Interesting thing is happening at energy company shareholder meetings

An interesting development occurred at annual shareholder meetings of two major companies in the energy business – PPL Corp, a utility serving Pennsylvania and other states and Occidental Petroleum Corp. A shareholder instigated vote took place at each firm and passed over the recommendations against it by their Boards of Directors. The proposal is for each company to share formally a report on what they intend to do about climate change.

Per the website “Financial Advisor” the following was reported earlier this month about the Occidental vote:

“The proposal received the backing of Occidental’s largest shareholder, $5.4 trillion asset manager BlackRock Inc. BlackRock, which owns a 7.8 percent stake in the oil explorer, said it took action due to the “lack of response” on the issue by the company and a lack of improvement in its climate-change related reporting following a similar proposal last year which received more than 40 percent support.”

The shareholder proposals are at the impetus of CalPERS, one of the largest pension trust funds in the world and a major investor in each company. Other state pension trust funds are supportive of CalPERS’ push. A similar vote was taken recently at Royal Dutch Shell and was defeated, with another vote scheduled at ExxonMobil. It should be noted that institutional investor groups are recommending against these proposals, but two have passed.

With a White House at odds with the rest of the world on climate change, we will need a groundswell of advocacy. Fortunately, we are passed the tipping point on renewable energy due to falling prices and rapidly increasing jobs. And, some of these same companies are advocating the US stay in the Paris Climate Change accord. Yet, the US cannot leave the table. To assure that we remain, we need these kinds of shareholder votes and other advocacies.

The White House has now canceled two meetings to discuss the future of our involvement in the Paris Climate Change. I believe this is in reaction to the push back from business. We cannot backtrack on this and other environmental issues. Let’s push forward and, if the President does not want to play a role, we and the rest of the world can leave him behind.

 

Celebration for passing a bill may have been premature

With a White House eager to claim legislative victory, there was a celebratory bash after the Republican led House passed the AHCA by a squeaker of margins 217 to 213. The bill has been vilified by several advocacy groups like the AMA, American Cancer Society and AARP and it has still not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The bill is also dead in the water in the Senate “once it gets sent there.”

Wait a minute, the last sentence said “once it gets sent there.” To the surprise of some Republican House members, the AHCA bill has not yet been sent to the Senate. Why, you might ask? Since the House did not wait for the CBO to score the cost and impact of the bill on the numbers of uninsured, it cannot be included in the budgeting process, and would thus require 60 votes, not 51 to pass in the Senate. The whole idea was to sneak the bill through this process, so it did not need the super-majority of 60 votes, which it cannot achieve.

Unless the CBO scores this where it saves a threshold amount of the budget, it may not qualify. So, the House leadership has not yet sent the AHCA to the Senate. If they did and the CBO results were not favorable, the House would have to start over. Again, I should reiterate that this bill cannot get even the 51 votes needed due to the impact on Medicaid. As we speak, about two dozen state governors are beseeching the Senate about not harming Medicaid. Unlike the House, the Senate is actually listening.

So, the victory lap on mile 250 of the Indy 500, may have been premature. Voting on something without knowing its impact is not the wisest course of action and is unbecoming of a legislator we trust to do our homework.

 

Budget, budget, budget

Now, that agreement has been reached on setting a budget for the current fiscal year which is seven months old, I have three comments. First, bipartisan collaboration is the reason this budget passed. Thus far, the House has been trying to pass legislation arguing amongst Republicans. Bipartisan legislation is how John Boehner got bills passed.

Second, it is interesting how we are celebrating Congress for doing its job. This is one of the easier, substantive things they do, yet it should not take seven months into the fiscal year. Keeping the lights on is the most important thing they do, yet they can’t do even this well.

Third, I have witnessed yet again a Congressional candidate to replace now budget director Mick Mulvaney tout he is in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Folks, we have $20 trillion in debt. We need more revenue than expenses. And, we cannot cut our way there. We need to increase revenue. It should be noted the President’s tax plan is estimated to increase the debt from $2 to $6 trillion.

We need more serious discussions than this President and Congress are prepared to do. We must roll up our sleeves and add wisely to revenue and cut wisely our expenses, as both efforts are required. If someone tells you otherwise, mention the $20 trillion debt figure.

Let’s focus on jobs – promote renewable energy

Nadja Popovich of The New York Times penned a story this week called “Today’s energy jobs are in solar, not coal.” Using 2016 numbers released by the US Department of Energy in January, the following data points are revealed per Popovich:

  • 1.9 million Americans work in the field of power creation (including generation, mining and other fuel extraction activities).
  • More than 373,000 Americans work full or part-time in solar energy, with 260,000 of them spending over 70% of their time on solar projects.
  • Wind energy jobs topped 100,000 for the first time in 2016.
  • The coal industry jobs have fallen to 160,000 Americans nationwide, with only 54,000 in coal mining, a significant reduction which has occurred over time with the advent of natural gas due to fracking and decreasing prices in renewables.
  • It should be noted there are another 2.3 million jobs in energy transmission, storage and distribution, including more than 900,000 gas station workers and related retail jobs.
  • If non-traditional energy workers are added, those installing energy-efficient products, the number swells in total to 6.4 million Americans.

Solar jobs have been growing at an annual double-digit rate for several years and will continue to do so with the falling prices. A report of a couple of years ago, noted that wind energy jobs could grow to 500,000 by 2030, if we invest appropriately. It should be noted that Warren Buffett and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens are big proponents of wind energy, with the Buffett investing in GE who produces wind turbines and Pickens promoting wind energy in the plain states for several years. Iowa gets over a 1/3 of its electricity and oil-rich Texas gets 11% of its electricity from wind energy, e.g.

So, the next time you discuss the need for moving forward with renewable energy and someone counters your argument with a remark about jobs, please remember these real numbers released by the DOE. The best I can ascertain, is the DOE is not in the business of fake news. And, the final question to ask is where do you think investors are going to place their bets – on a retrenching industry or a growing one?

Go science!

My niece coined a marvelous phrase in response to her finding out my three children also attended the March for Science on Earth Day. She said, “Go science!”

I applaud her enthusiasm as it is needed to countervent the poor stewardship of scientific responsibility being conducted out of the White House. Truth be told, while I have many concerns for the future, my greatest concern under this President has always been backtracking on climate change interventions and environmental progress. With appointments of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA and Rick Perry as head of Energy, we do not have leaders that hold the environment as a key priority. And, with the deletion of science data and links from federal websites and proposed reduced funding on scientific research, we are punting on our prominent global role in scientific thought.

I still am having a hard time ascertaining what “make America great means.” But, one thing is for certain, dumbing down America is not the path to keep up us competitive and the world safe. With NASA and NOAA, we hold significant roles in climate change data and planning. With our passing the tipping point on renewable energy, we hold an important place in the movement to cleaner energy.

When I hear folks like the President counter with jobs, we should let the data speak. Renewable energy jobs are growing at double digit rates. To compete in an ever advancing technology world which is cutting far more jobs than international investment, not investing in science and cutting Visas for talented students hinders future job growth around advancement since jobs are created around the initial innovation.

Ignoring or belittling science is not the answer for a robust and growing country. The President said yesterday that science should not be ideological and open to debate. He is right. Deleting data and papers does not sound very open to me, nor is squelching debate on folks that disagree with your position.

A few mid-week musings

Since we are at mid-week, let me offer a few miscellaneous musings, mostly good with a few bad. Let me start with some good news:

A Federal appeals court in the Chicago area ruled that the LGBT community is protected under the 1964 Civil Rights amendment even though they were not specifically listed. The court case was around a community college professor who contended she was fired for being a Lesbian. The ruling was 8 to 3, but will of course be appealed to the district court in Indiana.

On what appears to be good news, but falls way short, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a repeal to the discriminatory HB2 law, yet left the most important piece of discrimination therein. They rolled back the change on the transgender bathroom issue, yet left in place the exclusion of the LGBT community from protected status for discrimination. Reviewing the above ruling in Chicago, it is apparent that feature is unconstitutional.

The electric car maker Tesla blew past expected deliveries this past week for their first quarter with over 25,400 cars. Tesla is on pace to deliver the high-end of their 45,000 to 50,000 first half of the year estimate. What is interesting the stock market is valuing the future for this company and its current market capitalization value is $48 Billion which is now higher than Ford at just under $45 Billion. Tesla is owned by Elon Musk who is leveraging his battery technology to aid in solar and wind energy storage, working on a key project to help Australia with an outage problem.

Reuters reported today that utility companies are not being influenced by our President’s fight to end the war on coal. With the exception of one of 31 companies, a two-thirds majority said it would not impact their plans to move to cheaper and cleaner natural gas and increasingly cheaper renewable energy sources. The other companies were silent. In a piece I read last year, we are passed the tipping point on renewable energy and it was postulated about utilities why would they invest in an expensive coal-fired plant that will be obsolete before it is completed?

On the bad side, I am increasingly concerned by Bashar al-Assad and his willingness to gas people. This man has a history of doing this and then lying to reporters and other leaders about it. It would be great to see the UN powers come together and say, we will help end this war in your country, but you must step down now or face charges of war crimes. While our former President did many good things, his handling of Syria was not one of them. He and Congress let the world down by not spanking this SOB for his last gassing of civilians. I am a peaceful person, but there are times when you must stand up to evil.

Then, there is North Korea who remains a threat as it is run by a petulant tyrant. China must join with the rest of the world in helping put a lid on this man’s chest beating. Otherwise, we leave it in the hands of our own mess maker. While I trust some of his military advisors in doing the right thing, I have little confidence in our leader solving this problem without some diplomatic help. What at least should scare North Korea is our President is a loose cannon, as it scares me.

Well, that is all for now. Have a great rest of your week.

 

Puzzled about the ACA – take this quick quiz

Now that the AHCA effort by the President and Republican majority has fizzled, it would be appropriate to step away from the rhetoric and ask a few questions about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I would also suggest you may not want to listen only to politicians on this as I have learned the health care awareness of politicians is not as high as we need it to be and some are more interested in optics than impact.

The questions and answers have been provided by a retired benefits actuary, consultant and manager for a Fortune 500 company.

Question 1: The ACA is: (a) undergoing a death spiral, (b) a disaster and will implode, (c) doing well in a number of places, but needs help in a few others.

Question 2: The reasons for rising costs under the ACA are: (a) adverse selection where more bad risks are signing up than good risks, (b) Congress refusing to fully fund insurers as promised for this adverse selection, (c) increased demand of services due to our aging and more obese country and pent-up demand, (d) over-prescribed medicine and tests due to profit-induced incentives, (e) all of the above.

Question 3: In its report of the initial and refined draft of the ill-fated AHCA bill, the Congressional Budget Office noted the number of un-insureds under this bill if passed would: (a) increase by 14 million in 2018, (b) increase by 24 million by 2026, (c) both (a) and (b).

Question 4: Medicaid expansion to cover individuals who earn less than 138% of the poverty level is a key part of the ACA. What do we know about the Medicaid expansion effort: (a) 31 states elected to do so, (b) states that did so received federal funding that started at 100% and will phase down to 90%, (c) per a study by George Washington University, the states that expanded Medicaid have more insureds, better performing economies and more secure hospitals, especially rural ones who had a high percentage of indigent (unpaid for) care, (d) the states who expanded Medicaid are witnessing a decline in personal bankruptcy rates and an increase in hospital accounts receivable rates (e) all of the above.

Question 5: The ACA added which of the following improvements to insurance coverage under the employer and the ACA marketplaces (a) guaranteed issue and renewability of insurance, (b) eliminated life time limits on coverage, (c) extended eligibility to adult children not going to college up to age 26 on their parent plans, (d) provided subsidies to purchase coverage up to 4 times the poverty level based on family size and income, (e) all of the above.

Question 6: What are reasonable considerations to improve the ACA? (a) better fund the promised adverse selection protection to stabilize premiums for insurers, (b) offer to reimburse insurers who left the marketplace for unpaid adverse selection protection as promised under the law to woo them back, (c) offer a public option (such as Medicare) in some places with no competition, (d) encourage the expansion of Medicaid in the remaining 19 states, (e) stop the unproductive naysaying and think of the impact on people not the politics, (f) all of the above.

In my view as a benefits professional who follows these issues, the answers to each of these questions is the last choice provided. I have grown weary of politicians playing with people’s lives. We are owed the truth. Overall, this law is working reasonably well, but needs improvements, especially where insurers have left markets leaving one choice. The framework is there, but the improvements noted in Question 6 are reasonable changes.

One final thought I learned this weekend. To some there is a stigma of being on Medicaid. One man said he was embarrassed to show his card. Under the Medicaid expansion with the ACA, the card does not reference Medicaid, so it removes some of the stigma. The man began seeing a doctor and that has made a huge difference.