energy revolution

Fall 2019 Market Themes

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We believe potential investment gains live in the gap between the unfolding reality and consensus expectations. Often, this means finding undervalued companies in unpopular industries. The theory is, if the future turns out better than expected, values may rise. No guarantees, of course.

We look for promising investments by studying opportunities in detail, reading annual reports, SEC filings, analyst commentary, and doing our own arithmetic.

Although we look at individual companies, we often find themes in our list. Our current Buy List has certain points of emphasis.

Natural resources continue to attract us. Producers of copper may do well in the years and decades ahead, as solar and wind power and batteries combine in a new energy revolution. These things require copper for their manufacture. Companies that mine precious metals may do well in an environment of political and economic uncertainty.

Shares in biotech companies do not seem to reflect the potential for continuing dramatic strides in treatment and cure of disease. They sell at a discount to the market multiple; some offer dividend income.

The price of airline stocks have slipped, over fears of recession. We believe the current share prices more than adequately discount that possibility. And recessions are followed by recoveries (at least, they always have been).

Owning the largest company in a highly fragmented industry has sometimes been a good recipe for investors in the past. As industries consolidate, the bigger players often get bigger by acquisition of smaller companies. This may give them a growth rate in excess of the overall economy. We see opportunities in this concept.

We continue to be struck by the performance gap between international equity markets and the US, going back a decade. Overseas diversification makes increasing sense to us.

Our list includes other things as well, but each of these themes is well represented. We believe picking our spots, and paying attention to the fine points, is the right approach.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss. There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

The Next Energy Revolution is Here!

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Back in 2017, we wrote about two trends that would interact to change the world. Declining costs of solar power generation, combined with declining costs of battery storage, would herald an energy revolution.

In a recent article, Bloomberg News suggests that solar and wind energy is more economical to build than coal or gas plants in two thirds of the world. Five years ago, this wasn’t the case anywhere.

New sources of energy have heralded remarkable periods of growth and prosperity in the past. Water and steam brought us into the modern era more than two centuries ago. Coal and petroleum pushed development beyond what anyone could have predicted, before their use became widespread.

The next energy revolution, solar and wind plus battery storage, will bring massive new opportunities – and threats to older technologies. We are thinking about ramifications for investors.

1. The demand for copper may rise, against a constrained supply.
2. Underdeveloped areas of the world may develop faster, since solar can be deployed on much smaller scales than big central generating plants using fossil fuels.
3. Cheaper electricity may encourage new uses, not yet dreamed of.
4. Incumbent electric utilities may find themselves with stranded assets in the form of obsolete plants and equipment.

No guarantees on any part of the future, of course. But it does seem to be unfolding as we expected a couple years ago.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Update: The Next Energy Revolution

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Our work involves looking at trends and striving to figure out if there is a way to make appropriate investments that may have a good chance to work out well. More than two years ago, we put together a pair of trends and made a forecast. It’s time to check in and see how the forecast is working out.

The cost of electricity from solar sources was said to be declining 10% per year, while the cost of electricity storage by battery was also declining. We felt then that this would lead to a revolution in energy production.

Installed solar generating capacity in the US grew 19% last year. The Solar Energy Industries Association projects that capacity will double in the next five years. In terms of new generating capacity by source, solar has ranked first or second each year for the past six years.1

Groundbreaking projects are going up around the world, too. The World Economic Forum reports that Abu Dhabi switched on the world’s largest virtual battery plant, able to store 648 megawatt hours. That’s enough to keep the city supplied for up to six hours in the event of a generating outage. This is feasible because the price of lithium-ion battery storage has dropped by more than 75% since 2012.2

As this combination of solar power generation plus battery storage commands a bigger share of global energy production, it seems to us that a lot of copper will be used. At the recent Global Copper Conference, a keynote speaker talked of record demand in the years ahead.

With prices on some mining companies that produce copper off by 75% or more from peaks of a few years ago, we see opportunity. This idea has not made large piles of money for anyone over the past few years, but the trend looks favorable. We believe we know how this turns out, so we are sticking with our convictions.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Notes and References

1. Solar Energy Industries Association, U.S. Solar Market Insight. https://www.seia.org/us-solar-market-insight. Accessed May 7th, 2019.
2. World Economic Forum, “The Cost of Generating Renewable Energy Has Fallen – A Lot.” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/this-is-how-much-renewable-energy-prices-have-fallen/. Accessed May 7th, 2019.

Four Trends for Fall, 2018

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The gap between consensus expectations and reality as it unfolds is where we think profit potential lives. This is why we put so much effort into studying trends, and the ramifications for investors.

One year ago, we wrote about four trends. The next energy revolution (solar + batteries), long range prospects for the world’s most populous democracy, the airline industry, and rising interest rates continue to play roles in our thoughts and portfolios.

Other ideas are also in play.

1. Thinking about the next few years, our highest conviction idea is inflation will exceed consensus expectations. Some of the ways we act on this belief may provide some counterweight to other portfolio holdings, since inflation hurts some industries while it helps others.

2. As the economic expansion lengthens toward record territory, the desire to extend our lifespan tends to be insensitive to the business cycle. Biopharmaceutical companies, working on cures for everything from Alzheimers to various forms of cancer, seem attractively priced.

3. The trend toward rising interest rates, noted last year, may have an effect on weaker and more leveraged companies. We are looking to avoid the second-order and third-order effects that higher rates may have on some borrowers.

4. US stocks have become popular relative to international equities, with dramatic outperformance over the past decade. At some point the trend changes, and better value usually wins out.

One of the difficult things about being contrarian–going against the crowd–is that we sometimes look silly. When everybody else is having more success in the short run while we search for bargains, it can be tough. But that is what we do. We’re excited about the continuing evolution of your holdings as the future unfolds.

We can offer no guarantees except that we will continue to put our best effort into the endeavor. Clients, if you have any questions or comments or insights to add, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

 

Investing in the Path of Progress

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The economic history of the past 2,000 years begins with little change for many centuries. Then, in the 17th century, things began to change—a lot.

Energy progressed from waterwheels and windmills to steam engines, electrification, and the fossil fuel economy. Each revolution brought lower prices, wider adoption, and increases in human productivity, incomes and wealth.

Energy powered the factory system, in which standardized parts enabled output to skyrocket compared to the age of one-at-a-time production by artisans making custom articles. One may have romantic notions about the age of the artisan, but far more people could afford shoes when they came out of a factory.

And that was just the beginning of the modern world, with its incredible increase in living standards and lifespans.

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Country by country, the pattern is rising urbanization and the decline of subsistence agriculture as economies modernize. It happened first in Europe and America. China is well along this path. The effect on incomes and economic growth is nothing short of astonishing, as you can see on the chart.

As investors, we see what may be a compelling opportunity from two current trends coming together. The next energy revolution, built on solar technology and battery storage, will enable vast parts of the developing world to modernize more quickly. Just as some places skipped the copper-wire age of telephones and built cell towers, in the years ahead some areas will skip the age of fossil fuels for electricity as solar power gains the economies of scale.

The most populous democracy in the world, India, is at an early stage of the trend to urbanization and modernity. Two thirds of the people live in rural areas; many are still engaged in subsistence farming. With a culture that values literacy and education, India is poised for growth and progress. Some believe that India is where China was twenty or thirty years ago—before decades of rapid economic growth. Add the next energy revolution to the mix, and you can see that exciting times may lie ahead.

The economy of India already includes some global companies, and many more publicly owned companies producing goods for the local market and nearby neighbors. By our standards, it is investable: money can be effectively invested with a reasonable expectation of gains. The India exposures we are putting in place are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and priced in US dollars.

Of course, the future is uncertain, and there are no guarantees. As with all long-term investments, prices may be volatile. Clients, if you would like to discuss how a small India allocation might affect your portfolio, please call us or send email.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

This Will Change the World

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The human tendency is to believe that present circumstances will continue. The gap between expectations and unfolding reality is where profit potential lives. Therefore understanding unanticipated change is one of the key tasks in our quest for investment gains.

Two related trends are about to unleash massive change and opportunity. If we can puzzle out some of the ramifications, it may serve us very well.

Solar power, being a technology, is declining in cost about ten percent per year. In some applications, it is already competitive with more conventional sources. As the cost continues to decline, we may surmise that solar power will represent an increasing fraction of world energy production—and the overall cost of electricity may begin to fall.

The second trend is the declining cost of energy storage. Bloomberg recently reported on the ribbon-cutting of a power-plant size array of batteries, in California, for meeting peaks in demand. The cost of the facility is twice that of a conventional natural gas peaking plant.

Although paying double does not seem to be an economic threat to the old way of doing things, Bloomberg reports that the cost of storage on that scale has dropped 90% in a decade. Again, energy storage is a technology, and the cost of technology tends to drop over time. We know how this works, right?

Connect the dots: we soon may have ever-cheaper energy available when we need it, courtesy of what we might call the Next Energy Revolution.

Economic history is largely a story of new sources of energy. Water power and steam power launched the modern era more than two centuries ago, with the Industrial Revolution. Petroleum in all its forms was central to the astonishing change and growth in the 20th century. What changes will the next revolution bring?

• Given lower costs for energy, will households consume more of it, or spend more money on other things?

• Will less developed areas of the world modernize more rapidly, powered by the sun?

• Does this hasten the rise of electric vehicles?

• Which companies or industries will be helped by cheaper energy? Which will suffer?

• How much wealthier will the world be, as a consequence?

Change brings opportunities and threats. We have begun to identify winners and losers in the next energy revolution. Much more study and thought will be required. Please call or email us if you would like to discuss how this affects your situation.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.