Are the Financial Markets Turning on Climate?

The future is now closing in on us rapidly and the resulting shifts in investment markets are gathering pace. When Phil Preston and I started working on the paper we released here last week, Carbon Induced Financial Disruption, the idea we were advocating – of disruptive change in financial markets driven by market’s pricing in carbon risk – seemed like a radical one. That was just March this year, yet six months later similar ideas are taking hold across the mainstream market and in the business press.

In June this year, Deutsche Bank said they thought that, in Europe, “coal is basically out of the game as a new build choice with carbon prices above €30/tonne”. This level now seems inevitable if we’re to come anywhere close to agreed policy targets for emissions. As reported in Climate Spectator last week, analysts from Citigroup have started looking at how individual company share prices might perform if governments take strong action on carbon emissions. I think such action is inevitable if we pursue the 2 degree temperature target governments have already adopted. We are even seeing major global coal miners like BHP Billiton acknowledging the inevitability of a carbon price and encouraging it to be brought in sooner rather than later to ensure countries like Australia can maintain competitiveness in a low-carbon economy.

The mainstream business press is also starting to raise the future of climate policy as a consideration in investment decisions. In Australia, the offer documents in the planned privatisation of Queensland Rail through a public float features the coal they carry as the key selling point. They proudly point to the enormous volumes of coal that underpin the business – around 200 million tonnes in 2010. The business press meanwhile is raising the risks such a focus on coal poses to investors if strong carbon pricing is put in place, quoting analysts views on the subject. While it is true that most analysts still believe coal has a rosy future, the fact that it is being incorporated into their thinking at all is a major shift compared to just a year ago.

Of course if governments can off load carbon-exposed assets to investors that’s good news for taxpayers, but it’s bad news for investors who don’t take account of carbon risk.

Another interesting development is that some of the luminaries and elder statesmen of the investment world are stating to pay attention to these issues. In July this year legendary contrarian investor, Jeremy Grantham published his views on climate change. With his company GMO managing around US$100 billion in funds, other investors take his views very seriously. While Grantham acknowledged it was still tough to know how to make money out of climate change, he made the case that investors need to rapidly answer that question because “global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future.”

Then, last week, Bob Litterman, the former head of Goldman Sachs’ quant group and an MIT economics professor, suggested in a speech to sovereign wealth fund managers that unpriced carbon risk could be the next financial crisis to grip global markets. The speech makes fascinating reading for those who want a financial analysis of carbon risks in the global market and why, when change happens, it is likely to be sudden and dramatic, as Phil and I argued in our paper, not slow and steady as most investors assume. If you want to see Litterman’s full analysis you can read it here.

The implications of all this however are not just the risks for fossil fuel investments but the enormous upside inherent in the transition to the new energy economy. The smart money senses the time has come and billions are now flowing into renewables, getting ready for the inevitable boom that will be driven by the transition. With over $100 billion invested per year in both 2008 and 2009, we are now talking serious money. Of perhaps even more significance was that in both years more money was invested in new renewable power capacity than in new fossil fuel capacity, indicating a tipping point has been reached.

The context here is key to understanding what’s to come. We haven’t actually decided to fix climate change yet, with much policy action stalled both globally and in key markets like the United States. This means what we are seeing now is just a small taste of what’s to come when we really get moving. As Jeremy Grantham argued, this is the most important investment issue around and as Bob Litterman points out, the process of change will not be slow and smooth but late and sudden. Given it is already “late”, it’s now time to hold on for the ride. But you might want to make sure your investment portfolio is ready.

5 Responses to Are the Financial Markets Turning on Climate?
  1. [...] my column this week which you can read here, I explore this and other evidence that suggests the financi... environment.ideasforgood.com.au/2010/10/12/are-the-financial-markets-turning-on-climate
  2. salamander

    So do you think, if the market leads, the politicians will follow, still kicking and screaming? Or will they go hand in hand? Even Gillard is only giving an impersonation of action woman, it will take far more than her Cash for Clunkers before she can be said to be “taking Australia forward”. We are still very much in the doldrums on climate change response. And I can’t see Abbott backing down from his stance.

  3. Stephen G

    G’day Paul,

    Actually mate, I reckon this is a great article. It’s just boring as hell ;-P

    It’s a great article because it’s well written (as always), and it has great references.

    Though there seems to be a rather striking lack of response to this one…

    If I may be so bold as to speculate as to why?

    The moment the words ‘Financial’, ‘Fiscal’, Monetary or “Market’ are centre-stage, I reckon that market ‘drivers’ are brought to the fore; if only via implication. It has always fascinated me that with such cliches or dare I say it ‘maxims’ as, ‘it’s nothing personal just business’ or ‘I don’t write the Policy’ which is usually closely followed by ‘I’m just doing my Job’, being bantered about at most levels of our society, but when one gets to the top levels (e.g. Stock Market and Political arenae), emotional terms come into play (e.g. faith, belief, confidence, speculation, certainly, uncertainty, forecast, fear, run).

    In summary – 3 strata of human cultural communication:

    Personal = Emotional language

    Business = War language

    Decision Makers = Emotional Language

    Are folks making a statement by their absence? Are folks just hoping that someone will step forward and fix everything before ‘value’ as it has come to be measured, encounters reality (i,e. truth)? If a currency can become worthless overnight, so can an economy…can it not?

    Are we about to encounter Schopenhauer’s 2nd stage of the realisation of ‘truth’ – “Then it is violently opposed”? It seems to me that this is indeed that to which you are referring…

    It is you that seems to be the bastion of ‘faith’ in Market Forces. And don’t people just hate ‘prophets’ that are right? Especially when they are still alive? :-P

    Don’t give up mate…and don’t let yourself get buried in the rhetoric of purposely incalculable ‘Derivatives’…Derived from what?…

    Have you seen how many financial ‘terms’ there are? We make them up as fast as we make up Financial ‘Instruments’. And it seems that the magic of such creative feats are that when it all gets too hard they just disappear…

    If time is in fact money, then we are indeed in deep doo-doo.

    Always a pleasure mate :-)

    Cheers

    Stephen G

  4. Stephen G

    Oh I just thought I’d throw in a reference.

    I went to this website – http://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/

    Here, there are 718 financial terms…starting with D!!! And one of them is ‘Dunn & Bradstreet’! A Financial Term???

    Am I painting a picture? :-P

    That’s like saying ‘St Leonard’s Hospital’ is a ‘Medical Term’.

    Be afraid…be very afraid…

    Cheers

    Stephen G

  5. [...] The smart money senses the time has come and billions are now flowing into renewables, getting ready for... live.org.au/blog/?p=89

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