Growth energy

Natural gas fracking well in Louisiana

In the area of fixed income, one shouldn't be betting against Bill Gross of Pimco.  The man is a walking, talking fixed income encyclopedia and routinely makes astute calls on bond trends and pressures.  In March his total return fund (PTTRX) went to zero on US Treasuries.  In April, he supposedly went short (update here).  Others may follow.  The issue?  Ballooning deficits and a perception of a Congress unable to stem the tide.

Enter the world of subsidies, where two of the easiest subsidy reforms are running into friction:  killing the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit (VEETC) and eliminating a small number of the subsidies to oil and gas.  If the Congress is so adrift on fiscal accountability that it can't even kill these subsidies, lopping a good $10 billion or more per year off the federal deficit, perhaps we should all start to short Treasuries.  

This post focuses on VEETC; I'll deal with the oil and gas subsidies, and the various proclamations of gloom and doom from the American Petroleum Institute should their beloved percentage depletion allowance disappear, in a future post. 

Let the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit die 

In the life of a Congressman, it is hard to imagine too many opportunities where one can do nothing, save billions per year, and barely cause economic dislocations.  Not extending VEETC is one.

  • After VEETC, the RFS picks up the subsidy slack.  VEETC almost entirely duplicates the economic protection provided by the renewable fuels standard (RFS).  The RFS is a purchase mandate which forces markets to buy -- at above market prices if need be -- a variety of biofuels.  Right now, the vast majority of what must be purchased is first generation corn ethanol.  The implication of this overlap is important:  despite industry whining to the contrary, if you kill VEETC you are not suddenly pulling the rug out from under the industry's operations.  Far from it.  You are merely switching the form of subsidy from taxpayer financed tax credits to consumer-financed above-market prices at the pump. Tax credits disappear though, and this shift saves taxpayers $6 billion per year and rising, reducing the deficits.  Price premiums on RFS-eligible fuels rise (as reflected in the trading price of the RINs, the tradeable units of account for compliance with the RFS), so almost no ethanol producer goes out of business.  Heck, even the industry acknowledges the policy overlap.  
  • You can kill it without a vote.  VEETC will expire on its own at the end of this year.  No Congressman need to come out publicly to kill it and no political cost for doing so need be incurred.  Silence here really is golden.
  • Farm state losers from ethanol policy are growing.  Old arguments that ethanol subsidies universally helped farmers no longer apply.  Rising corn and other commodity prices have driven up feed prices and marginalized much animal production.  With roughly 40% of the nation's corn crop directed towards mandated fuel markets, the tensions are rising.  There is no longer a farm-state consensus on what the properly policy should be.  This gives politicians of all stripes the cover to let VEETC die.
  • Greener fuels benefit from having VEETC gone.  The RFS at least attempts to differentiate environmentally-harmful biofuels from others.  Not so for VEETC:  the blenders credit could still be taken even if the ethanol were made from a special mix of these threatened and endangered plants, from liquidating Pacific Lumber's redwood stands (which are now, thankfully, sustainably managed), or from corn produced unsustainably on erodible land.  But liquid biofuels were always sold to the public as green fuels, and killing VEETC is a good way to move in that direction.

So when we kill VEETC, were are not really taking away dessert from the farmers.  Right now, dessert comes in the form of a big slice of chocolate cake (VEETC) plus a dab of vanilla cake (RFS RINs).  After the demise of VEETC, there will be no more chocolate cake, but the slab of vanilla will be much bigger.  Alas, the staunchest ethanol supporters, such as Senator Charles Grassley, seem to like big pieces of both chocolate and vanilla best.  Perhaps they are worried this would lead to an all out attack on all of their other subsidy programs.  But when bond experts begin shorting Treasuries, it is time to put the interest of the country a bit higher on the agenda of what, after all, is supposed to be a national body.  Of course, that agenda does need to include slashing all sorts of other subsidies that now riddle our tax code; but doing the easy ones should be...easy.

Grassley's compromise -- to reduce VEETC a little bit and to drop it even more when oil prices are high -- isn't really a compromise.  In fact, the RFS mandates and the tradable RINs on those mandates already do this automatically.  When oil prices are high, demand for ethanol is high as well, and RIN prices drop to zero or nearly so.  When oil prices are low, they do the reverse.  In all markets, the mandates provide a floor to investors that has greatly reduced the financial risk and financing cost to build new plants.  There is no need for the parallel system.

The very fact that Grassely is coming out with this proposal, and that both Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association are at least posturing to support it, indicates how very weak the industry position really is.  Note, however, the final paragraph in the Reuters story:

The Grassley bill would also provide incentives to help the ethanol industry transform with new infrastructure to get biofuels to market. So-called blender pumps which allow customers to chose the blend of ethanol they want in their cars would benefit.

This is the other fallback position of the industry.  We'll give up our tax credit (that is already duplicated by the RFS) and in return, you'll help us pay for infrastructure we want.  Unfortunately, that is infrastructure that the market demand doesn't seem to think is worth buying on its own.  It is infrastructure that allows consumers to boost the ethanol blends in their cars above the allowable limit at the mere spin of a dial.  And it is infrastructure that will further lock in ethanol fuels over "drop-in" biofuel formulations such as biobutanol, though the drop-in fuels don't need new vehicles, pipelines, and refueling pumps at all. 

VEETC should be allowed to die, with no extensions and no side-payments.

Related document:  Biofuel Subsidies: An Overview, presentation at the Biofuels Policy Forum, April 14, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Natural gas fracking well in Louisiana

Subsidy recipients rarely admit their government largesse is a subsidy rather than some sort of altruistic investment they've reluctantly agreed to accept on behalf of their good work for the commonweal.  This natural spin tends to go into hyperdrive when the public affairs team of a trade association strays too far from the policy folk.

Nonetheless, Growth Energy, a recent entry to the growing array of lobby groups for the biofuels industry, does seem to have taken a brief respite from reality-based communications in a recent effort to defend the honor of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, or VEETC.  The trigger for this particular e-mail campaign was a post in Forbes by Robert Rapier, in which he had the gall to claim that VEETC was a redundant policy in the presence of a mandate. 

For the record, I fully agree with Rapier and don't think he is making a particularly controversial point.  The mandate compliance comes in the form of tradable "Renewable Identification Numbers" or RINs.  RIN prices are, for the most part, residual impacts net of other subsidy policies.  This is because if you've already provided large tax breaks to the fuel, producers can sell the ethanol to meet the mandate at a lower subsidized price than if you didn't provide tax breaks.  Thus, assuming that RIN trading is a competitive market, the conventional ethanol RINs will trade at a lower price due to the other subsidies. 

The parity isn't perfect.  For example, both ethanol and biodiesel excise tax credits have no environmental eligibility criteria at all, while the mandate-eligible fuels -- at least in theory -- do.  This means that some pockets of dirty biofuels could still tap in to VEETC even if they failed the RFS screens.   (See the recommendations in this paper, starting on page 29, for more on how to make the biofuel subsidization policies of the US a bit less destructive).  Similarly, if there is a large glut of ethanol production, RIN values can't go negative so the tax breaks would continue to provide subsidies to producers even when a mandate-only system would not.  Overall though, the policies overlap a great deal.

But Growth Energy went even further in its attack of the Rapier piece.  Chris Thorne, their Director of Public Affairs, wrote:

"The VEETC is not a subsidy. It is a tax credit that provides incentives so petroleum companies blend their gasoline with ethanol. It leads to significant benefits to you, the taxpayer, including lower gas prices and reduced support payments for farmers."

Bad news for Thorne here.  Tax credits are subsidies.  OMB and JCT agree on this.  So does the OECD, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, even the G20.  "Incentive" is a commonly used synonym for "subsidy" as well.  So too for "tax expenditure," "liability cap," "federally-guaranteed loan," and "government grant."  If you want to defend the subsidy on other grounds, fine.  But don't pretend its not a subsidy.

Thorne goes on to suggest the following argument to refute Rapier's posting:

"What Rapier is suggesting boils down to a tax increase on an innovative, domestic energy industry. Does Forbes really endorse raising taxes in this tough economic climate? Does Rapier really think raising taxes on an emerging industry is smart?"

In case you are not following this nuanced nugget, let me rephrase Growth Energy's logic here:

1)  A multi-billion dollar per year tax credit, in the form of VEETC, is not a subsidy.

2)  Even though it is not a subsidy, removing that credit amounts to a tax increase

3)  It is a tax increase even though the presence of the mandate means that the total support to the ethanol sector is unlikely to change (as the lower tax break triggers higher market price support as RIN prices rise). 

4)  We don't want to increase taxes because it is anti-stimulus, anti-recovery, and anti-American.

Thorne's other claims are equally specious. 

It is true the initial incidence of blender's credits is at blending, and that petroleum companies often fill this niche in US ethanol markets.  However, the tax credit is what has historically made ethanol cheap enough for the petroleum blenders to want to blend it (though the mandate now plays a similar -- and overlapping -- role).  Clearly, if Thorne really felt all the benefits of VEETC went to petroleum companies, Growth Energy would be out there working to kill the program.  They are not.

What about the "significant benefits to you, the taxpayer" that Thorne refers to?  I like benefits, and I'm a taxpayer, so I guess he's talking about me.  Well, even if ethanol pump prices are a tad lower than what we'd pay for 100% gasoline, were just talking a shell game here because unsubsidized ethanol is not less expensive than gas.  If we see lower prices for ethanol blends at the pump (even after adjusting for its lower energy content) it is because we pay even more than that to the industry through tax breaks, grants, and market price support from the mandates.  Not such a great deal. 

And the big savings in farm subsidies?  The rational response to high farm subsidies should be to remove them as well, not to subsidize other uses of the feedstock in order to boost the market prices on the subsidized products so the payouts under the first program aren't quite so high anymore.  In fact, this whole shell game turns out to be a net loser as well according to papers by Du, Hayes, and Baker (2009) and Gardner (2007). 

See also Rapier's own response to these issues here.