Wednesday wanderings the first week of March

Well, March Madness will be thrust upon Americans later this month, so everyone get ready for the various brackets for the NCAA basketball tourney. Madness may be the operative term for the world these days, but please note things are usually not as bad as reported, as good news is vastly underreported and does not have as high a bounce as a negative news.

Here are few thoughts as a wander this Wednesday.

The Coronavirus will be more prevalent than first thought, but it seems not as deadly as other viruses. Still, those who are not in good physical shape with breathing issues, circulation issues, obesity issues, etc. should be prepared to more abruptly deal with symptoms. Sadly, since the US president has made this a personal political issue, listening to politicians talk, whose first mission is to protect the Trump brand, is not reassuring. I want to hear from experts.

Many financial people have forewarned that using stimulus tools to prop up an economy and stock market when it is going pretty well is not the best time to deploy them. When they are used now, what will you use later? The economy is still doing pretty good, but has been softening for more than a year. And, the stock market has been in need of a downward adjustment for some time. But, the president views the stock market as a key barometer, so he takes it personally when it falls, even though, he has little ability to control it long term. Yesterday, the market did not react very well to the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates 50 basis points (1/2 %). To me, it was seen as a panicky move, but smarter people than me will have to judge this (note, the market got a bump today in reaction to Biden’s success in the primaries).

While I like Bernie and will vote for him if he is the nominee, America breathed a sigh of relief yesterday with former VP Joe Biden’s rebound performance. As an independent and former Republican and Democrat, I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive. I very much believe in helping people with opportunities and to climb a ladder when disenfranchised. But, we need to pay for things. Right now, we have $23 trillion in debt and it is projected to increase to over $35 trillion by the end of the decade. We must deal with this obstacle, while we do other things – pay for infrastructure improvements, shore up the ACA, Social Security, etc. With this in mind, while both are good people, Biden will be better positioned to bring folks together to do that – Democrats, independents and even some Republicans.

If Bernie wins the nomination, I hope he pulls in a more moderate Democrat as his VP candidate. If Joe wins, it would be great if he tapped someone a little more progressive than he is. One of the dilemmas is the Democrats need to think about the future, as neither person is a spring chicken. I like listening to folks like Pete Buttitieg, Andrew Yang, etc. as they have a well-considered ideas, even if you don’t agree with every thing they say.

Whatever happens, Democrats need to vote for their candidate as four more years of the most corrupt and deceitful president in my lifetime, including the corrupt Richard Nixon, will not be good for America. I have said and written this to Senators and my Congressman, but regardless of party, we cannot have a president who acts the way this incumbent does. He is a national security risk and quite simply, America is no longer trusted as before, because the president is not trustworthy. Plus, we cannot lose sight of more aggressively addressing climate change and environmental degradation that have been made worse and would deteriorate more on his continued watch.

China bets on wind and solar power in Brazil

With the US government overly concerned with protecting non-renewable fossil fuels, other countries continue to move forward. An article called “China bets on wind and solar power in Brazil” by Manuela Andreoni in Dialogo Chino last August showed how China is filling the void.

From the article:

“It took just two months and a few billion dollars for China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) to become one of the largest providers of clean energy in Brazil. Between May and July, the company acquired two solar power plants – including the second largest in the country – and six wind farms.

Chinese companies were already a powerhouse in Brazil’s energy sector, owning about 10% of the country’s capacity, mostly because of big acquisitions in recent years by State Grid and China Three Gorges; not to mention the thousands of kilometers of transmission lines being built.

But the new move by CGN solidified China’s presence in Brazil’s flourishing new energy market. According to a Diálogo Chino analysis of public records, the new investments mean Chinese companies now own 16% of Brazil’s wind power capacity and 21% of its solar capacity, or 2,822 megawatts in total.”

American companies, states and cities are moving forward on renewable energy. Their efforts would be so more impacful if leveraged by the federal government.

Our planet needs more leadership on this issue than America is showing. Countries like Germany and China are filling that void.

Planting trees is a good start

I read this week House Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy is pushing for a bill to require the planting of a million trees. Some members of the Republican party are now openly admitting climate change is a problem after over twenty years of varying degrees of denial.

The rationale is to two-fold. These members realize younger voters know climate change is a problem to deal with. These members also are pushing a carbon capture narrative to permit the unabated use of fossil fuel energy.

This is a good start for the Republican party, but a necessary strategy has two vital components:

1) take more carbon out of the atmosphere

2) put less carbon into the air

Focusing only on one or the other is half the battle. Fortunately, coal is on the demise in most places around the world. In the US, more coal-fired plants have been retired under Trump’s tenure than under the last three years of Obama’s. With all his bluster, Trump cannot stop the demise.

The key is to diminish natural gas, which has less carbon impact than coal, but creates a larger methane and water problem. While methane has a shorter life than carbon, it is more potent a problem.

We should embrace planting more trees. We should also increase mangrove areas near seashores which absorb a lot of carbon and protect against rising tides. And, as noted in the documentary “Ice on Fire,” there are a number of other carbon eating measures.

These with increasing solar, wind, and tidal energy sources and continued urban and agricultural climate efforts will help put less carbon in the air. The answer is all of the above and more.

Near universal health coverage achieved in six states and DC

An article by Michael Rainey of The Fiscal Times (see link below), called “How six states achieved near universal coverage” noted the success of covering at least 95% of their people. These six states are Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont. The District of Columbia also fits the bill. Per the article:

“A half-dozen states and the District of Columbia have health care insurance rates of over 95%, achieving near-universal coverage. Three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania — including Ezekiel Emanuel, a key architect of Obamacare — said Monday that the Affordable Care Act has everything to do with those results.

Here’s how the states achieved such high insurance rates, according to the authors:

Expanding Medicaid: States that expanded their Medicaid programs as allowed under the ACA had about half the uninsured rate (6.6%) in 2018 as states that did not do so (12.4%). ‘Nearly 5 million people would gain health insurance if the remaining 14 states expanded Medicaid,’ they write.

Extending enrollment periods: High-coverage states countered the Trump administration’s efforts to shorten enrollment periods and reduce informational assistance.

Lowering premiums: States enacted additional subsidies and reinsurance programs to keep premiums low, a crucial factor in maintaining insurance coverage from year to year.

Simplifying options: Some states limited the number of options available to counteract “choice overload,” which can reduce signups through consumer paralysis.

Maintaining individual mandates: Five low uninsured states maintain some kind of individual and employer mandates, which may help persuade healthy people to sign up.

The lesson, the authors say, is that near-universal health coverage can be achieved without national legislation. ‘While it is easy to dismiss the ACA and focus on the promise of Medicare for All, there is a more straightforward path to universal coverage,’ they write, ‘adopting a handful of relatively simple policies and programs at the state level can ensure health insurance coverage for nearly all Americans.’”

This article echoes what can be achievable if Medicaid is expanded and the other above steps are taken. The three states who drag the results down for the country – Texas, Florida and Georgia – did not expand Medicaid nor run their own Healthcare exchanges. Of the six states over 95%, it should be noted Iowa and Hawaii use the federal Healthcare Exchange, while the other four run their own exchanges.

I have long said Medicare for All is something to be explored, but it requires detailed analyses (and time) of its costs and impact. In the interim, I have strongly advocated improving the Affordable Care Act. The goal is access to care, in my view. The employment paradigm has been changing for some time, where fewer full-time workers are being used than before. We are seeing several industries move to a largely part-time workforce, such as in the retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries. We have seen contractual employment continue as well as the growth of gig economies. Health care access needs to come from somewhere.

What I do not care for is the hyper-politicization of this topic. Republicans (including the president) have actively sabotaged the Affordable Care Act, cutting funding to insurers, not mentioning the negative talk about it. It has still survived. Some Democrats choose to throw progress out and go full bore with Medicare for All. Again, that is a detailed undertaking and no candidate can accomplish this without buy-in from both parties.

So, let’s improve what we have. States who have not expanded Medicaid have been economically short-sighted and harmed their citizens. I have argued for repaying insurers who were harmed by the reneging on funding commitments, inviting them back into markets. Where choice is not available, introduce a Medicare option. I would also lower the eligibility for Medicare to age 60 or 62.

These are practical options that may move the needle upward like in those six states. Let’s talk about that.

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/6-states-achieved-near-universal-224827646.html

A few climate change tidbits

There was good news, bad news and ludicrous news that occurred this week. Here is a Friday rundown.

On the good news front, The Charlotte Observer did an excellent editorial called “Federal disaster relief: Tossing cash in the ocean in NC.” The gist is the US Army Corps of Engineers is spending “$237 million to rebuild dunes and widen the beach on 10 miles of Topsail Island shoreline.” The sad part is the rebuild is occurring only a year after an earlier rebuild. Per Orrin Pilkey a Duke emeritus professor of geology and an expert on coastal erosion, “‘These projects can only be characterized as madness. The sea-level rise is clearly accelerating, increasing intense storms are expected as has happened in the last four years, and the amounts of money spent on these beaches will need to be expended again and again for years into the future.'” Per the Observer, “piling cash into the sand won’t stop that for long.” Ten years ago, the largest global pension trustees did a study that noted the cost of addressing climate change was in the multiple tens of trillions of US dollars.

On the ludicrous front, US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin decided to follow his boss’ lead and pick on Greta Thunberg. In essence, Mnuchin said she needs to go back and get an economic degree and then explain why we should fight climate change. OK, Mr. Mnuchin, please tell me how spending cash to rebuild sand dunes over and over again makes financial sense? Help explain why the present value cost of renewable energy such as wind and solar, which includes the cost of acquisition, transportation, environmental degradation, production, maintenance of byproduct, and litigation is far cheaper than the present value cost of coal energy? And, while your at it, why did a Mayor, with an accounting background, in a Texas town choose a 100% renewable energy proposal over a fossil fuel one due to cost and guaranteed pricing for twenty-five years? What this shows to me is grown people are trying to denigrate a young girl as if they do, then climate change is not an issue.

On the bad news front, the courts threw out the climate change inaction case against the US by twenty-one children and now young adults. The case had merit and moved up to a district courts where it was dismissed by a 2 to 1 vote. The courts did agree with the plea to do more about climate change, but did not feel the case warranted further action. It has spawned other cases in other cities and helped fuel an advocacy to do something about climate change. What the plaintiffs will do next is uncertain at this point. It should be noted the suit against Exxon Mobil by three states is still pending. Using Exxon’s own data, the lead state New York Attorney General, is arguing that Exxon Mobil misled its shareholders and possible investors on the impact of climate change on its financials. That is securities fraud under the guise of the SEC.

The takeaways from the above are clear in my mind. Dealing with climate change is a “pay me now or pay me later” proposition. A key is we cannot put the climate back together again if we wait too long to act more aggressively. I have quoted Pilkey before, but one message bears repeating. People would be foolish to buy property on the shore and should think about selling what they have now. That cuts to the chase.

The other takeaway is the young people get it. The older people in positions of power either don’t get it or cannot say that they do, as they take so much funding from the fossil fuel industry. Coal is in the demise and more coal plants have been closed under this president than under his predecessors. That would be a good question for Messers. Mnuchin and Trump that Ms. Thunberg might want to ask. She might also want to ask why the Trump Organization petitioned, in writing, the Irish government to build a sea wall at a Trump golf course to hold back the rising ocean due to climate change. It does not take an economist to call BS on that one.

Thunberg accuses leaders of creative public relations

In an Associated Press article called “Teen activist accuses leaders of ‘creative PR’ at UN climate talks” by Aritz Parra and Frank Jordans, Greta Thunberg did not shy away from calling leaders on the carpet. The activist who was recently awarded the Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2019, “accused governments and businesses of misleading the public by holding climate talks that are not achieving real action against the world’s ‘climate emergency.'”

Using a multitude of scientific facts, Thunberg “told negotiators at the UN’s climate talks in Madrid they have to stop looking for loopholes and face up to the ambition that is needed to protect the world from a global warming disaster.” It should be noted, the US is present, but its attendance is on the shoulders of lower level folks who cannot make decisions. Unfortunately, sans the US leadership as one of the two biggest polluters, other countries did not send decision makers either.

“‘The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR.’ said Thunberg.” Even at age 16, she is savvy to an age old practice by leaders to look like they are doing something when it is all a part of a subterfuge.

There was a positive action last week, “where the European Union announced a $130 billion plan to help wean EU nations off fossil fuels. German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said she hoped the “European Green Deal’ would ‘give the discussions here (in Madrid) a boost.'”

“Some experts echoed the activist’s concerns about lack of progress. ‘In my almost 30 years in this process, never have I seen the almost total disconnect that we’re seeing in Madrid, between what the science requires and the people of the world are demanding on the one hand and what climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful actions,’ said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US based non-profit group.”

The lack of leadership on climate change is appalling and was a major concern of mine if the current US president won the election. Good things are happening in the US in spite of his naysaying efforts, but the world needs its leaders of the bigger polluters to be part of the solution. Thunberg is well deserving of her honor and continues to speak truth to people in power. It is sad that she knows far more about this topic than many adults who could make a difference. That would include the US president who is more concerned with perception and awards than helping the planet address this pandemic-like issue.

Per Reuters – More foreign firms halted U.S. deals amid Trump administration scrutiny: report

Last week, Alexandra Alper of Reuters Financial News shared findings within a concerning report. The “report released by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), shows that foreign companies abandoned roughly 14 percent of U.S. investments that were investigated by CFIUS in 2017 ‘in light of CFIUS-related national security concerns.’ The percentage in 2018 was 11 percent.

Those figures were sharply up from the period immediately before Trump took office. About 4 or 5 percent of such transactions probed by the committee were dropped annually from 2014 to 2016, the report showed. The Committee, led by the Treasury Department, reviews foreign investment in the United States for national security issues.”

I have raised this issue previously – when any entity makes it more burdensome to deal with, other entities will explore other options. The tariff wars are causing suppliers and customers to find other avenues. John Deere sales are down in the US, but up in South America as more agricultural products are being bought there.

On foreign investment, if we have companies jump through too many hoops, they will take their money elsewhere. These are headwinds to our economy and our growth has been softening.

Coupled with overall global softening, it should give us concern.