For Big Oil’s Future, Look To Big Tobacco’s Past
There’s plenty of money to be made from oil before the dirty fuel is no longer needed, just as there has been from cigarettes.
There’s plenty of money to be made from oil before the dirty fuel is no longer needed, just as there has been from cigarettes.
If you want to know the future of Big Oil, look to the past of Big Tobacco. Depending on who you believe, they will be either greenwashed money machines or transformed businesses dedicated to reversing the damage done by their old products to the planet and health. Confusingly, they might be both.
From the 1980s until a few years ago, Big Tobacco was a money machine. Cigarette sales fell a little pretty much every year, but prices rose more than enough to compensate and profit margins were, well, to die for. New technology changed everything. The development of e-cigarettes, and to a lesser extent heated tobacco, overthrew the business model and the marketing. Now, Big Tobacco is trying to present itself as a leader on environmental, social and governance issues—and even health.
“We think of ourselves as having an ‘H+’ ESG strategy: ‘H’ for health,” says Kingsley Wheaton, chief marketing officer at British American Tobacco, or BAT, the biggest tobacco company by sales. “It’s the sine qua non of our transformation.”
ESG, environmental, social and governance investing, has swept into the world of finance and according to its adherents can help change the world. I’ve taken a critical look at the ESG trend in a series of Streetwise columns. Tobacco offers a guide because 40 years ago it faced similar challenges from investors who took a moral stance against its products and governments who wanted to tax and regulate it out of existence.
Oil has proved as addictive for the economy as nicotine is to smokers. Environmentalists and governments want to wean customers on to alternatives, especially electric cars but potentially also hydrogen or simply lower consumption. Just as the prospect of ever-increasing regulations, combined with limits on marketing, made it almost impossible to launch a new tobacco company, the prospect of action on fossil fuels has hit investment in new drilling. Many investors believe the limited expansion of supply means high oil prices could last.
The oil industry and its investors are now split between the two approaches taken by Big Tobacco.
On one side are those who think the route to lower oil consumption will look like tobacco did from the 1980s to the 2000s. Volumes will fall but higher prices will boost profit margins. Addicted customers meant that cigarette sales continued even when marketing spending was slashed due to legal restrictions. Gasoline sales will continue for many years, but oil companies might not spend the vast sums they did in the past exploring and drilling new wells, leading to higher prices and fatter margins even as existing wells are run down.
As with tobacco, this strategy cannot last forever—but if governments are serious about their 2050 net-zero emissions promises, there’s no future in drilling anyway. And in the meantime the oil companies could pay shareholders the fat dividends offered for decades by tobacco stocks.
Most of the firms following this strategy are privately-held, buying assets being sold off by listed companies trying to cut their emissions. In practice, emissions simply continue under new ownership. But creating a standalone limited-life oil producer was part of the pitch of hedge fund activist Daniel Loeb, who is pushing to break up British oil major Shell.
On the other side are oil majors, mainly in Europe, who think the future involves a steady switch from oil to new energy such as wind farms. Just as with Big Tobacco recently, they are using some of the profits from selling oil to pour money into the new areas.
Like Big Tobacco, these oil companies trumpet their environmental projects, as well as social projects and corporate governance. That disgusts activists, who label it “greenwashing,” designed to distract customers and investors from the harm they do. BAT even removed the word “tobacco” from its brand in 2020, as well as dropping the tobacco leaf from its logo and adding the slogan “A Better Tomorrow.”
“Despite all the prominence the newly re-branded BAT is placing on ESG, what is quite clear is that although the leopard may have changed the colours of its spots from black to green, BAT is still a leopard,” says Andy Rowell from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath in England.
Mr. Wheaton bridled at the suggestion that its efforts were all about distraction, during an interview at BAT’s London headquarters. “If you knew the sheer energy that goes into building the new business you wouldn’t think it was greenwashing,” he said. “When you leave the office I’m not going to say ‘hahaha, he believed all of it’.”
At least some of the agencies that rate companies on ESG characteristics do believe it. BAT last year was ranked as third-best in the FTSE 100 by Refinitiv, and Sustainalytics, part of Morningstar, rates it medium risk, 88th out of 598 companies it rates in what it calls the “food products” industry globally. S&P Global thinks BAT is among the best tobacco companies, while MSCI doesn’t buy the story, rating BAT as only average within the tobacco industry. But MSCI thinks Shell is great for an oil company, giving it AA, its second-best rating, while Refinitiv says Shell has the best governance in the world.
The historic arguments used by both industries developed the same way: first, denial (of cancer or climate change), then fierce lobbying campaigns to head off restrictive laws, in some cases triggering accusations of outright bribery. The current argument is that people will want or need cigarettes and fossil fuels for many years, so they need to be provided – and are better provided by a big public company than by private firms with no transparency.
Some in Big Tobacco have reached the acceptance stage, that eventually cigarettes will vanish, and their business needs to change or die. Not every oil company is there yet, but the debate is on. Shell and others in Europe are spending heavily on change. But at least some investors prefer the die option, with fat profits to be made along the way and perhaps a longer life than environmentalists wish.
ESG investors expecting big carbon emitters to get their just deserts should think again. There’s plenty of money to be made from oil before the dirty fuel is no longer needed, just as there has been from cigarettes. And that money might end up going to investors who just don’t care about ESG.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Jan 27, 2022.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Food prices continue to rise at a rapid pace, surprising central banks and pressuring debt-laden governments
LONDON—Fresh out of an energy crisis, Europeans are facing a food-price explosion that is changing diets and forcing consumers across the region to tighten their belts—literally.
This is happening even though inflation as a whole is falling thanks to lower energy prices, presenting a new policy challenge for governments that deployed billions in aid last year to keep businesses and households afloat through the worst energy crisis in decades.
New data on Wednesday showed inflation in the U.K. fell sharply in April as energy prices cooled, following a similar pattern around Europe and in the U.S. But food prices were 19.3% higher than a year earlier.
The continued surge in food prices has caught central bankers off guard and pressured governments that are still reeling from the cost of last year’s emergency support to come to the rescue. And it is pressuring household budgets that are also under strain from rising borrowing costs.
In France, households have cut their food purchases by more than 10% since the invasion of Ukraine, while their purchases of energy have fallen by 4.8%.
In Germany, sales of food fell 1.1% in March from the previous month, and were down 10.3% from a year earlier, the largest drop since records began in 1994. According to the Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, meat consumption was lower in 2022 than at any time since records began in 1989, although it said that might partly reflect a continuing shift toward more plant-based diets.
Food retailers’ profit margins have contracted because they can’t pass on the entire price increases from their suppliers to their customers. Markus Mosa, chief executive of the Edeka supermarket chain, told German media that the company had stopped ordering products from several large suppliers because of rocketing prices.
A survey by the U.K.’s statistics agency earlier this month found that almost three-fifths of the poorest 20% of households were cutting back on food purchases.
“This is an access problem,” said Ludovic Subran, chief economist at insurer Allianz, who previously worked at the United Nations World Food Program. “Total food production has not plummeted. This is an entitlement crisis.”
Food accounts for a much larger share of consumer spending than energy, so a smaller rise in prices has a greater impact on budgets. The U.K.’s Resolution Foundation estimates that by the summer, the cumulative rise in food bills since 2020 will have amounted to 28 billion pounds, equivalent to $34.76 billion, outstripping the rise in energy bills, estimated at £25 billion.
“The cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it is just entering a new phase,” Torsten Bell, the research group’s chief executive, wrote in a recent report.
Food isn’t the only driver of inflation. In the U.K., the core rate of inflation—which excludes food and energy—rose to 6.8% in April from 6.2% in March, its highest level since 1992. Core inflation was close to its record high in the eurozone during the same month.
Still, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that food prices now constitute a “fourth shock” to inflation after the bottlenecks that jammed supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in energy prices that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and surprisingly tight labor markets.
Europe’s governments spent heavily on supporting households as energy prices soared. Now they have less room to borrow given the surge in debt since the pandemic struck in 2020.
Some governments—including those of Italy, Spain and Portugal—have cut sales taxes on food products to ease the burden on consumers. Others are leaning on food retailers to keep their prices in check. In March, the French government negotiated an agreement with leading retailers to refrain from price rises if it is possible to do so.
Retailers have also come under scrutiny in Ireland and a number of other European countries. In the U.K., lawmakers have launched an investigation into the entire food supply chain “from farm to fork.”
“Yesterday I had the food producers into Downing Street, and we’ve also been talking to the supermarkets, to the farmers, looking at every element of the supply chain and what we can do to pass on some of the reduction in costs that are coming through to consumers as fast as possible,” U.K. Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt said during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London.
The government’s Competition and Markets Authority last week said it would take a closer look at retailers.
“Given ongoing concerns about high prices, we are stepping up our work in the grocery sector to help ensure competition is working well,” said Sarah Cardell, who heads the CMA.
Some economists expect that added scrutiny to yield concrete results, assuming retailers won’t want to tarnish their image and will lean on their suppliers to keep prices down.
“With supermarkets now more heavily under the political spotlight, we think it more likely that price momentum in the food basket slows,” said Sanjay Raja, an economist at Deutsche Bank.
It isn’t entirely clear why food prices have risen so fast for so long. In world commodity markets, which set the prices received by farmers, food prices have been falling since April 2022. But raw commodity costs are just one part of the final price. Consumers are also paying for processing, packaging, transport and distribution, and the size of the gap between the farm and the dining table is unusually wide.
The BOE’s Bailey thinks one reason for the bank having misjudged food prices is that food producers entered into longer-term but relatively expensive contracts with fertilizer, energy and other suppliers around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their eagerness to guarantee availability at a time of uncertainty.
But as the pressures being placed on retailers suggest, some policy makers suspect that an increase in profit margins may also have played a role. Speaking to lawmakers, Bailey was wary of placing any blame on food suppliers.
“It’s a story about rebuilding margins that were squeezed in the early part of last year,” he said.
What goes up, must come down. But not necessarily this fast. Canadian marijuana stocks that posted staggering gains on Wednesday fell just as fast Thursday, while U.S. multistate operators, or MSOs, were dragged down, but fared a bit better. Tilray stock (ticker: TLRY) fell 49.7% Thursday, erasing all its gains from the prior trading day. Aphria stock (APHA) closed down …
Continue reading “Pot Stocks Are Getting Crushed. What You Need to Know.”
Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.