Uncharted Territory

May 1, 2012

The Wettest Drought in History

One of my responsibilities as a teenager was to keep the lawn under control. Flymos had presumably not yet been invented, and petrol-driven mowers were perhaps too much hassle, so ours was manual. If the grass got too long it was hard work and it could even become necessary to resort to shears, which was back-breaking work. But mowing was also difficult if the grass was damp. There was therefore a trade-off each spring. The first mow had to be done when it was mild enough for the grass to be reasonably dry, but couldn’t be put off until it was too long. And as the grass grew it dried out more slowly each day. So it was essential to make use of any opportunity to mow in case the weather turned wet again. It probably only happened once or twice, but it seems I was always caught out. I’d wait for one more dry day to make the job easier, but the skies would open and a week later the job would be twice as difficult.

Nowadays the internet and improved forecasting allows me to monitor the weather far more effectively. Thus it was I’d already been out with the mower in March, and, seeing the long-range forecast, made sure I got a mow in just before it started raining early in April.

The point is that the 5-10 day forecast is now fairly reliable.

Why, then, was the UK drought – declared in a few regions in March, with hosepipe bans from 5th Aprilofficially extended in mid April?

Yes, that’d be in the middle of the wettest April on record!

We’re now in the farcical situation of the “wettest drought in history”, with a succession of “experts” (and junior ministers) popping up on TV claiming the rain in April somehow doesn’t count. Apparently it’ll run off compacted ground. Yes, maybe for the first day or two, but not after a month. With the wettest April on record followed by significant rain already in May, and more forecast in a day or two, the drought risk is simply receding. We’re in one of those surreal situations where reasons are being invented not to contradict previous claims, in this case that the drought would last into next year.

What baffles me is why the drought was extended when wet weather was forecast. Surely – since most of the time it’s dry – the drought risk is receding as long as there’s significant rain in the forecast. And, as the 5-10 day forecast is fairly reliable and everything after that isn’t, you simply run the risk of looking stupid if you don’t wait until the forecast is for dry weather.

I wonder whether there’s a tendency to believe long-term forecasts more than short-term ones. But long-term forecasts only indicate a small bias one way or another, as Met Office modelling indicates:

“New three-month forecasts by the Met office suggest little respite with April, May and June expected to be drier than average. ‘With this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the period. The probability that UK precipitation for April-May-June will fall into the driest of our five categories is 20-25% while the probability that it will fall into the wettest of our five categories is 10-15%, it says.’ ” [my emphasis]

So 20-25% dry plays 10-15% wet plays (presumably) 60-70% around average. Not sure I’d have put a lot of money on the “expectation” of a dry spring this year (certainly wouldn’t now!). Even less after I’d looked at the Met Office report (scroll down to find PDFs) because the model runs are all over the place.

And are these “probabilities”, anyway? Isn’t the modelling signal swamped by the noise of uncertainty? It seems to me likelihoods based on model-runs are not the same as probabilities in the real world.

I’d say the Met Office and the media (the quote marks indicate the introductory sentence was written by the Guardian’s John Vidal) need to mind their language. How about “slightly more likely than not to be” rather than “expected to be”? And perhaps “indication” rather than “forecast”? And “x% of model runs gave…” rather than “the probability that…”? And definitely “might” rather than “is likely to”!

February 16, 2011

Quick, FIT Farmers!

I once asked a careers adviser about the possibilities of becoming a journalist. I was told it was a difficult profession to get into. Clearly the reasons for that have nothing to do with competence to actually do the job.

Following my post back in October pointing out that the feed-in tariff (FIT) subsidy for large installations is so generous that there’s no longer an incentive to use sunlight to grow food, or, as the Guardian put it on Monday 7th Feb, “[a]fter a Guardian report on Sunday” – that would be 6th Feb – DECC have decided to bring forward their review of the scheme.

So anyone planning to take advantage of the current tariffs better move fast. But make sure you understand because the papers seem to labour under one or two misconceptions.

For example, yesterday the Independent wrote that:

“…including projects of more than 50 megawatts (MW) in the review will catch out community solar schemes from schools, hospitals and housing associations, as well as truly large-scale farm installations.”

That should have read 50kW, and soon did after the error was pointed out. The point is that the schemes being subsidised by FITs will generate relatively piffling amounts of energy.

As the predictable farce continues, it’s becoming less and less clear to me what the rationale for the FIT scheme actually is, at least for solar PV. The fundamental problem is that government made the a priori assumption that microgeneration is economically efficient. Wrong, wrong, wrong. FIT farms are much more efficient than sticking solar panels on people’s roofs. As ever, scale economies are critical.

So we keep hearing statements accusing farmers of taking up a subsidy which was “intended for” even smaller-scale producers (I say “even smaller-scale” because what’s really needed is industrial-scale production of solar electricity in the Sahara). It’s a no-brainer what DECC will actually do: they’ll reduce the FIT rates for larger installations and/or reduce the size limit for which FITs apply and/or allocate different pots of subsidy for different size schemes – fortunately Osborne has capped the amount that can be committed (from our future electricity bills). Basically they’ll defend the micro micro-generators. But why?

If the future isn’t microgeneration, why would we want to subsidise it? Why not do the reverse of what the government is about to do and allow relatively large-scale solar PV installations to use the subsidy? Surely that would achieve the objective of building up scale economies (that term again – what mental contortions to recognise one form of scale economy and not another in the same initiative!) for the supply of solar panels in the UK?

There’s misconception about another aspect of the scheme, too, extending even to a picture caption serving as the subtitle to a Guardian article supposedly answering all your solar PV FIT questions. They write that:

“Homeowners can make money from their solar panels by selling the energy produced to electricity companies”

More wrongness, journos!

You make most of the money – 41.3p/kWh – by generating the electricity. That’s what you’ll get a meter for on day one.

In fact, the last thing you want to do is sell it to your electricity company! For that you only get an additional 3p/kWh. Last time I looked I was paying around 12p/kWh for electricity and 5p/kWh for gas. So what you want to do is use the solar PV generated electricity yourself rather than buying electricity or even gas. Arrange to use the electricity during the day (perhaps by using storage heaters) or even store it in a bank of batteries to cook in the evening.

There’s a wrinkle that favours the home microgenerator even more. Until smart meters roll out it will be assumed that you export half the electricity you produce and use the rest. So anything over half you use is totally free!

As I expected was inevitable all along, we are now well into the realm of perverse incentives. If you’re a home microgenerator the opportunity cost of your own electricity is only at most 3p/kWh. So you might be able to afford to use it up when you wouldn’t have previously spent the money buying electricity. Air-conditioning springs to mind.

It seems the 3p/kWh export tariff has been set at the price electricity distributors normally pay suppliers. But that seems a bit daft, since they (or we) are subsidising generation of the same electricity. Clearly, the export tariff should be approximately the same as the consumer price for electricity and the generation tariff somewhat lower than it is now to compensate.

It might be worth pointing out that with the scheme as it is, electricity consumers should favour larger-scale solar PV installations – FIT farms – since they have no choice but to export their electricity at 3p/kWh (on top of a lower generation tariff of as low as 29.3p/kWh compared to the domestic tariff of 41.3p/kWh).

It’s obvious why home microgenerators would support FITs. It’s not so obvious why electricity consumers would be so enthusiastic. From the detached point of view of decarbonising the UK’s electricity supply, it seems to me there’s a problem looming a decade or two down the line. Current policies should deliver the 15% renewables by 2020 the UK is commited to, though not much will be solar PV, by the way – offshore wind will dominate. But sometime after 2020 we’ll need to start getting domestic consumers to switch from gas central heating and cooking to electricity. At present, the gas price is a fraction of that for electricity. The gap can only widen, especially as we add expensive renewables to the supply. Better start thinking now, I suggest, how we’re going to manage – politically – to tax domestic gas at around the level we do petrol.

And best to think too about how to keep the domestic electricity price down. Generous FITs are probably not the way. And a much larger proportion of onshore wind at about half the cost of offshore might be a good idea as well.

April 9, 2010

Job Sums

I’ve been trying to avoid commenting on the General Election campaign, since it would be a huge distraction from far more important issues, but I can no longer ignore the absurd reasoning that’s making its way into the media.

Yesterday, the Guardian, bless their little cotton socks, tried, under the banner “Reality check”, to answer the question “Do national insurance rises cost jobs?” (if you follow the link, then don’t be puzzled – as usual, the online title is different to that in the print version of the paper). The Guardian’s answer is slightly to the “solid” side on a cute little dial that goes from “shaky” to “solid” – let’s call it “mushy”. They seem to think NI rises might cost jobs.

The article included some strange logic, most notably from Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium who apparently argued that “…in a competitive market, retailers will struggle to pass the tax on in the price of goods…”. The “competitive market” has nothing to do with it, since the tax will affect all employers. No-one has a new competitive advantage as a result of the tax.

The Guardian also failed to question why business leaders might be against an NI rise. The point is that increasing taxes (like other costs) reduce profitability (temporarily) because in general it takes time to raise prices and recover margins following an increase in costs. As clearly testified by Richard Dodd’s concerns about how “retailers will struggle to pass on the tax”.

But the Guardian’s piece made a bigger mistake – in fact they managed to completely miss the point. You can only answer a question like whether an NI increase will “cost jobs” by considering also what happens to the money raised by the tax. Taxes rob Peter to pay Paul, so if you can only evaluate the effect on any measure – in this case jobs – by looking at the issue in the round.

Since, as argued by the Guardian, the effect on (private sector) jobs of the NI increase is marginal and the money will be spent on retaining jobs in the public sector, then, if it’s the overall number of jobs in the economy you care about, you should be in favour of the NI proposal. The arguments put forward by the Tories and their business friends are misleading.

[I should say I don’t actually believe the prime goal of an economy should be to create jobs and I don’t believe the Tories or business leaders do either. The goal should be to produce as much as possible with as few resources – including people – as possible. Then we’ll all be rich and jobs will then take care of themselves. What I object to is all the dissembling. Having said that, unemployment is high and rising, so it’s not the best time to be bearing down on jobs. In other words, the trajectory Labour wants to put the economy on makes more sense to me than that which the Tories propose. We may as well, for instance, maintain staffing levels in the NHS – thereby saving and improving lives – and, in particular, continue to invest in the IT necessary for future efficiency savings, rather than have people sitting around on the dole].

Today’s FT gives us some clues on how many jobs would be lost by reducing public expenditure by an amount equivalent to that which would be raised by the NI increase. The FT appears to consider a slightly different question, i.e. the effect on jobs of additional public spending cuts in 2010-11 (i.e. this financial year), as proposed by the Tories. The point, which several BBC news bulletins have missed this morning, is that the NI rise only comes in in 2011-12. With the usual disclaimer that unless I’ve completely misunderstood something, in which case perhaps someone will be good enough to put me right…

And it’s surprisingly in the FT, where a “Cameron adviser discloses cuts detail” that the serious dissembling starts.

First, there’s an enormous howler. The article describes a proposal for £1-2bn in job savings by natural wastage this financial year, 2010-11. That is, during the year that’s already started. But the article appears to reckon on a saving of the full annual cost of the jobs – estimated to be £50,000 each – this financial year. Wrong. You can only reckon on that saving if the jobs disappear at the start of the financial year. On average they will disappear halfway through the year (actually later than that, because the Tories wouldn’t even be able to start until May 7th). So on average only £25,000 will be saved this financial year per job shed. Therefore, to save £1-2bn this financial year would require the wastage of £1-2bn/£25,000 = 40,000 – 80,000 jobs, not the 20,000 to 40,000 stated.

Note that if the jobs are lost other than by natural wastage there will be redundancy costs and less, or more likely negative, cashflow savings this financial year. Basically the Tories need to find 40-80,000 retirees or leavers this year who have not yet been accounted for. And whose jobs are so inessential that they don’t need to be replaced. Tough call, I’d have thought, when there aren’t so many other jobs out there to move to.

Furthermore, some of the cost savings are in things like office space, not salary. There’s always going to be a delay in realising such savings, because you can’t move to a smaller office every time someone retires and is not replaced.

Even furthermore, the cost in benefits of 40-80,000 people who would otherwise have had a public sector job to go to needs to be subtracted from the fiscal saving. Let’s be generous and assume that this has been taken account of in the £50,000pa annual cost of a public sector job quoted in the article. You can do your own sums if you want to assume the actual saving is less than £50,000pa (or less than £25,000 saving on average in the current FY, 2010-11).

Second, we’re discussing jobs in the overall economy. The FT article considers how the Tories propose to save an extra £12bn this financial year:

“Other cuts set out by Sir Peter include reductions in IT spending, yielding ‘potentially at least’ £2bn to £4bn. Renegotiation of contracts with suppliers of goods and services – which Sir Peter described as ‘not rocket science … it’s not about beating them up on price’ – would save about £3bn.

Cuts to ‘discretionary’ spending, such as consultants and staff expenses, should yield a further £2.5bn for 2010-11, he said. He declined to be drawn on a figure for property costs.”

Let’s see. Reductions in IT spending will cost jobs at IT suppliers, not all of them overseas. “Consultants” last time I looked were living, breathing working people as well. Reducing staff expenses would cost jobs indirectly as would renegotiation of contracts. The trouble is the lead time on renegotiation of contracts as well as “property costs” – realised presumably by selling offices – is months to years, so achieving the promised cashflow savings this financial year is implausible, to say the least.

I simply don’t find the Tory plans credible. They’d have more chance of getting my vote if they were actually honest about what they believed in. I remember Labour came to power in 1997 with a promise to stick to the Tory spending plans for the next two years. Cameron thinks he knows better. His position is contradictory – he said on the radio this morning that it was difficult for an Opposition to make spending plans, yet he’s confident he can make huge additional cuts this year. Cameron was once thought of as the new Blair. He now seems to have morphed into the new Thatcher. It seems to me that he’d give the economy the sort of shock treatment it received in the early 1980s. Steeply rising unemployment, an assault on the public sector and so on. Maybe it needed it then. I don’t know. But if it needs it now, perhaps Cameron should be making that case, not promising to save jobs when, at least in the short term, his policies are more likely to produce higher unemployment than would otherwise be the case.

Cameron is giving the impression that he can reduce public sector borrowing and unemployment this year and next compared to Labour’s plans. If he really believes this then he’s seriously wrong and not ready for the job of PM. If he doesn’t believe he can square the circle, then perhaps he should clear up the misunderstanding (or is he already planning to make his old chum George Osborne the fall guy when the Government can’t deliver?). The only other possibility is that he’s deliberately misleading the electorate.

April 8, 2010

Ice Sickle

I continue to fret about the emphasis on the Arctic sea-ice extent as an indicator of global warming (GW).

I have to chop down (got to justify my blog entry title somehow!) a Guardian story, “Arctic sea ice still low despite winter recovery” (p.20 in today’s print edition), the online version titled incoherently “Arctic winter ice recovers slightly despite record year low, scientists say” and cryptically subtitled “Figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre [the NSIDC] indicate six or seven-year low over past three decades”. (They mean 2010 has had the 6th or 7th lowest maximum ice extent – which occurs in March – on record, i.e. of the last 32 years).

The story itself is garbled as well:

“Last night [NSIDC] released the data for the winter of 2009-10 showing the maximum extent reached on 31 March was 5.89m square miles (15.25m sq km). This was 250,000 square miles (650,000 sq km) below the 1979 to 2000 average for March…”

What the NSIDC actually said was that the average for March (15.10m km2 or 5.83m square miles – btw, wouldn’t it be simpler if we all standardised on km2?) was 250,000 square miles below the 1979-2000 March average. In fact, NSIDC’s news posting was titled “Cold snap causes late-season growth spurt” and noted that the maximum sea-ice extent occurred later than usual at the end of March, when the ice extent was only marginally below the 1979-2000 average for that date, as can be seen in the graph illustrating this BBC story about the launch of a satellite to monitor the situation.

I would have thought the real story was the recovery in the maximum Arctic sea ice extent compared to the last few years. “Arctic sea ice still low” is arguably a little misleading.

It is really not helpful to keep spinning Arctic sea ice shrinkage as an indicator of GW. There will be a vicious backlash should nature conspire to undermine the Arctic ice melt narrative. It will then become even more difficult to muster the political will to deal with GW.

The Guardian story goes on to note that:

“Last month, Japanese scientists reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that winds rather than climate change had been responsible for around one-third of the steep downward trend in sea ice extent in the region since 1979. The study did not question global warming is also melting ice in the Arctic, but it could raise doubts about high-profile claims that the region has passed a climate “tipping point” that could see ice loss sharply accelerate in coming years.”

Maybe this is what the researchers did actually say – I may have to go the library to check – but, as I pointed out before, it makes no sense to try to distinguish “winds” from “climate change”. Winds are not caused by some arbitrary external force, they are determined by differences in temperature, albedo (reflectivity), moisture content and so on between different areas of the planet. Winds are part of the climate system that is changing, so it is simply meaningless to separate the cause of ice melt into “winds” and “climate change”.

Solving the GW problem is difficult enough without the constant drip-feed of confusing reporting of the issue.

November 9, 2009

Lloyds Rights Issue: A Reason to Buy?

Filed under: Concepts, Consumer gripes, Economics, Guardian, Lloyds, Markets, Media, Regulation, Rights issues — Tim Joslin @ 4:02 pm

I’m rather surprised by the number of hits I’m still getting on a previous post, which noted the unnecessary complexity of the upcoming Lloyds rights issue and the way it’s been presented. I rather thought the weekend papers would clear the matter up, so was unsurprised to read the Guardian Money front page headline “Buddy, can you spare me £13.5bn?”. I immediately followed the injunction “>>Pages 4-5” and fast-forwarded to read Jill Treanor’s examination of the “implications for small shareholders” and Patrick Collinson’s suggested “plan of action”.

I have to say I was rather disappointed.

Collinson suggests that:

“You got some Halifax shares when it floated. Now we at Lloyds want you to cough up a couple of hundred quid (we won’t tell you the exact sum till later)…”

[my stress]

Treanor also sheds considerable darkness on the point.

Now it simply isn’t true that Lloyds haven’t advised the exact sum investors will have to “cough up” (though they could have been clearer). As I pointed out last time, it’s quite simple: Lloyds wants £13.5bn, which will be divided equally amongst the ~27bn shares in circulation. That’s ~50p a share. If you own 1000 shares you’re going to be asked to put in £500. How many new shares you’ll get and at what price each is yet to be determined.

This is actually a step forward in the organisation of rights issues. The problem is that when a company announces it is going to sell a lot of shares, the price tends to fall – supply and demand – since not every share owner will be able to and want to put more cash into Lloyds equity. By delaying the announcement of the price of the new shares until the last minute, Lloyds has somewhat reduced the risk of the share price falling below the rights issue price, which would be a disaster, since, if you could just buy shares in the market for a lower price, there would be no point taking up the rights issue. The under-writers would end up with all the new shares.

What worries me most about Collinson’s comment piece and Treanor’s Q&A is that they omit part of the case for participating in the rights issue. What I’m about to say should not be construed as financial advice, but there are obvious reasons why a company’s share price might be depressed ahead of a rights issue and that in general a rights issue may be a good opportunity to invest.

The key point is supply and demand for the shares, that is, precisely what Lloyds is worrying about and the reason for the confusion about the offer price for the new shares. Many investors – funds or individuals – may simply be unable to put more money into Lloyds shares. They may just not have the cash. Or, especially if they’re a fund, they may not want Lloyds shares to rise as a proportion of their portfolio. This could even be against the rules of the fund.

Of course, some investors, such as index tracker funds, may be compelled to increase their holding in Lloyds in line with the increase in volume of its equity. But it’s difficult to think of a fund that would be compelled to take up more than its share of rights.

Therefore, it’s often argued, a rights issue is a good time to buy, because there is a surplus of sellers of the stock.

As Jill Treanor points out, you can sell some or all of your rights in the market, for example, to raise enough cash to take up the rest of your rights, a practice known as “tail-swallowing”. Such selling activity will tend to make the rights cheaper. But it’s important to understand that if the price of the rights falls, then so does the price of the existing shares. The reason is the (arbitrage) opportunity to simply sell shares and buy the rights.

Example: To simplify a little, say Lloyds shares fall to 60p when rights have been given to all the shareholders. The rights might entitle you to buy new Lloyds shares for 40p each (so you’d get 5 for every 4 shares you held at the qualifying date for the rights issue) so should sell for about 20p each (since once you’d put in the 40p you’d receive a new share exactly equivalent to the existing shares). If so many people sell their rights that the price is not 20p but drops to (say) 18p, then someone could sell shares for 60p, buy rights for 18p, subscribe to the issue for 40p and make (60 – 18 – 40)p = 2p a share. Do this for a few million shares and you’re building up a tasty bonus pot! What happens when people sell the shares to buy the rights, of course, is that the share price tends to fall until the price of the shares and the price of the rights are aligned again.

So, according to this argument, it may be a good time to buy Lloyds shares, e.g. by subscribing to the rights issue.

It might also be worth noting that Lloyds stated that it will not pay a dividend for 2 years. This may be another reason why some investors (income funds) will not want to hold the shares, though they may already have sold their holdings in the stock.

Of course, there are many reasons why it could turn out to be a bad time to buy Lloyds. They might screw up. Or we might experience the dreaded double-dip recession. And if so many people decide it’s a good time to buy Lloyds, this will push up the price and make it a bad time to buy! Though it is the largest rights issue in the UK to date…

At the end of the day, investors must make up their own minds, and, as I say, I’m not providing financial advice. Patrick Collinson (or his editors) are bold enough to allow themselves a headline “Lloyds looking unattractive” (or “Lloyds rights issue looks distinctly unattractive” in the online version). I just feel investors might also want to take into account the argument that rights issues can be a good time to invest.

Disclaimer: I worked for Lloyds in the early 1990s and own some Lloyds shares.

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