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November 20, 2012

Investing in Energy Companies is Not Like Apartheid

  Forbes.com

Lefties are always looking for some new save-the-world campaign to justify their outrage with Western civilization, and especially capitalism and the free market.  And at least one global-warming alarmist thinks he's found the next high horse: divesting from traditional energy companies.

Bill McKibben, an environmental author who teaches at Middlebury College, is the founder of 350.org, an environmental activist group that claims "we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm"-hence the organization's name.

On November 7, the day after the presidential election, McKibben kicked off his "Do the Math" tour, traveling to 18 states in a month's time, hoping to encourage college students to demand that their institutions divest their pensions and trust funds of oil, gas and coal company stock.

Last August McKibben laid out his plan in a lengthy article in the Rolling Stone entitled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

Hoping to link global warming with apartheid in South Africa, McKibben writes, "Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes.  That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.  It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments."

Adult Americans, who are justifiably skeptical of global warming claims-recently released data found no rise in surface temperatures for the past 16 years-may have some difficulty connecting the dots between the racism of apartheid and the energy industry's efforts to keep our cars running, our homes and offices heated and cooled, our computers processing and our military able to protect us.  Not to mention the estimated 9.2 million jobs supported by the industry.

But college students tend to be more willing to follow the smooth-tongued pied pipers who invade their campuses warning of impending doom.  For students it's often more about embracing a cause than embracing the facts.

Even so McKibben's divestment goal faces some real challenges, regardless of whether some college students buy his message.  That's because oil and gas industry stocks are so widely dispersed throughout the economy.

According to economists Robert J. Shapiro and Nam D. Pham, in a 2011 study that received support from the American Petroleum Institute, 31.2 percent of oil and gas company stock was owned by pension funds; 20.6 percent was owned by asset managers, including mutual funds; 21.1 percent was owned by individual investors; 6.6 percent was held by other institutional investors; and 17.7 percent was in individual IRAs.

Even if some colleges did divest, there are lots of institutions and individuals willing to pick up any slack.  And one reason is that energy stocks have done well in recent years.

The Shapiro-Pham study also compared the New York Stock Exchange's Arca Index, the leading index of oil and gas companies, with the Dow Jones Index.  Oil and gas stocks underperformed compared to the Dow from 1991 to 2005, but then outperformed the Dow.

Since low interest rates created by the Federal Reserve Bank's easy money policies have driven investors to look for higher returns, it will be very difficult to persuade them to give up their oil and gas stocks and mutual funds.  So maybe McKibben should suggest some alternative investments.

For example, colleges could follow the Obama administration's "investment strategy" that has poured billions of taxpayer dollars into green energy companies that were supposed to create thousands of high-paying jobs.

Except, well ...  The Heritage Foundation has been tracking companies that received some of the $80 billion set aside for "clean energy loans, grants and tax credits" in President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill.  Heritage lists 36 recipients that have either failed or are "circling the drain."

Of course, college pension funds and endowments have been hit hard by the failed Obama economic recovery, just like the rest of the country.  And the last thing those investors are likely to do is to pull their money from outperforming oil and gas stocks and put it in Obama's green-energy Chapter 11 express lane.

And it's a good thing, too.  If college endowments tanked because of green energy investments, there would be less money for student scholarships and grants, which would drive many of them to borrow even more for school at a time when student-loan debt is already at an all-time high.

McKibben's effort to equate apartheid with investing in traditional energy companies is both bad economics and morally offensive.  Apartheid was a government-backed effort to keep certain people economically depressed; the energy industry is a private sector endeavor that spurs economic growth and the standard of living-for everyone.


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