Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Utilities, Energy and the New Dirigisme

Once upon a time, oil was the only energy-source that enjoyed anything approximating a free market.  Gas and electricity meant monopolies or, if investor-owned, a regulated rate of return, steady but low.

Then came liberalisation, and gas and power took off as traded commodities in competitive market structures.  The sector divided into merchant (unregulated) activities and 'true utility' (wires and pipes, where so-called natural monopolies prevailed).  The trade-off for residual monopoly remained a more-or-less regulated, low-ish rate of return.  Some companies had characteristics of both merchant and utility in their portfolio; others had cleaner business models and were one or the other, with the utilities being conventionally viewed as annuity streams or 'defensive' stocks.


Endless debate ensues as to whether this can all work out as well as the open-market theorists claim: FWIIW, I am squarely in that camp, and the development of a global gas industry is its best evidence.  However, just as things were working out nicely in electricity too, along came the baleful decarbonisation agenda, and with it an avalanche of regulatory meddling.  The EU's Emissions Trading Scheme was an attempt to execute some of the new policy goals via market mechanisms, but as a result of various entirely avoidable errors it hasn't really worked.  So meddling it is.


There is a school of thought that goes: bring back the CEGB ! Advocates of this include those with no memory, who have forgotten just how bloated and wasteful it was; and also those with long and fond memories, who recall exactly how bloated and wasteful it was, and they loved every minute of it.


However, governments no longer have the money for this malarkey and anyway, outright renationalisation is (currently) not allowed in the EU.  So we get dirigisme on an ever more detailed basis, as governments seek to determine exactly what new power plants (and other infrastructure) get built, and where, and by whom.


Which finally brings us round to the challenges for the likely builders of said new kit, and for those who might be considering investing in them.


The energy companies have, over a relatively few years, learned to play the game quite differently to the way they conducted themselves from the 1990s onwards.  Instead of taking a professional view on, for example, forward energy prices and spreads, and making their investment decisions accordingly, they have decided it's easier to demand subsidies, 'capacity payments' and various other featherbedding guarantees before they will invest in, well, pretty much anything these days.


Like governments, many of these companies are short of dosh, and so they demand high rates of guaranteed return.  Like monopolies, governments know exactly who is going to pay for all this in the end: it's us electricity-junkies that have nowhere else to go (until we surrender to death by hypothermia).  So they make the necessary arrangements, via a plethora of subsidies and schemes, for guaranteed high rates of return.


Guaranteed high rates of return - what's not to like ?  Shouldn't investors be flocking to join the game ?  There are several schools of thought, all wrestling with the following polar considerations:

  • People will always need electricity, the energy companies have governments over a barrel, and this isn't going to change any time soon; so back up the truck and enjoy it
  • This new 'system' is clearly dysfunctional, with regulatory risk abounding, not least because government is taking powers to make the 'utilities' their agents, not only of investment but also every facet of social policy which has an energy angle
It's even possible to synthesize these points and argue, (as does Liberum Capital) that in the medium term these guaranteed returns look so good for the energy companies ("at a perfectly feasible power price, SSE would be seeing 33% annual increases in EPS towards the end of this decade"), they are bound to get slammed mercilessly when the whole game comes unstuck.

I always reckon that those who live by the subsidy, die by the subsidy.  But maybe there is good money to be made in the meantime ... what do we all think ?



This post first appeared on the Capitalists@Work blog


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1 comment:

Sackerson said...

I fear this will be another example of something that works until suddenly it doesn't.