Monday, July 20, 2009

Goldman Sachs and the coming carbon credit bubble

Matt Taibbi, "The Great American Bubble Machine", Rolling Stone, July 13, 2009:

From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression — and they're about to do it again.

... If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. ...

If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went — and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long — including last year's strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn't one of them.

BUBBLE #1 — The Great Depression ...

BUBBLE #2 — Tech Stocks ...

BUBBLE #3 — The Housing Craze ...

BUBBLE #4 — $4 a Gallon ...

BUBBLE #5 — Rigging the Bailout ...

BUBBLE #6 — Global Warming

Fast-forward to today. It's early June in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, a popular young politician whose leading private campaign donor was an investment bank called Goldman Sachs — its employees paid some $981,000 to his campaign — sits in the White House. Having seamlessly navigated the political minefield of the bailout era, Goldman is once again back to its old business, scouting out loopholes in a new government-created market with the aid of a new set of alumni occupying key government jobs.

Gone are Hank Paulson and Neel Kashkari; in their place are Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson and CFTC chief Gary Gensler, both former Goldmanites. (Gensler was the firm's cohead of finance.) And instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade.

The new carbon credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won't even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.

Here's how it works: If the bill passes, there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy "allocations" or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billion worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.

The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the "cap" on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison's sake, the annual combined revenues of all electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.

Goldman wants this bill. The plan is (1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigmshifting legislation, (2) make sure that they're the profitmaking slice of that paradigm and (3) make sure the slice is a big slice. Goldman started pushing hard for capandtrade long ago, but things really ramped up last year when the firm spent $3.5 million to lobby climate issues. (One of their lobbyists at the time was none other than Patterson, now Treasury chief of staff.) Back in 2005, when Hank Paulson was chief of Goldman, he personally helped author the bank's environmental policy, a document that contains some surprising elements for a firm that in all other areas has been consistently opposed to any sort of government regulation. Paulson's report argued that "voluntary action alone cannot solve the climatechange problem." A few years later, the bank's carbon chief, Ken Newcombe, insisted that capandtrade alone won't be enough to fix the climate problem and called for further public investments in research and development. Which is convenient, considering that Goldman made early investments in wind power (it bought a subsidiary called Horizon Wind Energy [Ed: formerly Zilkha Renewable Energy, bought in 2005 for less than $1 billion and sold to Energias de Portugal in March 2007 for $2.15 billion]), renewable diesel (it is an investor in a firm called Changing World Technologies) and solar power (it partnered with BP Solar), exactly the kind of deals that will prosper if the government forces energy producers to use cleaner energy. As Paulson said at the time, "We're not making those investments to lose money." [Ed.: Similarly, Enron lobbied hard in the late 1990s for the U.S. to sign the Kyoto Accord.]

The bank owns a 10 percent stake in the Chicago Climate Exchange, where the carbon credits will be traded. Moreover, Goldman owns a minority stake in Blue Source LLC, a Utahbased firm that sells carbon credits of the type that will be in great demand if the bill passes. Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, who is intimately involved with the planning of cap-and-trade, started up a company called Generation Investment Management with three former bigwigs from Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, Mark Ferguson and Peter Harris. Their business? Investing in carbon offsets. There's also a $500 million Green Growth Fund set up by a Goldmanite to invest in greentech … the list goes on and on. Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot. Will this market be bigger than the energyfutures market?

"Oh, it'll dwarf it," says a former staffer on the House energy committee.

Well, you might say, who cares? If cap-and-trade succeeds, won't we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe — but capandtrade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private taxcollection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it's even collected.

"If it's going to be a tax, I would prefer that Washington set the tax and collect it," says Michael Masters, the hedgefund director who spoke out against oilfutures speculation. "But we're saying that Wall Street can set the tax, and Wall Street can collect the tax. That's the last thing in the world I want. It's just asinine."

Cap-and-trade is going to happen. Or, if it doesn't, something like it will. The moral is the same as for all the other bubbles that Goldman helped create, from 1929 to 2009. In almost every case, the very same bank that behaved recklessly for years, weighing down the system with toxic loans and predatory debt, and accomplishing nothing but massive bonuses for a few bosses, has been rewarded with mountains of virtually free money and government guarantees — while the actual victims in this mess, ordinary taxpayers, are the ones paying for it. ...

environment, environmentalism, animal rights, human rights, anarchism, ecoanarchism, anarchosyndicalism