Fossil fuels on fire

By Old Mutual Wealth Investment Strategists Izak Odendaal and Dave Mohr

These strange times have become even more unusual. Despite the enormous efforts to reduce the demand for carbon-emitting fossil fuels, their prices have shot up in recent weeks.

The upcoming COP26 Glasgow Climate Summit could ironically take place against the backdrop of coal and natural gas prices at record levels and oil at multi-year highs even though the share of renewables in the global energy mix has thankfully risen steadily.

Chart 1: Futures prices for coal, gas and oil, US$

Source: Refinitiv Datastream

A perfect storm

It is a perfect storm of events that got us here. On a positive note, demand for energy has increased from the lockdown-induced lows. For instance, IATA estimates a 26% growth in airline passenger numbers between 2020 and 2021, though they are still more than 40% below 2019 levels. However, this improvement in demand has not been met by rising supply. On the contrary, several factors have constrained supply.

One is simply the weather. Northern Europe relies heavily on electricity from wind, but it has been less windy than usual. Droughts in Brazil, China and the US mean hydro-electrical production has also been lower than normal. This has led to increased demand for natural gas and coal. However, natural gas inventory levels have been lower than usual at storage depots across Europe. This has created an opportunity for Russia, Europe’s main gas provider, to flex its geopolitical muscles and go slow on deliveries, although it has indicated a willingness to stabilise the market recently. With winter looming, natural gas prices in Europe have gone stratospheric, pulling up prices in other parts of the world.

In China, flooding has disrupted domestic coal production. China is already the biggest consumer of coal in the world, but demand has increased recently, and with it, its price. Geopolitics play a role here too. China blocked Australian coal imports, about a tenth of its total last year, after Australia questioned the origins of the coronavirus. Imports from Mongolia have also been disrupted by Covid.

Chinese electricity prices are heavily regulated, and utilities cannot freely pass on the cost of higher coal prices to customers. Many have opted to cut back on production, rather than sell at a loss. Beijing has now announced that selling prices will be allowed to rise somewhat. All this has happened at a time when local governments were already reducing electricity production from coal to curb air pollution and carbon emissions. The net result is something South Africans know well: widespread load-shedding.

Finally, in terms of oil, OPEC (along with Russia) has largely maintained the production cuts it put in place last year to prop up the oil price. In other words, there is no fundamental shortage of oil. Supply is being deliberately held back. OPEC can increase supply if it worries that high prices will choke off demand, but for now, its members seem comfortable with the revenues flowing in. Importantly, the price increase has not yet led to the associated increases in American shale oil production as has been the case over the past decade. Shale producers have largely abandoned the old production-at-all-costs mindset in favour of maintaining profitability and shareholder returns.

Chart 2: US oil prices and production

Source: Refinitiv Datastream

An associated factor is that these companies and their peers face increased difficulty in accessing the funding needed to increase short-term (in the case of shale) and long-term production (in the case of the oil majors). Banks and asset managers across the world are phasing out exposure to fossil fuels and some have already cut all ties. This has contributed to steep declines in capital expenditure by fossil fuel producers. 

In other words, the big move among global investors towards embracing environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles might have the unintended consequences of higher fossil fuel prices until such time as renewable sources reach critical mass.

Chart 3: Capital expenditure by listed oil, gas and coal companies

Source: Refinitiv Datastream

The good news is that elevated fossil fuel prices do create a strong incentive to increase investment in alternatives. This is where ESG can play a big role to make sure the alternatives are green, not brown. Economists have long argued that the best way to tackle climate change is to put a tax on carbon emissions. This is because the price we pay for a tank of petrol, for instance, covers the cost of production and distribution but not the cost of the associated air pollution. Since the cost of this externality is not included, petrol is too cheap. This leads to excessive demand. A carbon tax raises the price to its “correct” level and lower demand. The recent price increases could therefore achieve a similar effect.

A tax on your houses

Increased energy prices act as a tax for most consumers. Most of us have no choice but to fill up our car. If you live in the snowy Northern Hemisphere, you have little choice but to heat your home with gas.

In other words, this will be a drag on global consumer spending, the question is just for how long will prices remain elevated. It is somewhat compensated for by the excess savings that households in the rich world have built up, but it also appears that most of the excess savings are concentrated in the hands of more affluent households. Meanwhile, it is lower-income households that are most exposed to increases in energy prices and associated rises in food prices. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that at around $80/barrel, the oil price is nowhere near the $150/barrel record set in 2008 on the eve of the global financial crisis, or the $100+ levels that prevailed between 2011 and 2014, especially adjusted for inflation or growth in incomes.

The other complication is that these price increases come at a time when inflation rates are already elevated. The global production and delivery of goods are already severely constrained by Covid-related disruptions, shortages of inputs and labour, and logistical bottlenecks. But now production in China, the world’s factory, has to contend with electricity blackouts. This is likely to worsen the supply chain problems already besetting the world economy.

People often confuse higher fuel prices with inflation. Fuel prices are very visible since most motorists have to fill up at least once a month. But inflation refers to sustained price increases in a broad range of consumer goods and services. Energy is a component in consumer price indices and therefore higher energy prices do have a direct short-term impact. But the big question is whether firms can raise their selling prices to compensate for higher input costs. In this way, higher energy costs ripple through the economy. If workers then demand higher wages to compensate, we have the beginnings of a wage-price spiral. This clearly requires pricing power on the part of firms and bargaining power on the part of workers that have been absent for many years. However, in the current Covid-distorted global economy, there have been signs of both.

Winners and losers

There are clear winners from this energy crunch. Net exporters of coal, gas and oil are clearly smiling, particularly countries such as Nigeria that have really struggled until recently.

In contrast, many countries are energy importers and face not only higher inflation rates, but also potentially balance of payments problems as they need to cough up more of their scarce dollars for each barrel of oil. Compounding matters, this comes at a time when the US Federal Reserve is planning to scale back its monetary stimulus, which has put upward pressure on the dollar. Some developing countries, therefore, face a triple whammy of higher energy costs, a weaker currency, and domestic central bank interest rate hikes aimed at stabilising exchange rates and inflation.

South Africa has one leg in this camp as an importer of petroleum products. The rand has been on the back foot in recent weeks, and this means a big petrol price increase is on the cards for next month.

However, we are also the world’s fifth-largest coal exporter (behind Australia, Indonesia, Russia and the US) and the rising export revenues limit downward pressure on the rand. Coal exports would be even higher if not for the capacity constraints on the Transnet rail corridor from the Highveld to the coal terminal at Richards Bay.

It also helps that inflation has been relatively stable in South Africa, with price increases excluding food and energy costs running at only around 3%. The SA Reserve Bank’s latest forecasts suggest that inflation should stay close to the 4.5% midpoint of the target range over the next two years. However, the risks are clearly to the upside. A gradual interest rate hiking cycle is therefore likely to commence in the next few months. How gradual will depend on where energy prices settle and how the rand responds. The Reserve Bank will also keep a close eye on what other central banks are doing, particularly the US Fed.

Oils well that ends well?

In summary, it is a delicate moment for the global economy, and could end up being a long, cold winter for people in the Northern Hemisphere. The big risks are a slowdown in consumer spending, further disruptions to production and persistent inflation that forces central banks to tighten monetary policy sooner than they’d like. None of this is good for markets.

However, it is worth repeating that the underlying cause is the strong recovery in demand as the world gradually puts the pandemic behind it. This is good. Moreover, energy prices are notoriously volatile. In April last year, a key oil futures contract briefly traded at a negative price. Traders were willing to pay to get rid of the oil rather than take delivery. The most recent price moves in gas and coal also have all the hallmarks of panic-driven trading, and therefore are unlikely to be sustained over time. Investors in diversified portfolios should similarly avoid making panicky moves in response to the recent dramatic headlines. The current situation is the result of a nasty confluence of events, and some of the contributing factors on the supply side could ease.

Finally, in the current context, it might be worth remembering that 13 years or so ago, “Peak Oil” was a dominant investment narrative. It was believed that the global supply of oil would peak and this justified prices surging to $150/barrel and beyond. The opposite turned out to be the case. Today, we’ve probably already passed the point of peak oil demand due to the rise of electric vehicles. Demand for coal could prove stickier, while natural gas could increase in importance as a “bridging fuel” while the world transitions to renewable sources. However, short-term price movements are clearly going to remain unpredictable.

This is relevant when thinking about investments more broadly. Dominant narratives can lead you astray. Just because you read about a “megatrend” or “structural change”, whether it is ESG, clean energy, blockchain, biotechnology, or demographic shifts, doesn’t mean that there is easy money to be made. It could be priced on already, or simply overhyped. You could be way too soon or too late already. Maintaining appropriate diversification across different asset classes and within each asset class remains the best way of investing, even if it sounds boring.

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International climate deal could solve SA’s energy and economy crisis

Some of the world’s richest nations recently met with South African cabinet ministers to discuss a climate deal that could see billions of dollars put toward ending the country’s dependence on coal.

The delegation is trying to hammer out an agreement that can be announced at the COP26 climate talks, which start in Glasgow, Scotland on 31 Oct, two people familiar with the talks said. The discussions with South Africa — the world’s 12th-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — include representatives from the US, UK, Germany, France and the European Union.

While South Africa is under pressure to cut its dependence on coal, which accounts for more than 80% of its power generation, it needs finance to facilitate the transition to cleaner energy. Developed nations may also need to find a way to address the challenges faced by South Africa’s state-owned power utility, which is burdened by R400-billion of debt.

The envoys met with South African ministers including Pravin Gordhan, the public enterprises minister whose portfolio includes oversight of power utility Eskom Holdings, Barbara Creecy, the environment minister, and Ebrahim Patel, the country’s trade and industry minister, the people said, asking not to be identified as a public announcement has yet to be made. Talks will be held with South Africa’s politically powerful labour unions, business leaders and the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission, three people familiar with the arrangements said.

The South African ministers pressed for details on what finance was available, but the envoys favour an incremental approach and more commitments from South Africa, the people said. While Gordhan urged support for Eskom, other options such as transitioning South Africa and its car industry toward electric vehicles were also discussed, they said.

Albi Modise, a spokesperson for the environment ministry, confirmed that a group of ministers met with the envoys but declined to comment further, saying a statement will be issued later. 

Some senior members of South Africa’s government are pushing hard for climate mitigation measures. President Cyril Ramaphosa chairs the climate commission he created last year and its more ambitious emissions reduction target was adopted by cabinet this month. Creecy has said developed countries need to boost energy transition and climate-adaptation funding to developing nations.

“South Africa is well-positioned to obtain concessional finance both for the country-wide climate transition and the electricity transition in particular,” Gordhan said in a response to queries before the meeting.

Still, the pivot from coal faces opposition within South Africa. Gwede Mantashe, the country’s energy minister, has advocated for the construction of new coal-fired power stations. Mantashe, the former head of the National Union of Mineworkers, is the politically influential chairman of the ruling African National Congress.

The move to reduce South Africa’s reliance on coal comes as Chinese demand pushes prices toward record highs. The dirtiest fossil fuel, which was struggling against cleaner energy sources, is now seeing its biggest comeback ever, complicating international climate talks set to begin in just a few weeks. 

Courtesy of Bloomberg.

BY: BLOOMBERG

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G7: why major economies are delaying a break with the fossil fuel industry

The climate crisis is certain to be a hot topic at the G7 summit in Cornwall. While the leaders of the world’s richest countries agree in theory on the need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, they remain faithful to a fossil fuel industry reluctant to substantively change its business model.


By George Ferns, lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, and Marcus Gomes, lecturer in Organisation Studies and Sustainability, Cardiff University

A recent report by the International Energy Agency, a typically conservative advisory body, argued for an immediate ban on new fossil fuel projects. But investments by oil, gas and coal companies into finding new sources continue, as does industry lobbying to undermine regulation. The environment ministers of the G7 countries committed to end funding for new overseas coal projects by the end of 2021. But 51% of their Covid-19 economic recovery funds – a total of US$189 billion (£133 billion) – paid between January 2020 and March 2021 were earmarked as financial aid for the fossil fuel industry. Worse, US$8 of every US$10 dedicated to non-renewable energy was paid with no conditions on these companies to reduce their emissions.

Why does it seem so hard for G7 leaders to match their words with action when it comes to the fossil fuel industry?

Betting on the long-term business case

Despite setbacks in volatile markets and oversupply risks, there is still a lot of money to be made from extracting, producing and selling hydrocarbons. Demand for coal has plateaued, but oil and gas demand is predicted to rise at least for the next 15 to 20 years, particularly in emerging economies such as China and India.

This puts G7 leaders in an awkward position. On the one hand, governments need to reboot economic growth after the pandemic slowdown – a profitable energy sector nourished by rising demand abroad is welcome, even though hydrocarbon extraction can be especially polluting in developing countries.

Governmental support for the industry in the form of subsidies or tax breaks artificially inflates the profitability of fossil fuels, in turn making renewables a less attractive investment. Put simply, it is less risky and more profitable to – at least for now – invest in oil and gas.

Carbon lock-in

The fossil fuel industry continues to shed public support, but it can rely on the fact that it’s embedded within a complex system of consumers, suppliers and contractors, politicians and the media. The cause-and-effect relations that define such an intricate system often produce unintended outcomes.

This interdependency is referred to as carbon lock-in. Economies have evolved in such a way that they perpetuate an energy landscape dominated by fossil fuels and plagued by an inability to radically change.

Not only does carbon lock-in result in inertia, it causes a tragedy of the commons-type problem. Big oil companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell are unlikely to make meaningful changes until the rest of the system acts in unison. National oil companies and smaller privately owned fossil fuel companies comprise the bulk of known fossil fuel reserves. But they often evade the spotlight and so can operate with more freedom. For a big oil company to make high-risk changes to its business model while others enjoy a free ride would be seen as a bad business decision.

Lock-in, as the name suggests, is very difficult to break. That said, G7 members are powerful nodes within this complex network. Strong leadership – such as divestment from fossil fuels and strong support for renewables – would cause reverberations throughout the whole system. But strong commitments coupled with counter-intuitive policies only send a signal that meaningful changes aren’t coming.

Identity crisis

People working in the fossil fuel industry often stay in the sector for their entire career – starting off as students of engineering or geoscience in departments funded by the industry, working all over the world and then heading into management positions.

The industry’s identity is predicated on certain values that have existed since the early days of hydrocarbon exploration, including, as one study found, a deep trust in the potential of science and technology to further humanity’s control over nature and to drive progress and economic development.

The ideological commitments of leaders in the fossil fuel industry will take a firm challenge from governments to overcome. It’s clear from financial decisions in the lead up to the summit that G7 leaders aren’t quite up to that test yet. But the meeting in Cornwall is their opportunity to signal that that cosy relationship is finally coming to an end.

Courtesy: The Conversation

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