Interview With Nathaniel Bullard On Fossil Fuel Divestment

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by Tom Konrad CFA

Renewable Energy World asked me to write a commentary on Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s recent report on the difficulties institutional investors are likely to have divesting from fossil fuels.  The report details how the scale, yield, liquidity, and historic growth of the oil and gas sector are impossible to match with any other investment sector.

While this is quite true, much of the other coverage has missed the point.  Ironically, I thought Bloomberg News’ coverage was some of the worst, because it focused on the least important aspect of fossil fuels as an investment sector: historical growth.  While a sector’s yield, liquidity, and especially scale generally persist for decades, growth trends are prone to sudden reversals.  The fact that oil and gas stocks have done so well over the last five years should prompt all wise investors to start taking some profits, regardless of their attitudes towards the environment.

Instead, I focus on likely future trends for oil and gas stocks, and consider how fundamental factors and the potential growth of the divestment movement may affect the potential future growth of the oil and gas sector.  The prognosis is not good.

You can read the whole commentary here: Divesting from Fossil Fuels: Last One Out Loses.

I interviewed the report’s author, Nathaniel Bullard, for the piece.  He had some interesting points that did not fit into my commentary, so I include the whole transcript below.

Nathaniel Bullard Interview

Conducted via email, 8/28/2014

TK: Why do you focus on past performance in your analysis?
NB: The past is where the data are available for analysis (as opposed to forecasts and predictions) and I think this is particularly applicable to older, established sectors such as fossil fuels.

TK: Do institutional investors generally believe past performance is a reliable indicator of future returns?
NB: I do think that oil and gas dividend yields in particular will be viewed in a “past performance is a reliable indicator of future returns” paradigm. US coal, however, has had clear indicators of future change in place for a while, in particular cross-state air pollution regulations, so companies such as Bloomberg have been able to analyze the number of plants which are likely to be removed from market, therefore lowering coal demand.

TK: If you had done this analysis in mid 2011, how would that have changed your conclusions?
NB: US Coal would have performed relatively better if we used the original start position of mid-2009, largely because the US shale gas boom was not yet depressing gas prices and leading to massive fuel switching –  though prices began slipping in 2011. Chinese coal stocks were higher and stable, but would later be hit with overcapacity concerns.  Clean energy equities were in the midst of overcapacity depressing margins and share prices, in particular solar stocks.

TK: Do you have any thoughts on why Coal has so greatly underperformed other fossil fuels over the last 4 years?
NB: In the US in particular, natural gas prices (but also to some extent the price of wind power) have moved coal from the bottom of the merit order.  In China, coal is quite oversupplied and many of coal companies are heavily indebted, often with local debt that is a bit opaque.
China has lots of particulate emissions laws in place around coal, and it’s making them more stringent – but 1) they’re not always enforced and 2) they’re not really making a major dent in coal demand…yet. They are, though, shaping our expectation of future demand.  While China does not have the strong and proximate regulations in place to shift demand away from coal, environmental concerns in China’s major cities are forcing coal production to move out of urban areas and there are efforts underway to ramp up domestic gas production (and gas imports) as a substitute.

TK: If coal stocks had not declined so drastically in the last couple years, would they be as easy to divest from now?
NB: In a word, no. Some US coal equities have lost 90% of their value since 2011 (Arch Coal, for instance).  This much-diminished size means that all other things being equal, or not equal in a stock market that is performing well, coal stocks are underperformers and the same number of shares will represent a much smaller portion of an investor’s overall portfolio relative to 2011.

TK: If or when one of more of the paradigm shifts you discuss in section 7 take place and the divestment movement reaches scale, what would be the effect on the portfolios of investors who choose not to divest?  What would be the effect on the portfolios of those who are divesting today?
NB: I think we can expect some oil and gas stocks to still generate dividends, meaning that the yield attribute they carry is still in effect and attractive to some investors.  Using the Fossil Free Index which I mentioned in my white paper, historical data suggests that removing fossil fuels from a broad portfolio should not adversely impact returns and could in fact be slightly positive.

TK: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to add?
NB: I wrote this paper because divestment is a fast-moving idea with the first signs of traction outside of its motivated core of intellectual founders.  The sectors it touches upon are essential parts of our physical energy system, at least today, and are almost as deeply embedded in our financial system due to their scale. I thought that divestment deserved a thought exercise, passed without judgment: if divestment is to occur at scale, what shape might it take?


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