Archive for July, 2010

Many “Social” and “Sustainable” Mutual Funds Owned BP

Marc Gunther takes a look at why so many “Sustainable” and “Socially Responsible” mutual funds owned large stake in BP.

Worth a read.

Some of the biggest offenders were
* the Dow Jones Sustainability Index
* Pax World Funds
* MMA International Fund
* Legg Mason Social Awareness Fund

while the Sentinel Sustainable Core Opportunities Fund has Transocean (which operated Deepwater Horizon) as its biggest holding.

Among the relatively rare sustainable funds that were practicing what they preach (at least as far as oil companies are concerned) were Portfolio 21 and the Highwater Global Fund.

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Other Objections to PACE Programs

Micheal Giberson over at Knowledge Problem bounced off my article on why PACE financing would be unlikely to damage the mortgage market to mention several of his own worries about how such programs are implemented.

He and I are in agreement that there’s little wrong with PACE programs in principle, but they raise some thorny issues in practice. Here are a few of his worries. Micheal says:

If PACE is just a way for homeowners to scrape up subsidies – i.e. to improve their properties and make their neighbors’ pay for it – then I’m against it.

I agree, but with a caveat: one justification for subsidies for energy efficiency is that energy efficiency has positive externalities, and creates societal benefits. To the extent that energy efficiency subsidies are societal payments for societal benefits, there is no problem with using PACE to scoop up as many as possible. In fact, it should be encouraged.

Here are some of the societal benefits of energy efficiency:

1. Lower energy consumption reduced the need to build and upgrade energy infrastructure, a cost which is borne by all.
2. Lower greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Predictable energy bills reduce bankruptcies and foreclosures, lessening the need for social services and raising property prices.
4. Less money spent on energy assistance programs.
5. Local jobs from the economic multiplier when money is not spent on fossil fuels imported from outside the region.
6. Reduction in local air pollution from local power plants.
7. Lower water use in electricity generation.
8. Lower energy prices because of reduced energy demand.
9. More total jobs because energy efficiency improvements tend to be more labor-intensive than capital-intensive energy production.

Micheal goes on to say:

If my local government was proposing such a program, I’d worry that mismanagement would lead to future obligations for non-participating taxpayers. What is the mechanism that ensures civil servants will be effective loan officers? Will they get bonuses for doing good work or just be paid the same salary and promoted on schedule whether or not the loans they approved achieve intended results?

I agree with Micheal on this one, but this all depends on the particular implementation, although I just finished reading Micheal Lewis’s excellent book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
on the Wall Street’s role in the subprime mortgage meltdown, and so I’m compelled to point out that civil servants would be hard pressed to do a worse job extending loans to unqualified buyers than any of dozens of mortgage lenders from 2005 to 2008.

And finally:

Maybe the more interesting question is how and why the retail energy and home mortgage marketplaces became so bollixed up that a municipal-government-sponsored home-improvement-lending tax authority work-around is seen as a promising way to help consumers make sensible energy-related improvements to their homes.

Now that’s a great question. If you want to know why the mortgage market is so messed up, I highly recommend The Big Short, a book that makes highly technical subjects easy to understand. I can say that because I had to learn exactly how CDS’s on CDO’s work in order to pass my Chartered Financial Analyst exams, and I wish this book had been around back then… it would have made the task much simpler.

As for why the energy market is bollixed up, I think it has to do with lack of just about everything that improves market efficiency. The consumer energy market has limited price transparency, a lack of price information and real-time pricing, a single monopoly supplier, a lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer, regulated prices, a cost-plus pricing model for most suppliers, and subsidies for the purchase of energy for many classes of customers. With all this going against it, it’s no surprise at all that the market is so dysfunctional that civil servants as loan officers starts to sound like a good idea.

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Will PACE Financing Damage the Mortgage Market?

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees the government agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is now joining them in saying that Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing “could damage the mortgage market.”

PACE financing is an important program that addresses multiple barriers to energy efficiency. First, it addresses upfront cost: although energy efficiency measures usually pay for themselves, most require an up-front investment which many people have trouble making. PACE financing also helps address split incentives. Because efficiency improvements can take several years to pay back, and most Americans move every few years, the benefits of efficiency don’t always accrue to the people who invest in them. With PACE, the loan used to make the improvement is assessed on the property, so the person who is saving money in energy costs is always the same person who is paying for the energy improvements.

Jonathan Hiskes at Grist makes the counter-argument that PACE financing is not really something new, as the FHFA and the mortgage giants claim, and I agree with him, but there are several stronger arguments against the mortgage regulator’s position that I have not yet seen made.

The FHFA is worried that the “lending is not based on the homeowner’s ability to pay, it bypasses consumer protections such as the Truth-in-Lending Act, and it may not lead to meaningful reductions in energy consumption.” I’ll address each of these points in turn:

Ability to pay. The lending does not need to be based on the borrower’s ability to pay, because the energy improvements improve that ability to pay. For example, Boulder Colorado’s now canceled PACE program required that the homeowner first get an energy audit, which is then used to estimate the cost savings of possible energy improvements. If the homeowner is able to pay for his or her current mortgage (which, supposedly, is based on his ability to pay), then after the energy improvements and the PACE loan, he or she should have better cash flow, and be better able to pay. In other words, PACE should improve the owner’s ability to pay, and actually strengthen the mortgage market.

Consumer protections Unlike complex mortgages, the most important thing about a PACE loan is that the monthly payment be less than the monthly savings, so they are inherently easier for consumers to understand. But if consumer protections are necessary, there’s no reason they could not be added to PACE lending programs without canceling the whole program, as the FHFA seems to want.

May not lead to meaningful reductions in energy consumption. Quite simply put, this is an attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A good PACE program requires an energy audit and professional installation in order to ensure energy savings. It’s important to design PACE programs carefully, but that’s true for any lending program, or any program whatsoever.

Rather than putting a stop to all PACE lending, as has happened, good programs (such as Boulder’s) that do provide some assurance that energy savings will be achieved should continue, since they strengthen borrower’s ability to pay rather than weakening it.

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Fannie and Freddie Trip Up PACE Financing Program

Bad news for both her economic stimulus and energy efficiency. The New York Times reports that PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing for energy efficiency improvements, for which $150M in stimulus money was set aside is running into a roadblock from another arm of the government: the mortgage agencies Fannie and Freddie.

See the full article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/business/energy-environment/01solar.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&hp

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