Seizing Assets

April 3rd, 2013 by Potato

Cyprus has been in the news a lot lately for the seizing (“taxing”) of some assets. Some have questioned whether the same could happen here. The sad truth is that there is always the possibility of the government deciding to seize your assets; whether they’re insured or not, in a bank account, mutual fund, or real; through legislation, crooked courts, or by military force.

But it is not an event that happens often or lightly. In general, governments do not suddenly seize assets — that’s not what good governance is about. Of course, if the hole is big enough and the options limited (as in Cyprus) they may not have a choice, which gets into a moral lesson about not choosing “bread and circus” leaders.

There’s a slightly higher chance of loss with more “virtual” assets and those that can be divided for tax (e.g., the income trust Halloween massacre). But the government could decide to appropriate your house, eliminate your principal residence capital gains exemption, or tax your assets instead of just your income.

This knowledge may not help you sleep well tonight. Do remember that it is quite unlikely. Ideally, your government would be open and logical, so you could anticipate such moves (or rather, sleep soundly anticipating the lack of such moves). Of course, for the Harper government that was my big beef with the income trust fiasco — not that they decided to tax them, but that they broke an explicit promise not to do so, with no justification given. How were we to know what the next materially important decision would be? Ditto with strategically important takeovers — there was next to no way to anticipate what might or might not be allowed. In the depth of the US financial meltdown some (e.g. John Hempton) complained that the FDIC just stepped in and closed certain banks over the weekend, arbitrarily deciding to make bondholders whole while wiping out equity and preferred holders — though in a more controlled liquidation and wind-up, it’s likely that either the bondholders would take a haircut, or the preferred shareholders would be left with some value. The process is often just as important as the outcomes…

Freddie Mac: Political Risk

August 18th, 2012 by Potato

When I first talked about Freddie Mac, political risk was one of the things I highlighted that might undermine what otherwise looked like an attractive long-shot bet. The US government has been requiring that Freddie Mac (and its sibling GSE, Fannie Mae) borrow more money than they need, and pay a punitive 10% interest rate on that — a worse deal than the TBTF banks who arguably had more to do with the cause of the global financial crisis. Part of what lead to the excess borrowing was the fact that Freddie’s been over-reserving for years now. It looks as though they’re getting to the point where even the most conservative accountants realize that those excess reserves will start unwinding, which will enable Freddie to start paying back the government — and after that, the preferred shareholders.

So it looks like the main investing thesis was playing out.

Unfortunately that political risk reared it’s head this week as the government announced it would change the deal to instead confiscate all future profits. I have no idea why the government decided to nationalize the GSEs but not AIG or the TBTF banks, or why they decided to change the deal at this late stage, just as the profitability was re-emerging. I suppose I’ll just have to pray they don’t decide to alter the deal any further.

I’m not quite sure what that means in terms of the preferreds being paid back, but my first take on it is that they’ll be worthless. The market seems to be equally panicked, as most issues were down about 60% on Friday.

Snow and Scientific Communications

April 21st, 2012 by Potato

The Ottawa Citizen had a great couple of articles on a joint NASA/NRC/CSA project to study snow storms and weather radar. While the first article about the project is not bad, what made it notable was the follow-up freedom of information release showing the ridiculous layers of bureaucracy and message massaging that had to happen before a non-answer was released. An op-ed the next day lamented the extreme information secrecy of the government.

I think scientific communication is important — indeed, it’s something I’m hoping to make a career out of here. So it’s kind of sad to see such an epic failure of communication in this case. What makes it especially sad is the number of people involved: I counted at least 4 different people in the FoI series of emails who were dedicating time and effort to not communicate, and there were more who appeared in just one or two short snippets. I bet you could not communicate with just one person in the department, or even an unhelpful sign on the door and a voicemail message. These guys, in theory, are supposed to help translate the science for the lay people and do the communications so the scientists can do science, though with the present government the entire goal may simply to act as a firewall between the scientists and everyone else. But wouldn’t everyone have been better off if one of the scientists just did the talking for himself?

So I see this kind of thing and can’t help but think “what are they getting paid for?” Couldn’t that money be better used for the main mission: science?

Why MicroFIT?

December 13th, 2011 by Potato

I recently was pointed to Canadian Doomer’s site, where I saw this comment:

“Ontario Hydro is paying $0.80/kwh to those who sell them electricity on the MicroFIT program. But consumers are paying $0.05 to $0.10/kwh. This makes absolutely no sense, unless Ontario Hydro knows that they will soon be charging consumers MORE than $0.80/kwh. Look at your hydro bill and imagine it multiplied by 8.”

Well, no, it’s the price they have to pay to get solar off the ground. Very few people wanted to pay ~8x the price of grid power to buy their own solar panels, so the companies weren’t making panels, so the panels were expensive, etc… By offering enough money that PV would be profitable, it bootstrapped the industry, and broke the vicious cycle. The industry has already brought the price down by huge amounts (panels now cost half or a third of the price in just 3 years), and the government is going to cut microFIT any day now (they’ve already started dragging their feet with applications).

That lead CD to ask the follow-up question:

“Why does Ontario Hydro care so much about getting solar off the ground when they’re not making money on it?”

The short answer is that it’s because it’s the right thing to do.

The longer answer is to first up realize that Ontario Hydro is not an independent company: this isn’t Capital Power or Emera or Fortis offering money to install panels, it’s the government. And sometimes the government subsidizes things for social rather than strictly economic reasons.

Consider other breaks offered recently for green technologies:

The federal government was offering up to $2000 to buy a hybrid car, until just a year or two later, they changed their minds and took that incentive away. Many provincial governments (including Ontario) also offered rebates of several thousand dollars ($2k in Ontario) for hybrid cars (and similarly, no PST on bicycles). Those rebates by our government as well as others around the world — notably the US, which had various tax credits as well as other incentives to buy hybrids like free parking and HOV lane passes — were very helpful in getting this fuel-efficient technology off the ground. Hybrids are now reasonably mainstream, something like 4% of the overall passenger car market, and still growing quickly. However back 10 years ago, a hybrid was a very difficult sell: they were more expensive than a traditional car, there was a lot of uncertainty over how reliable they would end up being (a sentiment that still persists, even with over a decade of experience), how much they would cost to maintain… and all that was on the back of gas prices that were still measured in cents per litre. So those subsidies helped level the playing field until the cost of the cars and the price of gas brought us to where we are today, where $1.20/L looks cheap, and it seems stupid to buy anything other than a Prius. And while I tend to focus on how awesomely quiet my car is and the gas savings, the fact is that the gas savings is in part a side-effect of the hybrid’s original goal, which was to reduce pollution — an important social goal in an urban country.

So back to the solar subsidy: by guaranteeing a certain return on the panels, people became interested in purchasing them. The government could stand up and say that, for at least the next few years, there would be a certain level of demand for panels, which allowed panel manufacturers to go to their investors and raise money to build factories and invest in R&D to make more efficient and cheaper panel technologies, and basically got the whole ball rolling. Ontario and Germany really lead that area*, and factories really started churning out panels to meet the new demand, and to build capacity in the hopes that a certain superpower with a lot of desert would also decide to start subsidizing solar energy in the future (let’s call it “Nerizonda”). In just a few years we’ve gone from a world where you had to be an eco-nerd and know someone at NASA just to get a panel, to one where salesmen call up on a weekly basis to let you know how much the panels are on sale this week. Indeed, the build-up has been so rapid that now we’re facing a glut (exacerbated by Germany and other nations scaling back their subsidies for new projects now that they can declare victory), and panels can in some cases be had for below cost.

Now, the solar subsidy could have come in many forms: the government could have directly purchased the panels themselves, and installed them in parks or on government buildings, or even installed government-owned panels on private homes. They could have subsidized the purchase price directly. Instead, they chose this strange scheme that involved all the overhead of metering the panels, and making regular payments (or deducting from the power bill) for 20 years running. And that decision comes down to politics: the budget looks cleaner with a long-standing trickle of money for a program than it does with a big buy over just a few years, even if the total cost is the same. Furthermore, to give Dalton a little bit of credit for being political operators, there was going to be a big delay between starting the MicroFIT program and when the bulk of the payments would start rolling out the door, and in-between was another election. So for the 2011 election, hardly any microFIT payments would have shown up on the budget, and by the ~2016 elections, the program will have ended; off the radar either way.

It’s also important to note that there were several levels to the FIT program: for large commercial solar farms, the rate was less than half what an individual could get under the MicroFIT program. So from a “this is how much OPG expects power to cost in the future” point of view, that might be the upper-end figure to use. Why pay more for smaller systems? Several good reasons:

  • In part as an experiment. People have been talking about distributed generation for years, and the government wanted some data on what that would actually look like. Which meant that you had to find some way to get people to put some kind of generator in their homes, and test out how well the load-balancing and monitoring systems worked. So getting solar out there in particular was a bit of a bonus on that front.
  • In part to raise awareness. You can give money to a big corporation like Samsung to build a giant solar farm in the middle of nowhere, and accomplish your goal of bootstrapping the industry. But if you can get it on people’s homes they’ll see it every day, they’ll talk about it with their neighbours, and it’s also nice to pay your own citizens rather than a faceless corporation. From a political point of view, that also helps make it an issue you can focus on in an election if you want to.
  • In part for long-term efficiency synergies. A giant centralized solar farm is a great way to quickly get solar power on the grid if that’s your only goal. But one of the beautiful things about solar is that its nicely correlated with peak air conditioner demand: just as the sun is beating on your house is also when your panels are at their maximum output. That benefit could potentially go away if Toronto is getting sun while the solar farm on Lake Huron is experiencing clouds. Though you need more inverters and monitors, you don’t need any transmission capacity to be built or maintained, since the generation is right at the site of demand. And on top of all that, you get the synergies that come with rooftop solar: the panel itself helps to shade a house and keeps it cooler than a typical asphalt shingle, further reducing peak power demand.
  • In part for short-term inefficiencies. The fastest, most efficient way to get X number of panels installed and tied into the power grid is to go with a giant centralized solar farm: make braces and connect panels in assembly-line fashion in a consistent, controlled environment. You can even bulldoze any hills if you can’t find a naturally flat spot. But when you’re introducing a program in the middle of a recession, maybe you don’t necessarily want to be as efficient as possible, maybe you also want a little bit of economic stimulus for good measure: help create jobs for guys to crawl around roofs and take measurements and figure out where the bolts should go.

As for that central question of why? Well, because it’s a green, emission-free, renewable energy source. It has some side-benefits (correlated with air conditioner demand, cooling synergies), but also some negatives (inconsistent, extremely difficult to plan power loads with, expensive even after the cost reductions from recent investments). It has a good image, and getting to some single-digit percent of our power mix being wind and solar is something we can do a little chest-thumping over (never underestimate the importance of chest-thumping, it’s a trillion-dollar industry). Plus, innovations that are created for stationary solar may translate to other applications (space systems, remote self-sustainability).

* – I’m going from memory here folks, apologies if I forgot any other pioneers.

The Social Status of Scientists

November 28th, 2011 by Potato

A bit of a strange article in the Globe says that: “Mr. Cowen believes that overcoming stagnation will require an increase in the social status of scientists relative to other professions, so that our best and brightest will not prefer law or finance or view university science and math as a prerequisite for careers in medicine or dentistry.” I don’t think the social status of scientists is the problem, unless that’s code for “paying them better and revamping the career path.”

Now, I could probably get behind a “science tax” but I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell in the real world. Heck, it would probably be counter-productive, and lead to public outrage against science.

So aside from paying them better, what do you think could be done to “raise the social status” of scientists?