A Few Questions on Stranded Assets

Now for a post that’s a bit different from the usual rants about food or art:

‘Stranded Assets’ are a somewhat emotive topic that have moved from the relative backwater of Guardian-readership into mainstream investing thought.  The issue has been simmering away since about 2011, entwined with various fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, and headline-grabbing art performances.  Meanwhile, relatively quietly and in the more prosaic world of investment management, coalitions of investors, purely out of gimlet-eyed self-interest, have been pressuring the corporate world to take the threat of climate change more seriously.  With the 2015 COP21 climate-change conference in Paris, and Mark Carney’s widely-publicised intervention, the issue moved onto the front-pages.  We wanted to ask a few questions to assess how this issue might evolve, and how much, if any, is already priced into oil & gas stocks.

Is this a fringe issue or a real risk to investors?

Some investors, oil companies, and media have tried to paint the issue as something dreamt up by coddled, rich-world tree-huggers that has no relevance to actual portfolio allocation decisions.  While at one point this might have been true, it is no longer a gap-year fringe issue.  Look at BOE Governor Carney’s letter to insurers delivered at Lloyd’s in September 2015,  an HSBC research report from April 2015 on stranded assets, or Michael Bloomberg’s chairmanship of the Financial Stability Board (FSB) disclosure panel on climate-related financial risks.

What exactly is the financial risk?

There are at least 3 components to the financial risk to an investment portfolio.  Firstly, to the extent climate change causes substantial, secular changes to the global economy, most obviously a higher frequency of natural disasters (hurricanes, flooding, etc.), this could have implications for insurers’ liabilities as well as for broader portfolios with significant EM concentrations.  Much of these risks are concentrated in the significant equity/debt markets of Latin America and South/Southeast Asia.  So we are talking increasingly-frequent and large natural-disaster-related losses distributed across broad-market portfolios.

Secondly, if one believes that the 2° C global-warming target is something that, from a regulatory perspective, is likely to be enforced – meaning that most global regulators are likely to comply with their COP21 commitments to bring down emissions to a level consistent with this target – then it would appear that much of the world’s coal, oil, and gas reserves would be un-burnable.  Therefore, the reasoning goes, because the traded energy groups are partially valued using their hydrocarbon reserves, this would have significant negative implications for their market valuations.  In theory, if this regulatory response happened overnight, there would be a massive drop in energy group stocks, associated drops in utility shares, as well as companies that support the energy complex (pipes, pumps, etc.).  Given these sectors’ contribution (Vanguard’s all-world VT ETF is 13.7% invested in energy, basic materials, and utilities), there would be implications for broad indices, and therefore pensions, endowments.  Insurance companies, already exposed above on their liability side, may also run risks on assets.

Obviously this isn’t going to happen overnight. There are other caveats: technology to lower carbon emissions might improve – though, carbon capture & storage (‘CCS’) doesn’t appear to be going anywhere fast.  Also, much of the world’s oil & gas is owned by national oil companies (‘NOCs’) who aren’t investible anyway and operate in countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where the regulatory response to COP21 may be quite different from that in the US/EU.

Lastly, carbon risk is tied up with oil-price risk.  At current prices, much of the reserves of certain oil & gas companies is uneconomical to exploit – Russian Arctic oil, Canadian tar sands, shale all need prices between $80-120 range to be profitable.  These assets can be said to be, to a greater or lesser extent, economically stranded due to low oil prices.

How might this play out?

From a pragmatic perspective, the risk to portfolios lies over a 1-3 year horizon, as the regulatory response evolves.  The risk also lies in large institutional investors themselves placing pressure on companies, or indeed divesting, from fossil-fuel groups.  To the extent that investor coalitions, such as the IIGCC, which represents €13TN of assets, can gradually push energy companies to publish sensitivity analyses, at least the scale of the problem at an individual company level would become clearer.

At present, companies and equity analysts are able to assess the impact of prices on reserve valuation.  But it is much harder to disentangle the parallel effects of oil prices and climate-change regulation on the value of reserves.  Absent any other information, the base-case assumption might be that companies under pressure on carbon-emission regulation, would exploit their lowest-cost reserves first and mothball high-breakeven reserves.

In 2015/2016 there have been a number of high-profile divestments, particularly from coal groups, for instance by the Danish fund AP2, the Rockefeller Family Office, and the Norwegian Government Pension Fund.  There will undoubtedly be more – though it’s not clear that divestments, at least at the current rate, pose a significant portfolio threat to investors, since someone else buys those shares at the market price.

A game-changer could be if more SWFs joined Norway in either divesting or aggressively pushing for changes in company policies, not least because they are amongst the largest investors, with the most patient capital, and with potential access to infrastructure projects and assets that are not publicly traded.  Moreover, the biggest SWFs often belong to hydrocarbon exporters, who, one might imagine, would like to diversify their exposure away from energy.

China is another force to watch – in the 13th 5-year Plan, to be announced in March 2016 – there are expectations of significant initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and promote green technology.  The date often mentioned is 2030, when China’s carbon emissions are expected to peak, but until the Plan is actually announced it’s not clear what, if any, immediate steps are expected.

On the other hand, a more granular picture on regulatory response scenarios is provided in a paper from the Grantham Research Institute.  The interesting bit of it is as suspected – in what sense is it fair to ask EM countries, significantly poorer per-capita than the DMs, to bear the inevitable costs, howsoever pro-rated, of transitioning to a low-carbon environment?  Moreover, how reasonable is it to expect that countries who have short or non-existent histories of civil society/institutions, a record of policy reversals, endemic corruption, and weak states, will embark on, and deliver on, COP21 commitments that are intensely challenging, from institutional, legal, political, financial, and technological perspectives.  The report, euphemistically, highlights Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia as having ‘potential for increasing support [for implementing COP21 commitments]’.  Lest our SUV-driving North American friends pat themselves on the back, neither the U.S. nor Canada do much better in the report.  So it’s quite possible that, from a regulatory perspective, very little happens in the next few years; though that would seem to imply that the necessary adjustment to policies, and therefore investment portfolios, when it inevitably comes, will be that much more severe.

How have the oil & gas companies responded?

As stated above, the quality of disclosure and sensitivity analyses is presently most inadequate.  Even so, European majors score better – for instance, Shell, Total, Repsol, GALP all score highly on the Carbon Disclosure Project’s rankings. Chevron and Exxon Mobil are on record as being resistant to shareholder resolutions proposed in 2015.  However, Exxon Mobil did produce a climate-change disclosure report in 2014, albeit without any meaningful sensitivity analysis.  More specific information on company responses, including mining groups, can be found at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

Exxon Mobil’s 2016 energy outlook, which covers the period out to 2040, provided their take on how carbon reduction commitments might be met for the system as a whole, namely through dramatic reductions in carbon-dioxide and energy intensities (50% and 40% respectively).  According to the FT, this stretches credibility given apparent lack of political will, certainly in the US and even in the EU, as well as an inadequately high carbon price.  Looking at the price of American gasoline and the alacrity with which people drive in most of the U.S., outside Manhattan anyway, I can see the pink paper’s point.

Lastly, some companies, such as Total SA have invested in renewable energy as a hedge, howsoever small, to their extractive activities.

Is the risk already priced in?

At current oil prices (Brent future for December 2018 delivery is $46), the market recognises that certain high-breakeven reserves, such as in the Arctic or in Canadian tar sands, are unlikely to be monetisable.  Thus, economic stranding is reflected in share prices of groups and funds that are highly exposed to these reservoirs.  It is much less likely that the risk is priced in for the integrated majors, given their diverse properties and mid- and down-stream operations.  It is even less likely to be priced in for utilities and infrastructure companies.  Again, there doesn’t seem to be much analysis or disclosure around the (presumably) differing sensitivities to economic and carbon-related stranding, in part because the regulatory regime that would drive this is yet to be announced.

How to play this?

At the moment, this is basically a structural risk that’s relatively hard to avoid – since in theory everyone from energy companies to utilities to car-makers are somewhat exposed.  Moreover, energy groups are steady dividend payers, for now anyway, so dropping them has a significant financial cost.  Thirdly, coal is mined by integrated miners who also pull other stuff out of the ground, so divesting coal might mean losing much of the metals & minerals complex.

The simplest approach, for a small or passive investor if not the system as a whole, is to remain invested in a broad index, and hope for the best.  There are two reasons for this: one is that, depending on how the situation plays out, portfolio impacts could vary tremendously.  Mercer Consulting highlight drastically different return and composition-of-return scenarios depending on whether regulatory and investor actions prompt rapid, proactive and coordinated, as opposed to, delayed and fragmented, responses.  Thus, this risk could be viewed as an exogenous factor, a bit like catastrophe, war, or un-planned death, that cannot be diversified away simply or costlessly.

The ‘dumb’ strategy above can be improved by removing coal, which no one has anything good to say about (not even Goldman Sachs), and (possibly) by removing high-breakeven companies, such as those involved in Canadian sands or US shale.  Whether one then tilts the portfolio from oil to the relatively cleaner gas becomes a judgement call.  Further tilts are possible away from E&P towards pipelines, infrastructure, refining, or distribution, again probably with diminishing returns (in terms of yield/concentration trade-off).

Vanguard VT (all-world ETF) against two ‘low-carbon’ ETFs Source: E*Trade

Some new ETFs, including CRBN from iShares and LOWC from State Street/SPDR follow indices with lower carbon footprints, such as the MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target Index, jiggling other index constituents to achieve similar dividend yields and correlation with the much broader all-world MSCI ACWI Index.  This chart above shows performance relative to Vanguard’s all-world ETF VT, albeit over the slightly meaningless timeframe of a year.  These ETFs use company disclosures on emissions to re-weight their allocations, but it’s not entirely transparent how meaningfully exposure to carbon regulation has actually been reduced: for instance, Exxon Mobil and Chevron are still in the portfolios, albeit at tiny allocations, while Enbridge Inc, a gas-pipeline operator and Ultrapar, a Brazilian conglomerate with downstream operations represent meaningful holdings in LOWC, while not showing up at all in VT.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 12.59.55
Clean energy ETFs compared to VT (Vanguard all-world) and VDE (Vanguard energy) ETFs on 5-yr horizon

A complement to the approaches above could be investing in clean, renewable, alternative energy and related companies.  There are a number of ETFs in the space (ICLN, PZD, QCLN, FAN, NLR, KWT, YLCO, GEX).  Most of them look like dogs: over 5 years they’ve substantially under-performed the broad market (VT) as well as energy (say VDE) ETFs.  Fukushima Dai-ichi wiped out the uranium ETF.  Over 3 years the others seem to have gone through a bubble as oil prices went up, making their relatively-expensive technologies look viable.  Then, in the last year as oil prices have crashed, substitution effect has made green technologies again look uneconomic.  So unless one believes substantial subsidies for green tech are forthcoming, that oil prices will shoot back up, or that regulatory and public attitudes towards nuclear will change, these feel a lot like a levered play on oil prices, where investment timing becomes critical.  However, within this universe, specific plays might be interesting (such as measurement companies or water-treatment companies), due to the diversity of their businesses and/or relative independence from subsidies and oil prices.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 13.00.09
The clean-energy bubble (2013-2016)
Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 13.00.31
Clean energy follows oil down in 2015-2016

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