Archive for September, 2011

The Price Fix Is Still In

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Matt Damon in The Informant!

Free market ideologues love to quote Adam Smith, but one passage from The Wealth of Nations that they tend to downplay is Smith’s observation that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Americans today tend to think of price-fixing as a characteristic of the age of the Robber Barons and something that was dealt with by the Progressive movement. It is true that many anti-competitive practices were outlawed by the 1890 Sherman Act and the 1914 Clayton Act, but those laws did not put an end to attempts by corporations and their executives to keep prices artificially high.

Subsequent decades saw major revelations about price-fixing cartels, such as the big electrical equipment industry conspiracy of the 1950s and early 1960s in which companies such as General Electric were implicated. The 1990s saw, for example, the revelation of a conspiracy by companies such as Archer Daniels Midland to fix the price of the animal feed additive lysine. Unfortunately, what many people may recall of that case has now been colored by the comic way it was depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Informant!

A spate of recent cases shows that, even at a time of purported hyper-competition, price-fixing conspiracies are still with us:

  • Furukawa Electric Co. Ltd. just agreed to plead guilty and pay a $200 million fine to the Justice Department for its role in a criminal price-fixing and bid-rigging conspiracy involving the sale of parts to automobile manufacturers. Three Furukawa executives, who are Japanese nationals, agreed to plead guilty and serve prison time in the United States ranging from one year to 18 months.
  • Former executives from Panasonic, Whirlpool and Tecumseh Products were recently indicted in federal court on charges that they conspired to fix the prices of refrigerant compressors. Earlier, Panasonic and a Whirlpool subsidiary pleaded guilty to related charges and were sentenced to pay a combined fine of $140 million.
  • Another Japanese company, Bridgestone, agreed recently to plead guilty and pay a $28 million criminal fine to the Justice Department for its role in conspiracies to rig bids and to make corrupt payments to foreign government officials in Latin America related to the sale of marine hose and other products.
  • More than a dozen carriers, including Singapore Airlines, have been caught up in an investigation of a conspiracy to fix air freight prices for shipments going to and from the United States.

Although Asian companies seem to have predilection for price-fixing, U.S. firms are not immune. During recent months the Justice Department has obtained guilty pleas from domestic firms such as aftermarket automobile light distributors in California and ready-mix concrete companies in Iowa.

As in the refrigerant compressor case cited above and the 1990s lysine case, U.S. firms often join with their foreign “competitors” in the conspiracies. The big European paraffin cartel that came to light in 2008 involved secret meetings at a moat-ringed French chateau with representatives of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol of Spain and Sasol of South Africa. European antitrust officials fined Procter & Gamble along with Unilever earlier this year for fixing prices of laundry detergent.

At a time of modest inflation, including falling prices for some popular electronic products, it may be tempting to brush aside price-fixing as an insignificant problem. The fact that the conspiracies often involve industrial components means that consumers do not readily see the effects of anti-competitive practices.

Price-fixing does have an impact. A survey by John M. Connor of Purdue University found that over the long run price-fixing cartels result in overcharges of more than 20 percent.

The fact that price-fixing is still a frequent occurrence is yet another rebuttal to those libertarian and laissez-faire types who insist that government regulation of business is unnecessary and counter-productive. We can’t forget the lesson learned by the Progressive movement more than a century ago: Left to their own devices, large corporations will not act in the public interest and will even undermine the very principle of competition on which capitalism is supposed to be based.

Solyndra’s Fossil Fuel Cousins

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Republicans show no signs of relenting in their effort to exploit the bankruptcy filing of federally-backed solar equipment company Solyndra to delegitimize not only the Obama Administration’s renewable energy policies but the very concept of green jobs.

A key element of the campaign is the depiction of Obama as having a hippie-like preoccupation with wind and solar energy. What the Republicans conveniently ignore is that Obama hedged his bets. While running for the presidency and after taking office he also promoted non-flower-power forms of energy such as nuclear and coal. Much to the chagrin of his supporters in the environmental movement, Obama embraced the industry-contrived idea of “clean coal,” otherwise known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

It is widely forgotten that the 2009 Recovery Act (ARRA), now being vilified for appropriating funds for the loan guarantees given to Solyndra and other solar firms, also included a provision for subsidizing CCS projects. ARRA provided $3.4 billion for the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy R&D Program. Of that amount, $1.52 billion was to support large-scale demonstration projects involving the capture of carbon emissions from industrial sources. “Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track” was the headline of a March 2009 article in the New York Times.

The brave new era of CCS did not begin auspiciously. In August 2009 it was revealed that consultants working for an industry front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity had forged letters from non-profit groups to members of Congress expressing opposition to a climate bill that was being considered at the time.

In October 2009 the Energy Department announced a set of modest-sized CCS grants to companies such as Archer Daniels Midland, ConocoPhillips and Shell Chemical. Two months later, DOE handed out a set of much larger grants totaling $979 million to American Electric Power Company, Southern Company and Summit Texas Clean Energy.

And in August 2010 the Energy Department awarded $1 billion in ARRA funds to a large CCS project operated by several companies under the name FutureGen Alliance. In a previous incarnation, FutureGen had been funded by the Bush Administration—largely to justify inaction on greenhouse gas emissions—but that money was cut off as the result of a cost study that later turned out to have a major math error.

So how has all this turned out? In July, the CCS movement was dealt a severe blow when American Electric Power announced that, despite the federal aid it was receiving, it would suspend work on its flagship Mountaineer carbon capture project in West Virginia. AEP said it based the decision on the weak economy and the uncertain status of climate policy.

Later that month, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a report called “What’s Killing Carbon Capture,” which pointed out that the Mountaineer suspension was only one of a series of recent cancellations or postponements of CCS projects in the United States and other countries. Meanwhile, FutureGen 2.0 is years away from operation and may never justify the federal government’s huge investment.

In other words, renewables are not the only kind of energy alternatives that are in trouble. If Republicans want to use the Solyndra case to argue the failure of green job creation, they have to acknowledge that clean coal initiatives promoted by the fossil fuel sector are also going nowhere.

And if they really want to be honest, they would admit that the reasons for setbacks in wind and solar as well as in carbon capture go far beyond the handling of ARRA grants by the Obama Administration. The feeble economy presents a formidable obstacle for any new industry. A dysfunctional policy environment made even more toxic by the rise of climate change denialism creates even more turmoil for energy industry innovators, whether in the renewable or the CCS camp. It may also be the case that those innovators just don’t have a viable business plan.

Of course, the Administration’s critics are not going to concede any of this. Anti-green job demagoguery will be with us for some time to come.

Green Accountability

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Obamacare, abortion, gay marriage and taxes are apparently not enough to complain about. Conservative politicians have a new whipping boy: green jobs. Republican members of Congress and GOP Presidential hopefuls seem to think these days that the greatest sin of the Obama Administration is its effort to encourage employment growth in the renewable energy sector.

Mitt Romney’s recently released economic plan accuses Obama of having “an unhealthy ‘green’ jobs obsession.” In her response to the President’s jobs speech, Michele Bachmann charged that the Administration is imitating the green-jobs policies of Spain, which she bizarrely suggested were responsible for that country’s astronomical rates of unemployment. Rick Perry’s attacks on the reality of climate change imply that green jobs are unnecessary.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress are trying to turn the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which leaves the federal government on the hook for $535 million in loan guarantees, into a morality tale not only about supposed cronyism but also about the folly of government support for green jobs.

As usual, there is a high dose of hypocrisy among those making the criticisms. As USA Today points out, while he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported the use of public funds to support renewable energy businesses. What the paper did not mention was that one of the recipients of those funds was Evergreen Solar, which got a $2.5 million state grant in 2003 and went on to receive $44 million more from Romney’s successor Deval Patrick. Earlier this year, Evergreen announced plans to shift its production to China and later filed for bankruptcy.

In 2008 the Texas Enterprise Fund, a subsidy program overseen by Gov. Perry, gave $1 million to the solar company HelioVolt. The company has also struggled and earlier this year put itself up for sale. A report by Texans for Public Justice noted that the fund had relaxed HelioVolt’s job-creation requirement. Perry’s fund also gave $2.5 million to SunPower Corp.

Romney and Perry are far from the only Republic governors who have overseen the use of taxpayer funds to invest in renewable energy companies. Under the leadership of Gov. Jan Brewer, Arizona has been offering a Renewable Energy Tax Incentive. In her State of the State speech last year, Brewer said she was “proud to announce the arrival of Suntech Power Holdings. It’s the first solar company to come to Arizona because of the renewable energy tax incentive program I signed into law in June.”

Recently, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who flirted with a run for the Republican Presidential nomination earlier this year, supported and then signed legislation that will provide a whopping $75 million subsidy for Calisolar, a California company that plans to produce solar cells in the Magnolia State. The law also includes $100 million in financial assistance for biomass energy company HCL CleanTech.

The fact that Republicans are disingenuous in their criticism of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy efforts does not mean that green subsidies at the federal or state level are necessarily a good thing. While the need to develop alternative energy systems is an urgent task for the nation, it does not make sense to repeat the mistakes of conventional economic development policy in helping the green sector.

That means, for one thing, not simply throwing money (including tax breaks and loan guarantees) at companies simply because they are making green promises. In many cases it may make more sense to let the private sector finance new renewable energy ventures and save public funds for energy infrastructure investments and for worker training in green occupations. Adopting aggressive renewable portfolio standards is also a key role for government to play.

In cases where some direct government assistance makes sense, public officials need to perform due diligence on the recipient company and impose strong safeguards, including job quality standards and clawbacks if the firm does not live up to its job-creation obligations.

As the Solyndra and Evergreen episodes show, the fact that corporations are focused on renewable energy does not make them angels. They may still be incompetent or engage in the same types of corporate misconduct seen among their conventional counterparts. Green business must also be accountable business.

Corporate Environmental Opportunism

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

“There is too much regulation and this is acting as a depressant on the economy.”

This statement could have been made by any one of the current Republican presidential contenders, but the words come from a press conference held by Ronald Reagan shortly after taking office in 1981.

Reagan used the event to announce the launch of his effort to weaken federal rules in areas such as environmental protection and occupational safety and health—moves that were supposed to encourage job creation.

Little has changed over the past three decades in the thinking of conservatives about the purportedly harmful effects of government oversight of industry and the magic of deregulation. After all, they have gotten a lot of political mileage out of Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

What’s more interesting is the changing posture of business, the constituency on whose behalf the assault on regulation is said to be mounted. Three decades ago, there was no question that large corporations were ardent foes of agencies such as EPA and OSHA, and they promoted the idea that aggressive regulation destroyed jobs and curtailed economic growth. They also acted on those beliefs.

Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman opened their 1982 book Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment by recounting the announcement in 1980 by Anaconda Copper (then owned by the oil company Atlantic Richfield) that it was shutting down its smelter and refinery operations in Montana because they could not be retrofitted to satisfy environmental standards. The move eliminated 1,500 jobs.

Critics pointed out that Anaconda could have received a multiyear extension of its Clean Air Act compliance deadlines but had chosen not to apply for one, suggesting that it had other reasons for the shutdown. Nonetheless, Anaconda’s action served to generate hostility not toward the company but toward the EPA and environmental activists. Other large companies also stoked anti-regulation sentiments.

With the exception of a few diehards such as Koch Industries, today’s major corporations do not espouse Neanderthal views on environmental regulation. Almost all of them purport to have enlightened stances on issues such as air and water quality, climate change and recycling as part of overall company policies on corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR).

BP, which purchased Atlantic Richfield in 2000, took a hit to its image during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year, but before that it had acknowledged that global warming was a problem and claimed to be going “beyond petroleum” by investing (modestly) in renewable energy sources. BP’s competitor Chevron also became a proponent of environmental protection and launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Will You Join Us” that was apparently meant to convey the idea that the oil giant is in the vanguard of efforts to save the earth.

Such positions are not limited to the petroleum sector. Retailing behemoth Wal-Mart has taken high-profile steps to reduce its carbon footprint and has pressured its suppliers to do the same. Toyota, General Motors and other auto giants have put increasing emphasis on hybrids and electric cars. Goldman Sachs, a CSR pioneer in the investment banking world, was the first Wall Street firm to adopt a comprehensive environmental policy (after being pressured by groups such as Rainforest Action Network). Ceres, a non-profit that focuses on sustainability issues, has several dozen Fortune 500 companies in its coalition.

Given all this high-minded corporate thinking on the environment, how can Republican candidates continue to portray regulatory rollbacks as the pro-business position? Or even, in cases such as Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, get away with calling for the abolition of the EPA?

A key reason is that big business, despite its claim to have embraced sustainability, is not willing to apply that principle in the public policy arena. CEOs are not speaking out against the EPA bashers or denying them PAC contributions.

This gets to the heart of what is wrong with CSR. It is a system of voluntary and selective actions that companies adopt, largely for public relations purposes—not mandated and enforceable directives imposed by democratic institutions. CSR cannot take the place of the EPA.

The absence of progressive corporate voices on environmental issues makes it easier for the likes of Gingrich and Bachman to make outlandish statements on regulatory matters. To make matters worse, President Obama implicitly endorsed the wrongheaded notion that environmental regulations stand in the way of job creation in his recent decision to prevent the EPA from implementing a long-planned stricter air quality standard for ground-level ozone emissions.

What more could Corporate America ask for? It gets to portray itself as environmentally friendly while reaping the advantages of regulatory rollbacks being promoted across the political spectrum. That’s opportunism on a grand scale.

Green Jobs Blues

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

President Obama’s grand plan for job creation has not yet been released but it is already struggling. The capitulation to Speaker John Boehner on the scheduling of Obama’s speech to Congress about the plan is a sign of things to come.

Yet perhaps even more troubling is the announcement by a company that served as a showcase for the administration’s campaign to promote jobs in renewable energy that it is shutting down, sticking taxpayers with the bill for $535 million in federal loan guarantees. Solar panel maker Solyndra’s decision to close its manufacturing plant in California and file for bankruptcy will put more than 1,100 people out of work.

Conservatives are having a field day arguing that Solyndra’s demise illustrates the folly of government involvement in the market. It is hilarious to hear many of the same lawmakers who refuse to end subsidies to the ethanol industry and tax breaks for Big Oil get indignant about assistance to wind and solar companies.

It is also amusing to see Republicans try to turn the Solyndra debacle into a story about Obama Administration stimulus cronyism. Solyndra was approved for loan guarantees in 2007 by the Bush Energy Department based on the Energy Policy Act passed by Congress in 2005, though funding for the program was not appropriated until the 2009 Recovery Act.

The real issue is why Solyndra, even with the loan guarantees, was not able to succeed in a market that is supposed to be the wave of the future. And it’s not just an issue of this one company. Evergreen Solar, which received more than $40 million in state government subsidies in Massachusetts, filed for bankruptcy recently. Other U.S. renewable energy firms are also facing difficulties.

Rather than simply debating this country’s half-hearted industrial policy, more attention should be paid to the failures of the companies themselves. U.S. solar panel producers, for instance, were slow to get started and allowed foreign competitors to gain a strong foothold in the international market.

It is customary for firms such as Solyndra and Evergreen to cite low-cost producers in China as a key reason for their plight. What the U.S. renewable energy manufacturers fail to mention is that some of them helped develop the Chinese solar industry by locating some of their own facilities in that country. At the same time, companies like First Solar and SunPower Corporation have intensified global cost competition by building plants in other cheap-labor havens such as Malaysia and the Philippines.

Some European companies have shown it is possible to compete without depending on low wages offshore. Germany’s SolarWorld, which is in the top tier of global producers, does most of its manufacturing in its home country and in the United States (including a plant in Oregon that has received state subsidies). In June it sold off its share in a joint venture in South Korea, saying that it had “decided in favor of production at locations with the highest quality, environmental and social standards.” Imagine a major U.S. corporation saying that.

The fact that many U.S. companies—green or otherwise—cannot or will not compete by adopting a high-road approach does not bode well for the country’s future. As long as wages remain low or stagnant, the buying power of American workers will remain weak, and this in turn will keep the economy in a funk.

Compounding the problem is that, apart from a few tech sectors, innovation in American business seems to be limited to finding new ways to lower tax bills and increase executive compensation. A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies does a good job of linking the two, showing that numerous large corporations are now remunerating their CEOs more each year than the firms are paying in federal income taxes. Many of these same companies are not hiring in the U.S., preferring to rely instead on those offshore labor havens and extracting more work out of their existing domestic employees.

This is the dilemma facing the job proposals of the Obama Administration and state governments: they all ultimately rely on action by corporations whose outlook these days is dominated by executive self-enrichment, tax dodging and labor exploitation—not the creation of quality jobs.  Happy Labor Day.