Why No One Wants to Pay for the Green Transition
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Why No One Wants to Pay for the Green Transition

Investors and consumers balk at costs of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, highlighting painful economics of climate mitigation

By GREG IP
Sat, Dec 2, 2023 7:00amGrey Clock 4 min

In the past few years, Washington and Wall Street started fantasising that the transition to net-zero carbon emissions could be an economic bonanza. “When I think climate change, I think jobs,” President Biden said. When Wall Street heard green energy, it saw profits. As Ford Motor launched an electric Mustang and pickup truck, its market value topped $100 billion for the first time.

This year the fantasy ended. With electric vehicle demand falling short of expectations, manufacturers are dialling back production and buying back stock instead. Offshore wind developers have canceled projects. The S&P Global Clean Energy Index has fallen 30% this year. Ford’s market cap is down to $42 billion.

This doesn’t mean the transition to net zero is over. Officials meeting this week at the United Nations climate conference are just as worried about climate change. Renewable energy continues to expand. In the very long run, it is still the case that economic welfare will be higher with less global warming.

But the economics of getting to net zero remain, fundamentally, dismal: Someone has to pay for it, and shareholders and consumers decided this year it wouldn’t be them.

Politicians and the public tend to think all investment is good for growth, an error that leads to all sorts of muddled thinking about climate.

Technological transformations are positive supply shocks: a new, more efficient technology comes along, and investment naturally gravitates toward this new technology because it is profitable.

By contrast, the green transition is driven by public policy. It is “a negative supply shock, with an accompanying need to finance investments whose profitability cannot be taken for granted,” French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry wrote in a report commissioned by the French prime minister and released in English in November. “By putting a price—financial or implicit—on a free resource (the climate), the transition increases production costs, with no guarantee that the reduction in energy costs will eventually offset them, while the investments it calls for do not increase productive capacity but must nevertheless be financed.”

Pisani-Ferry, who is affiliated with the Bruegel think tank in Europe and the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, is an uncommonly clear thinker on this issue.

He notes the transition involves hefty capital spending today to replace fossil-fuel consumption in the future. Pisani-Ferry estimates a middle-class French family would spend 44% of annual disposable income for a heat pump, and 120% for an electric car. These investments boost demand, but don’t leave families better off since they simply do the same thing as what they replace. And if taxes rise to pay for these investments, families will be worse off, financially.

“It would take an incredible act of blindness to fail to recognise that climate change is happening, that it is—and will increasingly become—severely damaging,” he writes. “It would also be incredibly flippant to claim that this urgent and imperative action will have no economic cost by 2030.”

The most efficient way to redirect consumption and investment from fossil fuels to zero-emissions energy is a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system. Europe has adopted such a system plus ever more stringent goals, especially after Russia cut off natural-gas supplies following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But as the cost has grown, so has public discontent, from France’s “yellow vest” protests in 2018 to last week’s first-place finish in Dutch elections by the far-right Freedom Party, which wants to ditch all climate regulations.

U.S. leaders have rejected any federal tax or fee on carbon. Biden’s solution is to not ask consumers to pay for the green transition; his Inflation Reduction Act pours, by some estimates, roughly $1 trillion into electric vehicles, renewable energy, hydrogen and other zero-emissions technology.

Subsidies can play a vital role by giving green energy time to scale up and innovate until it is competitive with fossil fuels. But the IRA has been undermined by extraneous conditions such as made-in-America requirements, and by green tech inflation—a byproduct of the IRA itself, which helped fuel demand.

Finally, Biden’s investment agenda was designed for the pre pandemic era when low interest rates flattered the financial profile of renewable energy investment and federal budget deficits were less likely to crowd out private investment. Those assumptions no longer apply.

For years, the cost of wind and solar plummeted, but since 2021 they have risen, according to investment bank Lazard. Interest rates are an important factor, which Lazard estimates affect offshore wind and solar more than natural gas.

Many developers can no longer economically supply power at the rates previously agreed to. Denmark’s Orsted, the world’s largest wind developer, took a $4 billion charge in early November for pulling out of two projects off New Jersey. The company today is worth 75% less than in early 2021.

ClearView Energy Partners estimates about 30% of state-contracted offshore wind capacity has been canceled, and another 25% may be rebid. ClearView analyst Timothy Fox noted lawmakers often mandate increased renewables, but utility regulators must approve the contracts, and one of their primary considerations is cost to ratepayers.

“I am an unapologetic economic regulator,” Diane Burman, a member of the New York state Public Service Commission, said in October as the commission refused to pay wind developers more. De carbonisation and grid improvement must proceed “with costs in mind.”

The financial appeal of EVs has similarly faded. Tesla proved making them can be profitable, but so far it looks like an outlier. Tesla captured the lion’s share of early adopters—drivers willing to put up with the cost and recharging hassle of an EV in return for performance and green credentials. For most drivers, the trade off still doesn’t work—even with subsidies.

True, the IRA has spurred a boom in EV and battery factories. But a successful green transition requires that those factories be profitable, and Detroit’s automakers are still losing money on every EV they sell.

EVs should eventually require less labor and thus be cheaper to build than gasoline-powered vehicles. But auto workers are no more willing to pay for the green transition than consumers or investors. In its recent strike, the United Auto Workers extracted commitments that make it even harder for Detroit to make money on EVs.

In a sobering report this week, Morgan Stanley auto analysts estimated the average non financial company in the S&P 500 spends its market cap in capital expenditure and research and development in about 50 years. GM and Ford spend theirs in 1.9 and 2.6 years, respectively. “This cannot continue, in our view.”

The green transition remains critical, but its path will be fraught until someone agrees to pay for it.



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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.

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This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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