The Ratchet Tightens — Oil Companies’ Bad Wednesday (and Yours)

Logo of Exxon Mobil Corporation on a monitor above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (File photo/Reuters)

The week of May 24: climate change and corporatism, inventing an economic crisis, woke capital, and more.

A few days ago I quoted this from an article by Ross Clark in The Spectator:

It is steadily becoming apparent just how politically costly the net zero commitment could be. When environmental issues are expressed in general terms, people tend to fall on the side of taking action; when the consequences for them personally are explained to them, it tends to be a very different matter.

And then I added this:

For some U.S. polling data on this question, go here.

An extract:

“When asked about willingness to spend out-of-pocket to mitigate climate change, 35 percent of respondents said they would not spend a dollar. Fifteen percent said they would spend up to $10 of their own money on climate change policies.”

There is a good reason that those pushing the current climate agenda are doing so in a way that bypasses the regular democratic process so far as they can possibly can. The extent to which manmade climate change is a threat may or may not be a matter of debate. (To give my customary disclaimer, I am a lukewarmer myself.) Some say that it is not up for discussion. I would disagree. However, what to do about climate change most certainly can (and should) be a topic of debate, but that too is an argument that climate warriors want to dodge.

Instead, many of them are aiming to force through a command-and-control agenda that has rather less to do with the climate and rather more with their personal ambitions and psychological obsessions, motives that would not look too good if exposed to proper democratic scrutiny.

Thus the importance to them of keeping as much as possible of the decision-making on climate-related issues away from the ballot box. It is just so much safer to rely on a corporatist stitch-up, largely unaccountable regulators (private and public), executive orders and, of course, lawfare.

And that brings me to the oil companies’ bad week.

In an op-ed, the Wall Street Journal provided some context, focusing on the events at Exxon’s annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday:

The usual suspects are casting Exxon Mobil’s partial defeat in a proxy shareholder battle on Wednesday as a Waterloo for fossil fuels. Sorry — the vote is a reflection of the enormous political pressure and financial leverage of government pension funds, proxy advisers and asset managers like BlackRock that want to be seen as virtuous to the progressives who are now in power.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that this vote represented a “Waterloo” for fossil fuels or, more accurately, for Western fossil-fuel companies, but it was certainly a bad day for them, a harbinger, I suspect, of things to come. The WSJ is, however, possibly too optimistic (if that’s the word) about the motivation of some of those pension funds, proxy advisers, and asset managers. If they were wanting to win favor with those now running the show in Washington, that would be merely routine cynical sycophancy. But this is hard to square with the fact that these groups have been set on this course for years now — years that included the Trump presidency. Some, of course, may genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing, but many others are playing a game designed to ensure that they will share in the rewards that a corporatist state has to offer.

To take a step back, those who voted for the “outsider” slate in the Exxon proxy battle were doing their bit for stakeholder capitalism. There are many ways to define that term, but a starting point might be these words from Larry Fink, BlackRock’s CEO, in 2018:

To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.

That sounds rather more benign than it is.

As I wrote in July:

The wider vision underlying stakeholder capitalism is one in which different interest groups such as employers, employees, and consumers collaborate in pursuit of mutually (if sometimes mysteriously) agreed objectives under the supervision of the state. It would never be quite post-democratic, not quite, in any likely American form, but what it would be is a variety of corporatism.

Corporatism takes many, many forms. It can range from the relatively (relatively) benign — it runs through European Christian Democracy, and it can be detected in early-20th-century American Progressivism — to the infinitely more heavy-handed. It has been an important element in the theory, if not the practice, of some variants of fascism, most notably in Mussolini’s Italy, but not only there.

Corporatism takes as its starting point the idea that society is best run through its leading interest groups, either alongside the ballot box, or, under fascism, in place of it . . .

But back to the WSJ:

The San Francisco-based hedge fund Engine No. 1 formed in November of last year and set out to overhaul Exxon’s board. Its goal: Make the biggest U.S. oil and gas company “transition” out of its legacy business. The fund enlisted big public pension funds and exploited the pandemic’s ravages . . .

Ah yes, public pension funds, which generally owe a significant part of their funding to taxpayers and are ultimately underwritten by them. It is true that there is an investment case — albeit not the best investment case — for reducing exposure to fossil-fuel companies, but it is not much of a stretch to think that the “enlisted” were driven more by political than financial concerns. And to the extent that that is the case, should they be playing political games with taxpayers’ money?

The WSJ:

Low-income countries will need oil and gas to modernize and replace dirtier energy sources like coal and wood, as Nigeria’s Vice President Oluyemi Osinbajo explained last week at a Columbia Global Energy Summit. Liberals in wealthy countries including the U.S. want to ban the internal-combustion engine. But Nigeria’s poor won’t be buying Teslas.

This is why Exxon’s European rivals are continuing to develop new oil and gas projects. Russia has no intention of scaling back its investments. Even Canada’s biggest pension funds are boosting investment in oil sands producers as prices recover from the pandemic. Exxon’s stock, by the way, is up 42% this year.

Engine No. 1 saw an opening with the pandemic and took it. A preliminary vote count on Wednesday showed that shareholders backed at least two of its four board candidates. But who are these shareholders?

Big union pension funds like Calstrs and asset managers like BlackRock. . . . Proxy adviser duopolists Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services, which make recommendations to institutional investors on how to vote, also lent their support to Exxon’s opponents. This wasn’t a revolt by retail investors against fossil fuels. It was a progressive political coup.

Exxon won’t benefit if it exits its legacy business and dives head-long into renewable development where it has no expertise. Fossil fuels aren’t going away, and Exxon won’t prosper if it acts like they will.

The whole question of the role of proxy advisers is an interesting one, and, writing for Capital Matters a few weeks ago, Paul Rose looked at it quite a bit more detail.

Here is an extract:

Proxy advisers, of course, must respond to the demands of their customers. But not all institutional investors utilize these firms in the same way, or with the same interests. The largest fund families have in-house teams dedicated to shareholder-voting issues and utilize proxy advisers mainly to gather information. Many other institutional investors, however, do not perceive that informed shareholder-voting offers a competitive advantage — especially index funds, which operate on a low-cost business model owing to fierce price competition. These are our robovoters. Conversely, some institutional investors pay particular attention to shareholder-voting matters but are focused on issues beyond share value — notably, specialized “social investing” funds and pension funds with captive capital, especially public pension funds controlled by partisan elected officials. Empirical evidence suggests that socially oriented investors have successfully captured proxy-advisory firms’ voting recommendations; in a study last fall, University of Southern California professor John G. Matsusaka and researcher Chong Shu found that proxy-advisory firms have tended to “tilt their advice away from policies that maximize issuer value toward policies that give more weight to social issues.”

The apparent capture of proxy-advisory firms’ voting recommendations highlights the risks inherent in institutional investor robovoting. The most influential shareholders in shaping proxy advisers’ views may be those institutional investors who are least concerned with maximizing shareholder returns. But as proxy advisers adopt these views, the robovotes follow. Individual investors, many of whom are principally worried about building a nest egg for retirement, are left holding the bag. And the costs may be real: Another recent study by Chong Shu found that stock prices drop when ISS changes a voting recommendation to match the preferences of investors it is trying to retain as clients . . .

Earlier, Rose had explained what he meant by robovoters:

ISS and Glass Lewis are each owned by private-equity firms and together control more than 90 percent of the proxy advisory market. Last year, 114 institutional investors voted in lockstep with one of these two major proxy advisers. These “robovoting” institutional investors collectively managed more than $5 trillion in assets . . .

If the proxy-advisory investors cannot be entrusted with putting the economic interests of their clients, can some of the largest institutional investors? After all, more and more of these funds are turning to various forms of “socially responsible” investment (SRI) as one of their governing principles rather than as a way of running specific funds aimed at investors who have chosen to have their money run that way for ethical considerations, no matter if it costs them some return.

However a common argument made by some large investment-management firms now pushing SRI products (it is, of course, only a coincidence that they often carry higher fees), notably a variant — to add some more initials to the mix — known as ESG (ESG measures how companies measure up against certain environmental, social, and governance yardsticks), is that it is possible to do well by doing good. They maintain that doing (supposedly) the right thing, notably where the climate is concerned, will reduce risk and enhance return. Let us just say that that remains to be seen.

Those interested in the question (and much more do with SRI) should check out Capitalism, Socialism and ESG by Rupert Darwall (full disclosure: an old friend), but here’s a not entirely irrelevant extract:

Advocates of ESG delivering superior investment performance (“risk/return ESG”) must assume that the stock market doesn’t behave as modern finance theory suggests it will. It is not sufficient merely to assert, as Al Gore does, that companies incorporating ESG considerations into their business are more profitable. Proponents of risk/return ESG conflate “evidence of a relationship between an ESG factor and firm performance with evidence that such a relationship, if it exists, can be exploited by an investor for profit,” argue law professors Schanzenbach and Sitkoff in a 2020 paper.

For the risk/return ESG hypothesis to hold, it is necessary that the stock market systematically fails to fully incorporate information on this superior performance into stock prices. Once the market has fully incorporated such information, the outperformance of ESG-favored stocks (by generating above-average risk-adjusted returns) will cease. As the market incorporates relevant ESG data into stock prices, the discount rate (the return required by investors) for highly rated ESG companies will fall, and that for low-rated ones will rise, leading to rising stock prices of ESG companies and falling prices of low-rated ESG stocks. Cornell and Damodaran explain the process:

“During the adjustment period the highly rated ESG stocks will outperform the low ESG stocks, but that is a one-time adjustment effect. Once prices reach equilibrium, the value of high ESG stocks will be greater and the expected returns they offer will be less. In equilibrium, highly rated ESG stocks will have greater values, but investors will have to be satisfied with lower expected returns.”

After this one-off adjustment, the higher discount rate of low-rated ESG stocks implies that they offer higher returns, while the higher ratings of ESG-favored stocks mean that they offer investors lower expected returns. In the words of Nobel laureate Eugene Fama, widely recognized as the father of the efficient market hypothesis:

“lower costs of capital for E&S [environmental and social] accredited firms mean that for E&S investors, virtue is its own reward since investors get lower expected returns from the shares of virtuous firms.”

Put all this together, and the backstory to what happened at Exxon begins to look rather more complicated than some of its many cheerleaders would have you believe.

And Chevron did not have a great Wednesday either.

The Financial Times:

A big majority of Chevron shareholders [61 percent according to a preliminary tally] voted for a resolution calling for the US supermajor to “substantially reduce” its scope 3 emissions, or those from the products it produces. The company said it would “carefully consider” the result.

Keep an eye on the notion of “scope 3” emissions. The concept goes significantly further than the FT’s wording might suggest and gives an idea of the all-embracing ambitions of the climate warriors.

GHG Insight explains:

What are Scope 3 emissions? They are indirect greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the organisation’s operations.  They also can be described in value chain terms as upstream and downstream activities.  Examples of upstream Scope 3 emissions sources are; business travel by means not owned or controlled by an organisation, waste disposal and purchased goods & services.  Examples of downstream Scope 3 emissions sources are; processing of sold products, use of sold products and the end-of-life treatment of sold products.

It can also include employee commuting, business travel, and, well you get the picture.

And for more insight in how far the climate warriors want to go, check out the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. The IEA, I should say, (to quote Wikipedia),

is a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organisation established in the framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1974 in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.[1] The IEA was initially dedicated to responding to physical disruptions in the supply of oil, as well as serving as an information source on statistics about the international oil market and other energy sectors. It is best known for the publication of its annual World Energy Outlook.

To reconcile its “roadmap” with the preservation of a market economy, prosperity and, for that matter, liberal democracy will be a . . . challenge.

Also, on Wednesday, the judiciary struck:

The Financial Times:

A court has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to accelerate its strategy for the energy transition by making steeper and quicker cuts to greenhouse gas emissions than it had planned. The landmark ruling could spur legal cases against other oil and gas companies, as well as other big corporate polluters..

The judge in the district court in The Hague ruled on Wednesday that Shell must cut its net carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 against 2019 levels on an absolute basis, in line with a global push to prevent temperatures rising more than 1.5C above preindustrial levels. The judge said the company had violated a duty of care obligation regarding the human rights of those affected by climate change.

Junk law, in other words. And a reminder of how, in the hands of a politicized judiciary, human rights can mean whatever some judge can want it to mean.

Back to the FT (my emphasis added):

Previous climate cases have largely been focused on liability suits, forcing oil companies to pay damages for past behaviour. But Wednesday’s first-of-a-kind ruling demands a change in Shell’s strategy for the future, setting a precedent not just for energy companies but all big greenhouse gas emitters. It could herald a wave of this new style of litigation . . .

The Anglo-Dutch oil major plans to appeal the ruling in the next three months, with the process potentially taking several years.

Despite this, and the court’s view that Shell’s current carbon dioxide emissions are not “unlawful”, the company is obliged to act now on the judge’s decision. “The order will be declared provisionally enforceable,” the court said, adding that it was up to the company to “design” how it implements the emissions cuts.

And that is how the corporatist state works.

It is not hard to see where this is all going, and it’s bad for free markets, bad for property rights, bad for individual rights, and bad for the prospects for billions of people. Apart from that, Wednesday went well.

The Capital Record

We released the latest of a series of podcasts, the Capital Record. Follow the link to see how to subscribe (it’s free!). The Capital Record, which appears weekly, is designed to make use of another medium to deliver Capital Matters’ defense of free markets. Financier and NRI trustee David L. Bahnsen hosts discussions on economics and finance in this National Review Capital Matters podcast, sponsored by National Review Institute. Episodes feature interviews with the nation’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs, investment professionals, and financial commentators.

In the 19th episode David talked to Strategas Research CEO Jason Trennert for a thorough discussion on the state of free enterprise, the state of money supply, and the real benchmark for measuring inflation in a year.

And the Capital Matters week that was . . .

Land of Disenchantment

The week began with Paul Gessing looking at “the “donut hole” in the otherwise fast-growing Southwest — [his] home state of New Mexico”:

One might expect that having two national nuclear labs — along with their highly educated and well-paid employees — would be a ticket to economic prosperity. Add, too, the billions of dollars in annual tax payments and the jobs and economic activity they bring, and it would seem to most outsiders that New Mexico should be the richest state in the region.

But it turns out that having sound, free-market public policies trumps massive federal “investment” and natural-resource wealth. New Mexico’s lack of economic freedom is a direct result of the state’s political leadership not wanting to do the hard work of adopting the free-market policies that would make New Mexico competitive with its neighbors.

Woke Capital

Charles and Jerry Bowyer thought that AT&T’s CEO might be treading where he should not:

Mr. Stankey then provided an excellent example of why companies should not be involved in controversial political and social debates that have nothing to do with their business, saying that he thinks “society, and frankly AT&T, functions best when we can collectively find the center on issues. And finding that center is important to AT&T, AT&T’s employees’ long-term interest, the long-term health of this company.”

The legislation AT&T supports, the donations it makes, and the social-media campaigns it runs do not even touch “the center.” The center was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced in the House and Senate by Democrats, passed with near-unanimous support, and signed into law by President Clinton. That law is specifically overruled by the Equality Act, which received the enthusiastic support of AT&T.

Mr. Stankey’s justifications for AT&T’s political expeditions are contradictory. We are in a particularly contentious political moment, and yet companies still need to publicly advocate for and against various political causes? Why, exactly? What benefits do AT&T shareholders get from all this? Mr. Stankey did an excellent job summarizing why it is particularly perilous for corporations to be involved in politics at the moment. Surely the logical conclusion is then to drop the politics and focus on business? By its management’s own admission, AT&T is spending a lot of time on politics, which they acknowledge is not their day job. Our question is very simple: Why not just get back to your day job?

Jerry talked some more about this here.

Philip Klein discussed the challenges that woke capitalism is posing to unity on the right:

There have always been tensions among different factions on the right. Sometimes the debates have boiled down to emphasis, with more economically minded conservatives wishing that Republicans would downplay social issues, and social conservatives often feeling neglected whenever the party gained power. There have also been fierce debates over whether — and to what extent — it is appropriate to use government to promote moral values. Despite these very real debates, the movement remained largely intact for decades. Yet the phenomenon of “woke capitalism” presents a much different and more acute threat to conservative cohesion than even Trump did.

In the past, it was easy enough for conservatives to unify when the enemies in the culture war were Washington, Hollywood, the media, and academia. But with large businesses increasingly viewed as the enforcement arm of the cultural Left, the competing schools of conservatism are moving beyond tension and toward direct conflict. When companies try to bludgeon a state over laws passed by its Republican legislature, it’s hard to convince angry conservatives that they should oppose retaliatory action. When conservatives heed the calls to form their own social-media platform, only to see it crippled by powerful tech companies, lectures about free-market principles carry little resonance. When conservative books are being eliminated from the largest online bookseller without explanation, it’s hard to clap back with “Start your own Amazon!” . . .


Jon Hartley was unimpressed by arguments for a financial-transactions tax:

Last month Senator Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) introduced a bill in Congress to pass a financial-transactions tax (FTT) at the federal level. An FTT would effectively act as a 0.1 percent levy per trade on all financial transactions (e.g., stock and bond trades). Further to the right, Oren Cass — the founder and executive director of the think tank American Compass — has argued that policymakers “should consider . . . imposing a financial-transactions tax on asset exchanges in the secondary market.” In an interview with Bloomberg, Cass suggested that some congressional Republicans had indicated privately that they would be receptive to such a tax.

If so, that’s disappointing. Considering the FTT purely as a revenue-raising mechanism (although, to be fair, many of its advocates see it as a punitive measure to limit what they see as “unproductive” economic behavior), it is likely to raise less money than hoped. Instead, FTTs often encourage exchanges to move and institutions to reroute their trades, while middle-class retail investors end up facing a large degree of the tax incidence in the form of higher transaction costs. Some New York State and New Jersey lawmakers have also been advocating an FTT, prompting the president of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to threaten that the Big Board could leave New York and relocate its servers from New Jersey to a more welcoming destination if the Garden State went through with plans to introduce an FTT there.

The truth of the matter is FTTs (or “Tobin Taxes,” as named after Yale economist James Tobin, who recommended a federal FTT in 1972 amid the collapse of the Bretton Woods system), have a long international history and a very poor track record . . .

Douglas Carr pointed out the impact of higher corporate taxes on investment (spoiler: not good):

However economists come out on corporate taxes, there is near unanimity that investment benefits an economy and its workers. Economic fundamentals identify four basic sources of economic growth — labor, knowledge, capital investment, and land, including natural resources. They’re not making more land. Labor population grows slowly and needs other sources of growth to increase incomes.  Technological progress generally requires capital investment. In the short to medium term, we must rely on investment to grow the economy, jobs, and incomes.

There used to be bipartisan understanding of investment’s importance. The former Democratic senator, Treasury secretary, and vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen was, his press secretary told the Washington Post in 1992, “a strong believer in the need to spur investment, to spur savings.” The author of that Post piece also noted that Bentsen had been an “early advocate of a plan to sharply reduce corporate income tax obligations.”

The depth of economic understanding and dedication to the nation’s overall prosperity that once characterized at least part of the Democratic side has now been overwhelmed by “progressive” ideology. Its partisans are engaged, whether as a matter of sincere belief or simple opportunism, in a push designed to secure political advantage by dividing Americans, taking “aim at income inequality,” by targeting wealth both directly and indirectly through the corporate-income-tax hikes, regardless of the adverse economic consequences.

Tax proposals should be evaluated not by their effect on interest groups or income brackets but by their impact on economic growth as a whole. Corporate-tax hikes may hurt the rich, but they also hurt workers, by reducing investment. Economic health and citizens’ welfare should be the goals that matter. There is no moderation in meeting the Biden proposal halfway. The best course is to further cut corporate taxes, moving us from the average of advanced economies to the forefront, to spur, not stifle, our recovery . . .

Thomas Sowell

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley has just published Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, the definitive account of the life of Hoover senior fellow Thomas Sowell. In a wide-ranging interview, Peter Robinson and Riley discussed the events and people that helped Sowell become one of the most important American voices on cultural, economic, and racial matters of the last 50 years.

Climate Change

I reported on some of the increasingly visible costs of Britain’s trudge to net zero and suggested that, given President Biden’s wish to take the same path, it would “be worth Americans’ while to keep an eye on Britain’s trudge to the solar-powered uplands.”

Jakob Puckett argued that cleaning up energy should be given a hand up, not a handout:

In debating President Biden’s trillion-dollar proposals to spend on clean energy, many take for granted that the only way to support the environment is through subsidies. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Rather than spend money blindly on projects designed more to grab headlines than to garner reasonable support, policy-makers should pursue market-based policies that tackle specific challenges facing our clean-energy transition.

Instead of relying on market-distorting subsidies, clean-energy supporters can take advantage of several financial tools to give clean energy a hand up, rather than a handout . . .

Another Bad Idea from Illinois Governor Pritzker

Adam Schuster contrasted Illinois governor’s Pritzker support for the SALT deduction on the one hand, and a tax credit designed to help poorer families to send their children to a private school of their choice on the other:

The scholarship program Pritzker wants to gut helps families within 300 percent of the federal poverty line attend a private school of their choice, prioritizing the neediest students first. Forty-nine percent of kids who participate in the Invest in Kids program are black or Hispanic, and the average annual household income of participants is $38,000. For many recipients, it represents an otherwise unattainable opportunity to improve their education. Donors to the program receive a credit against state taxes worth 75 percent of their donation, up to a maximum of $1 million.

Pritzker says he can raise $14 million by reducing it to 40 percent, which would inevitably shrink the funds available to low-income kids and parents.

On the other hand, SALT is a tax credit that has historically benefited the very wealthy in high-tax states, such as Illinois, by reducing federal taxes owed by the same amount of state taxes paid . . .

Inventing a Crisis

Kevin Williamson took aim at the way that the Biden administration was talking up a crisis to justify a spending binge:

The priorities coming from the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are would-be solutions to problems we don’t currently have — slow growth, high unemployment — that would raise the risks associated with the problems we do have: high levels of public debt, soaring commodities prices, and a Consumer Price Index that is rising faster than it has in more than a decade. None of these alone presents a sky-is-falling, code-red situation — though that national debt will eventually be a problem, almost inevitably — but why go out of your way to make things worse, and possibly much worse, in order to mitigate troubles that already are abating?

What is at play here is the usual politics of catastrophe. And you know that it’s just politics because the wish-list is always the same — only the crises change: war, “inequality,” climate change, etc. . . .

And, in a similar vein, Dominic Pino highlighted the pickup in consumer spending:

Talk of a “V-shaped recovery” dominated much of the early economic analysis of the coronavirus pandemic. That hasn’t happened for all economic indicators, but it has for one: consumer spending.

The Commerce Department released the consumer spending data for April today, and it was 0.5 percent higher than in March. As this graph shows, consumer spending had already recovered to pre-pandemic levels in January of this year. It now appears to be back on, or slightly above, its pre-pandemic trend. It’s not a perfect V, but it’s about as close as you’ll get in the wild . . .

Meanwhile, John McCormack wondered whether the government’s $300/week unemployment insurance top-up was hurting employment rates:

Opponents of extending the unemployment bonus say that the United States is now experiencing the very predictable results of a government policy that allows many Americans to make more money by remaining unemployed than from working.

The April jobs report, released on May 7, found that the economy only gained 266,000 jobs that month — far short of economists’ forecasts that America would gain 1 million jobs as it rebounded from the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 7.4 million job openings at the end of February, and the number has continued to grow.

“People are pro-work, but they’re also rational, and they’re not going to take a pay cut to go take a job,” Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse tells National Review. “So a lot of people would like to be going back to work, but they have this perverse choice between doing the thing that’s best for their family in the short-term and doing the thing that’s the right way to contribute to society in the long-term.” . . .

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