same factor as it did between 1990 and 2010 then there will be a net deficit.

Last thoughts to add here: if the US population grows by 15% between 2015 and 2035 (prediction from US Census) and Obama and Republicans want to see the US boost domestic manufacturing to boost their exports (despite the growth in gas demand occurring during a decline in US industry), will the US still have to import gas even with Shale?