Advanced Nonsense: The Politics Of Alternative Energy

by Jack Lifton on January 14, 2009

in Legislation, Metals & Minerals, News Analysis

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On Sunday, January 11, 2009, the London Times published an essay by one of its most prominent regular economics columnists, the American Irwin Stelzer. He is a conservative on the value of public vs. private ownership and control of the means of production, and I generally agree with his analyses. I couldn’t possibly agree with him more with regard to one of his concluding paragraphs in the Times article entitled: “$1 trillion package has something for everyone.”

Obama’s appointees to the energy and environmental regulatory agencies will work to prevent new coal plants from being built, and to arrange financial and regulatory subsidies for wind and solar power. Pressure on the car industry will be unrelenting and irresistible. In hock to the government, the big three Detroit automakers will have to respect the wishes of congressmen who have never sold a car, and produce green cars in which consumers have shown little interest. Change there will be, but whether it will contribute to economic recovery and long-term growth, or impede it, is an open question.

I would like to add to the above, that I have noted that deceptively simple phrases to describe and therefore supposedly to help us to understand complex phenomena are all the rage in our contemporary sound-bite utilizing, attention deficit reinforcing, society. Karl Marx would be glad to know that one of his philosophical/psychological tenets has been adopted by the poorly educated personnel of the media and its punditry; they have discovered that by just repeating a phrase often enough it becomes established for their non-discriminating readers and auditors as the “truth.”

We therefore now have “global warming” used to describe not only any rise in average temperature anywhere in the world for a time period selected carefully to illustrate whatever point of view is being professed, but, astonishingly, the same phrase is also used to note cooling and record cold anywhere as somehow predicted by the very existence of “global warming.” I note today that we now have wide use of the wonderfully non-informative and non-descriptive phrase, “advanced batteries”, to describe experimental and frequently peripheral science, i.e. inquiries that are not uniformly reproducible – sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t – that cannot and do not in fact result in an advance over the practical technology in place. The morally undefined philosophical/sociological term “better for the purpose intended” is assumed in all such references to “advanced” technologies of any kind. If you’re skeptical about my point, then explain to me please why an atomic weapon is an advance over a bomb constructed with chemical explosives.

It has turned out that the rapid changes in technology of the past generation, have left journalists far behind in their economic understanding of what is practical and what is advanced. This has spawned a genuine advance, a better form of hucksterism. The scientists and engineers whose agenda it is to get funding for their projects now sell the press, and through it hopefully the public, on the idea that their particular technology or discovery represents an advance and is therefore better. The logic is “all advances are improvements….”

Of course there is always the problem of economics, but since economic analysis does not lend itself to sound bites it is ignored by the media.

Advanced Nonsense: The Politics of Alternate Energy

We live in the age of Harry Potter solutions to economic problems. This means that our politicians and financial elites get to ignore the physical laws that have been discovered to govern, without exception, the utilization and conversion of energy from one form to another. Our leaders also feign complete indifference to the actual measured quantities of, and the accessibility to us of, the natural resources of energy, metals, and minerals which the earth possesses. Finally they claim that the most basic of economic laws, that of supply and demand, is too complex to be understood except by a few who are skilled with the use of computers. The popular song asks “do you believe in magic?” It would be less mellifluous but more accurate to ask “do you believe in the bullshit coming out of Washington and Wall Street?”

The political bias of the mainstream media (MSM) is so obvious, that its readership has nosedived to now be constituted of just those partisans who are true believers in whatever cause the newspaper, magazine, or broadcaster supports. The nonsensical and so-called financial analysis in the same publications, has now entered the realm of pure fiction unless you filter it through the political bias already mentioned, and a cultural elitism that simply reeks of the philosophy that one mustn’t question one’s ‘betters.’

Once serious, i.e. relatively balanced in their reporting, publications such as Newsweek and Time now have the form and, more and more, the sound bite and snippet style content of graphic novels, the euphemism that has replaced the more accurate term “comic books.” The New York Times, for example, is so incredibly biased, and generally inaccurate as well, as to be unreadable. It masquerades as serious by publishing biased, factually inaccurate, polemics.

In my own travels, I once had the occasion to watch Nicolai Ceausescu speak on Romanian television for 6 hours on the glory (accruing to his masterful leadership) of meeting factory production schedules for tractors in a five year plan. The difference between socialist Romania in the 1980s and oligarchic New York in the 2000s, is that everyone in Romania knew that the factory production figures were made up to fit the leader’s analysis and that; in any case, the tractors were crap that needed fixing every day. The New York Times thinks that its crap analysis doesn’t stink and so never needs fixing.

Why should investors in minor metals care about any of this? Because they are getting nonsensical “analysis” of future supply and demand – the key factors to future price – from the glib ignoramuses populating the airwaves, the press, and the seats of financial and political power.

Investors in minor metals need only to look at the results of following the advice of the self-centered, greed-driven financial wizards and mining analysts of Wall Street firms, in combination with the crisis solution agendas of the single minded, i.e. driven solely by the desire to be re-elected, hereditary politicians and their appointees in Washington, to know that not a single one of these elites knows even how to salvage their own assets from the current massive destruction of confidence, credit, and wealth except by gaming the system. They do this by using insider knowledge and connections, thus breaking the very rules and laws they themselves have written or sworn to enforce, to take the risk out of the equation even though those actions are always unethical and mostly illegal. I am speaking of men like Christopher Dodd and Charles Rangel.

I’m going to give you some short term and some long term investing advice based not on what the political and financial elites say, but on the results of what they have done, are doing, and say they will continue to do:

Note first that Wall Street and Washington types believe in magic, not science. Even more important for investors is the fact that America’s elites, in particular those who have never worked for a living nor had the need to do so, such as Al Gore or HRH Princess Caroline of New York, only admit into their inner circles, for basking in the radiance of their presences, those who, like them, do not have a clue about the economy that created the America they dominate or the economies that are growing, successfully, in China, India, Brazil, and Russia (BRIC). The elites believe that it is not important to take notice of the fact that the world’s strongest economies, from the point of view of future growth, are all based on two paramount factors:

  • Domestic self-sufficiency in, or control over, the exploration for and the production of natural resources of metals, minerals, and energy, and
  • The creation and maintenance of a domestic OEM heavy industrial sector that can manufacture consumer goods such as motor vehicles, aircraft, locomotives, ocean-going freight carrying vessels, construction equipment, mining machinery, and home appliances, and is always ready to produce armaments for national defense.

The above two factors are the reasons that the United States entered the 21st century as the world’s largest economy, and the only military power able to project sufficient force to win a war to any location on Earth. Americans believe that the American form of republican government, in combination with our type of free market economy, is what put our country where it is today. The BRIC economies believe that the two factors enumerated above are the real reasons that America grew to its present pre-eminence. They believe that if established by them individually, such factors will underpin and sustain them as great financial and military powers and that such will not depend on whether or not they are politically monarchies, dictatorships, republics, or democracies, and will not depend on whether their economic systems are free market or command economies or a mixture of both.

Incredibly, the American elite and self-perpetuating ruling class has bet against the BRIC economies being right. They have chosen until now to bet the wealth and security of the USA on a fantasy globalization, based on a fantasy global adherence to free market principles. These are principles that not only do not operate within the USA, but do not operate at all among the BRIC economies, all of which are focused only on improving their own positions in the global economy no matter what the consequences to any other states.

It may well be fatal to the perpetuation of American power, to raise the wall of protectionism at this point in our history. Yet the latest person elected to the office of President represents a party the interests of which are dominated by purchasing, through paying above market prices for labor, the votes of the self-serving unions, and economically- as well as historically-illiterate elites and political leaders, whose only interest  is in the accumulation of personal wealth or perpetual re-election or both. All of these people are what the Soviets used to refer to as “cosmopolitans”, defined as individuals who put the interest of a global polity ahead of their responsibility to the well being of the state in which they live.

So, you can make money in the market by watching for the resonance, that is to say, the reinforcing, of the intersection of magic technologies and the attention of America’s ruling political elites. Magic technologies are those which solve problems without taking into consideration the availability of the raw materials and engineering processes required to build them, or the economics of their production and distribution.

In the short term I suggest that you invest in the fantasy alternate energy plays. The market will respond to the Obama alternate energy, “green,” stimulus by bidding up the price of the shares of the companies that claim they are working on ”advanced’ anything such as rechargeable batteries, wind generation of electricity or solar energy conversion.

My model for this advice to you, is the immediate reaction of the market to the money authorized to be wasted by the Bush administration, in conjunction, politically, with the self-serving Pelosi-Reid ‘led’ government, on subsidizing the American owned and operated OEM automotive industry for another month or two. The Wall Street ‘market makers’ responded to this destruction (waste) of wealth by bidding up the price of GM stock over just a few days to twice what it was selling for at the beginning of the phony time period during which the government was ‘considering its options.’

As I am writing this, I note that it has already begun to sink in to the ‘investors’ that the long term prospects of the car makers are not really very bright, if they say that they cannot survive even a couple of days without massive access to the Federal teat. Of course a cynic might just think that the short sellers are exercising their ‘judgment.’ After all, a swing of 16% in one day, such as GM had late in 2008, can make a Wall Street ‘professional’ a great deal of money.

Returning to the discussion of fantasy green energy plays: get out of investments in the future of companies subsidized by government as soon as it becomes obvious that there is going to have to be a second stimulus package given to them. This will be apparent when there are no results from the ‘advanced’ work and all of the companies say that ‘they are on the right track’ but need more money. This should take about 6 months, but as auditors look into, or make, the cost-benefit analyses of ‘advanced’ or ‘game changing’ technologies, the collapse of market interest may occur in a much shorter time.

Switch your money at that point, when you smell the need for a second bailout, to those surviving companies specializing in producing the raw materials for existing, workable, and economically practical technologies such as, in the case of the vehicle propulsion battery space, lead-acid (SLI and traction), nickel cadmium, and nickel metal hydride batteries. I would also then invest in lithium-ion (storage) batteries, wind for off-grid use, silicon-based solar, both crystalline and amorphous, and uranium- and thorium-based nuclear electric power generation.

A final word about ‘advanced’ technology development

As a young man, I once heard the best politician ever to come out of Minnesota, Hubert Horatio Humphrey (DFL-Mn) give some legislative drafting advice.  I was in law school at the time and I was in a legislative drafting class. Vice President Humphrey, as he then was, said that in the 1950s, he and some other like-minded liberal senators were trying to draft legislation to expand subsidized college education to include not only G.I.s, but also the poor and disadvantaged who were otherwise qualified. The senate majority leader at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tx), told Humphrey that if he wished to get the backing of the (Democrat Party) majority for a bill that would help not just poor whites but also poor blacks, he would need to label it so that questioning the bill automatically meant questioning the patriotism of the questioning senator himself. Humphrey said that Johnson took a copy of the proposed bill and wrote in front of the title word ‘Education’, the two magic words “National Defense.” The rest is (legislative) history.

Note well, that the stimulus package in the Eisenhower administration was the National Defense Highway Act, which created the interstate highway system. Michigan was the first state to spend a billion dollars on the extensions of the interstate highways that went through Michigan, and on the state highway “feeder” roads for that system. It was this ‘stimulus’ package, not any advances in automotive technology, that ignited the boom years for the OEM automotive, construction equipment , and mining machinery industries. The reductions in time necessary, to get from the suburb to a job in the city, and to get food and raw materials from where they were produced to where they were consumed, ignited the dramatic growth of the United States outside of the East and Midwest.

This could have been accomplished alternately by building national, intra-city, and intercity railroads as Europe did at the time, but OEM automotive industry politics in the USA overcame railroad politics, and both mass transit and freight carrying passed from being carried by durable steel wheels on durable steel rails, to being transported on disposable rubber tires on concrete highways, which needed constant attention – thus creating jobs and the need for enormous quantities of raw materials all across the country. What a deal! Consumerism was born, lived long, and prospered.

Without further ado, I am going to now list for you a group of companies related by the products which they are trying to develop, their business goals, and their agendas. I think you can make money by investing in them but solely on the basis of their relationship to the political goals of the Obama agenda for alternate energy. These investments are based on the truism that in allocating your investments, timing is just as important always as project selection.

On December 18, 2008, the Wall Street Journal carried a story based on a press release that day announcing that

“[L]eading U.S. battery and advanced materials companies, with support from one of the country’s largest national laboratories [The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory {just outside of Chicago}], have formed the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell manufacture, known as the “Alliance,” to manufacture advanced lithium ion battery cells for transportation applications in the United States.”

[emphases mine].

The Alliance is trying to get a lot of taxpayer money to accomplish a completely amorphous goal. The members want to develop some fantasy process technology which will be flexible, so that it is adaptable to the mass production of whichever of the 26 lithium ion battery technologies now being “researched’ turns out to be the one that is safe, durable, long lived, and economical for the electrification of a limited range of passenger carrying vehicles. The electrification of long range, high capacity freight-carrying vehicles is a topic that is not even whispered about; it is too difficult a task for the foreseeable future.

Note well, how many times the word “advanced” appears in just the first paragraph of the press release. Note also that the Alliance is centered upon a U.S. Department of Energy Laboratory operated near the actual home of the soon-to-be sitting President of the U.S., so that the project’s money will flow to and through the new President’s home state. The fact that funding for this particular laboratory has lately been drying up is, of course, coincidental. The fact that the project would make more sense if it were directed by the NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, is also irrelevant.

The Alliance is thus founded on that most fundamental of American political practices: bringing home the bacon. It will almost certainly get its first allocation of Federal funding early in the Obama presidency and will get more money as its research advances.

The members of the Alliance are:

  • 3M (NYSE:MMM)
  • ActaCell (Private?)
  • All Cell Technologies (Private)
  • Altair Nanotechnologies (NasdaqCM: ALTI)
  • Dontech Global (Private)
  • Eagle-Picher Corporation (Private)
  • EnerSys (NYSE:ENS)
  • Envia Systems, (Private)
  • FMC (NYSE:FMC)
  • MicroSun Technologies (Private)
  • Mobius Power (Private)
  • Silyte (Private)
  • Superior Graphite (private)
  • Townsend Advanced Energy (Private)

Note well the main reason that companies seek Federal funding; it is because private funding has no political agenda and is therefore not interested in taking the risk of getting little or no return based on

  1. the state of development and the quality of the company’s technology;
  2. the quality (i.e., competence perceived or demonstrated) of its management, or
  3. whether or not the size of the losses incurred by the company so far are such that they can never be recovered in a rational amount of time.

Additionally note how many of the above companies are private, even the one that has a long and famous history, Eagle-Picher. The fact that so many of the alliance members are private, is most likely an indication that they fail one or all of the above enumerated tests that private capital requires them to pass.

To be fair, some of them may have been ‘taken’ private by a fund, in order to fatten them up for an IPO or to consolidate them with another company for a more substantial IPO. No matter how these companies got to their present inability to proceed without an amount of capital that was not available to them as constituted from the private market, they are all now in the same boat. They cannot raise enough capital individually to both continue the development of whatever battery technology they have chosen as the one, and to engineer a manufacturing process suitable for mass production.

Note well that EaglePicher, Enersys, Microsun Technologies, and Superior Graphite are all pursuing or manufacturing other battery types besides lithium-based ones. Even so, they are in the same boat as the others; they do not have, nor can they raise sufficient capital to engineer mass production techniques, and to build a flexible facility with the capacity to mass produce automotive power train batteries.

The Alliance is not the sum of its parts; it is a group of undercapitalized companies, which have come together to grab a piece of the alternate energy pie in the hopes that the pie will be an open-ended feast, allowing them to keep getting more money even if and when they go down the wrong path or make a mistake. The free market is very harsh and cruel to such supplicants, but politicians allocate money to ensure their own re-election, not to serve a public good, so the Alliance is now on to a good thing. If they get public money they will not have to compete in the market place for it, and if anyone or more of them is successful they will not have to pay back their part of the ‘funding.’ Thus private enterprise as a driver of innovation and economic advantage will be driven out of the market for battery advancement, probably therefore killing the possibility of developing an ‘advanced’ battery system.

In any case, my advice is simple: if you see that the Alliance is going to receive funding then buy shares in those members of the alliance that are public and then watch the news carefully for mention of positive results by any member of the Alliance, listed publicly or not. Such news will cause the market to rise for whatever play there is in the Alliance. I would sell any Alliance-related shares that I own if they go up by a predetermined amount, say 10%, and then buy them back when the news quiets down and the market loses interest as no news is forthcoming.

You will know when the Alliance has run through its funding. This will be when stories begin to follow one another that a breakthrough is imminent, but that some further federal lard may need to be spread on the stale bread. The available stock will drop on this negative news. Choose a bottom and buy. When the Department of Energy announces that it will provide the additional funding let the stock rise to your target gain and dump it like an overheating lithium ion laptop battery.

I suspect that we will see one or two cycles of this “Advanced Nonsense” this year, 2009. After that it will become obvious that the project is nothing more than an open-ended subsidy program, and the DoE will try to get out of it, not by canceling it and admitting an error on the part of the administration, but by trying to auction off its ‘share’ of any technology or engineering process development to private equity.

The ticking time-bomb for this whole exercise in government mismanagement of the development of “advanced” technology, is of course the progress, if any, being made simultaneously by companies like America’s A123, France’s SAFT [Paris: SAFT.PA], and Korea’s LG [KSE: 066570.KS].

The three companies named above have all been selected by an OEM automotive supplier to develop a lithium ion technology. A123 and SAFT have been paired with Johnson Controls International (JCI), the world’s largest manufacturer of lead-acid SLI batteries, in order to have JCI ready to engineer a mass production operation for a successful lithium ion technology should one occur. SAFT and LG have each also been mass-producing batteries for many years. None of them, even though they may plan to mass produce lithium ion batteries for vehicular power trains in the USA, will join the “Alliance,” because they don’t want to share any competitive advantage either in battery technology or battery mass production technology with the small, undercapitalized, jonnies-come-lately. It is therefore very important to watch the press releases and progress of these three. If a car such as the GM Chevrolet Volt is introduced into the market and performs well with a battery from A123, SAFT, or LG or any combination of them, and it is announced that JCI or, perhaps, EXIDE will put the battery into mass production, then the purpose of the Alliance and all of its work will be perceived as valueless, as will the price of the shares of any of the members of the Alliance at that point – even if this is unfair.

A123 was supposed to launch an IPO last month; it did not, for obvious reasons. SAFT and LG are both listed on their home country exchanges. For the moment then I would take any profits I made by investing in the Alliance play I have here discussed, and buy shares of JCI, SAFT, and LG as a hedge.

I have not discussed the relative merits of any lithium ion battery technologies, because they don’t really matter when an investment has become totally politicized and has left the arena of the free market.

With “advanced” battery technology and the Alliance for developing and manufacturing it, play the politics. The hereditary political and financial elites of this country do not know and do not wish to know anything about technology; they will throw other people’s money at anything that buys them votes and power. The rest of us may as well make some of our own money back in the meantime.

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